For his book What Are Old People For?, Bill Thomas chose the subtitle “How Elders Will Save the World.” To some, this phrase might appear overly romantic and dramatic, for aren’t we all, no matter our age, responsible for improving the quality of life on our planet in general and in our societies in particular?
But I’m with Bill on this claim, because I believe that older adults are our largest untapped human resource, possessing a huge trove of varied experiences and honed skills cultivated over a lifetime as only elders have done. Any elder, regardless of income, physical and/or cognitive ability, level of education, or geographic location can make a productive difference in the way all of us function as a culture. The only thing holding us back is the acceptance of this premise –– by ourselves as individuals and by society as a whole. We elders can save our societies and the world…but only if we accept the challenge and everyone else cooperates in creating opportunities to do so.
But how, exactly, can elders save the world?
One of the most inspirational paradigms that answers this question has come from Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, a multigenerational organization established in the 1970s whose mission has been to “work for social and economic justice and peace for all people.” Here is her position statement, paraphrased in the book From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller:
As risk-takers who can heal and humanize society, elders have five appropriate roles to play, Kuhn says. They are mentors who teach the young; mediators who resolve civil, racial, and intergenerational conflict; monitors of public bodies who serve as watchdogs of city hall and Congress; mobilizers of social change; and motivators of society who urge people away from self-interest and toward the public good.
Let’s consider each of these five roles.
Mentors. Of the five roles, this may be the one most often associated with elder wisdom. After all, it’s easy for us to imagine that the older a person gets, the more he or she has experienced and has learned from such experience. We may have mental images of elders coaching youngsters in reading, tutoring them in math, helping them build birdhouses, or teaching them to cook. But do we, perhaps, define mentorship too narrowly by limiting such interactions to those between leisured retirees and children? What about working elders taking new, younger employees under their wings? Or established entrepreneurs advising young startup businesses? Or Korean and Vietnam War veterans counseling and supporting veterans of our latest wars? Think how much accumulated knowledge and wisdom in all fields might be shared if we encouraged all older adults –– especially those who are lonely and/or isolated –– to share what they know with at least one other person.
Mediators. Any of us who have experienced a calm grandparent stepping in to ease flaring tempers during a parent–teen child argument can appreciate the compassionate understanding and affirmation that an elder can bring to the issues of both parties. With specific training, elders can take advantage of their unique, multi-perspective problem-solving skills in order to mediate conflicts within more formal settings, such as neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, houses of worship, and organizations.
Monitors. This is an ideal role for many older adults, one that engages them socially and politically, especially if they have strong concerns about how their neighborhoods are being served and their tax money is being spent. But monitoring can include more than attending public meetings of a city council or county commission, or reviewing pending state and congressional legislation. Elders can monitor polling places to make sure that voter registrations and elections are administered fairly. They can also serve on nonprofit and corporate boards of directors to ensure that organizations are adhering to their missions and operating within their budgets. This ongoing scrutiny by older adults can preserve the integrity of all social operations on all levels.
Mobilizers. The next time you see a video of a public demonstration or campaign rally, check out the ages of the people who are there. The chances are likely that you will see a healthy share of older adults participating in the action. Many elders and empty-nesters find that they have more free time to enlist in meaningful causes in ways they might not have been able to do before. But free time isn’t all they have at their disposal. Their past experiences managing obligations of family, jobs, and finances can serve them as efficient organizers and recruiters –– just the kind of folks you would want to have on your team. Smart organizations and fundraisers know the value of looking to older volunteers for their engagement and support.
Motivators. Because older adults have lived longer and have had more experiences, they have had the opportunity to evolve into people who can see the “bigger picture” of what it means to be human, a spiritual perspective that appreciates the interconnectedness and interdependence of all generations. They tend to seek a greater purpose to life, one involving the creation of a personal legacy based on giving back to society. They can help younger generations by encouraging them to act compassionately, help others in need, and create policies and programs that serve all members of their communities. They can be the gadflies that urge leaders to make course corrections when they lose track of their basic obligation to serve the greater good.
These are Kuhn’s five roles through which elders can save society. They are brilliant options. Think about it: Just about every older adult can assume at least one of them. But what about elders who have extreme dementia or are otherwise greatly physically challenged? Are they to be written off as unable to contribute to changing our culture? Is there no role that they can play?
Actually, there is a sixth role, one that has the potential to be the most effective of all: They can be models of aging for the rest of us to consider when we think about how to improve ways of perceiving and serving older adults. They can remind us of their enduring personhood and to treat it with respect and reverence. They can show us that a life, during any stage in which it is lived, has intrinsic value. And they can hold up a mirror to our own fears about aging, calling us to revise our prejudices and to act with diligence and speed to improve the quality of life of those who are in their later years.
Every single elder can save the world. It’s up to all of us to recognize this romantic and dramatic ideal –– and turn it into a fact.