As we grow older, we hope to grow wiser. The sages of old are depicted as mature men, with long white beards and kind, thoughtful faces. In our culture, wisdom is less valued than in other parts of the world, and it has been said we have lost our wisdom. Our elders are treated accordingly. Perhaps the wisdom has not been lost so much as no longer sought, in a youth-oriented society.
Do we believe we no longer need the counsel of those older and wiser? At a time in history when people are living longer than ever, we have created invisible boundaries between generations, isolating young from old, depriving the older of sharing the joys of youth and the younger of precious experience. Too often, an elderly person is viewed as less than competent and ignored or ridiculed.
We tend to stereotype people as young or aged. Youth is admired; old age is dreaded. Yet, we are staying the signs of old age to the degree that many a 60-year-old can pass for five or 10 years younger. People change as they age; in appearance, agility, energy; and in many other ways. The fortunate elderly maintain physical health and mental acuity; the wise work at it.
We are often fooled by the appearance of older persons and assume them to be somehow different from their younger counterparts. Unless we are lucky enough to have grandparents or close older friends, we lose the opportunity to converse with and learn to know that an elderly individual is exactly the same person he or she was before the hair grayed and the body’s suppleness disappeared into a rubber tire or pot belly. We see the elderly as not knowledgeable, not current or “with it,” so we deny ourselves the gift of ready-made experience and an elderly person of the joy of sharing lessons that might once have been painfully learned.
Wisdom is a sign of healthy maturity. How does one become wise, and how do we recognize a sage? This is difficult to answer, as I know very few really wise people. Perhaps I too, have been guilty of judging the elderly through common stereotyping, and have missed opportunities to benefit from a sage. Perhaps the wise among us have stepped back, and are patiently awaiting the next swing of the pendulum, when their value might again be acknowledged. Unfortunately, some of our elderly have been caught up in the desperate race against time, succumbed to cultural anxiety and joined the search for eternal youth. They have sold themselves short.
Wisdom does not boast; it is serene, accepting and understanding. It does not take sides, nor does it berate. It knows that all turns out for the best, no matter how tumultuous the path. A wise person recognizes at an early age that all lessons need not be learned through the travails of personal experience, that the wheel does not have to be reinvented and that youth should not be too proud to seek counsel from an elder.
Could it be that in our youth-oriented society we so fear old age that we have to deny its existence; that we unconsciously place barriers and distance between “us” and “them,” to protect ourselves from the feared ravages of old age? The time has come to take a new look at the elderly; to become acquainted with them and hear their stories. They have lived their dreams, survived disappointments and loss and can help us to do the same.
You see, age is irrelevant, because every human being has essentially the same hopes, dreams and visions. The only differences are in the way we make them happen or cope when they don’t. Only our elders can help us find the best way.
Elinor Stanton is a psychiatric nurse practitioner on Marco Island, with 33 years experience as a therapist, both in private practice and with a large health maintenance organization in Boston. She graduated from Boston College and the University of Rochester, and is certified as a clinical specialist by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Stanton also is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy and trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Comments and questions may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org or 394-2861.