There are many negative, inaccurate ways in which our society either openly or subtly categorizes very old people: They are humans who have outlived their midlife productivity. They are monolithic aliens –– all alike, and with whom it’s difficult to identify, given our current younger ages. They are “those people” whom we dread becoming because we somehow know that if we live long enough, we will eventually be them.
Here’s the thing: I believe that very old people are…weeds.
They are those ubiquitous plants we either ignore or try to eradicate from the neat mental landscape of our lives, omnipresent reminders that vitality can appear anywhere and in any form. Whether or not we recognize this vitality and appreciate it is up to us. When we label something a “weed,” we define it as a useless nuisance. “But,” wrote an unknown author, “a weed is simply a plant that wants to grow where people want something else. In blaming nature, people mistake the culprit. Weeds are people’s idea, not nature’s.”
To an ageist society repulsed by very old age, perpetual youth is that very desirable “something else.” But if we consider the weed metaphor more closely, we might begin to better understand what we are denying ourselves as a culture when we devalue and ignore or actively marginalize those who have attained a very old age.
What are some common characteristics of weeds and the oldest old?
They have the capacity to produce, store, and disseminate many seeds. Think of the numerous ideas, experiences, and skills oldest old people have accumulated throughout their lives. A significant majority of those people are cognitively able to share their bounty and may want to do so but aren’t given any or enough opportunities. The more determined and assertive among them share their gifts anyway, regardless of whether or not those gifts are received, let alone acknowledged. And those who are living with dementia have their own gifts to share, namely serving as mirrors and models of dignified aging who can teach us how to communicate and connect non-verbally and non-cognitively in our cognitively obsessed world.
They can be tenacious, subsisting in the most unsupportable and even hostile of environments. No one survives to a very old age without having developed the ability to adapt to changes in circumstance or environment. Often they continue to exist and even to grow despite lack of care rather than because of it. Weeds have been known to emerge through cracks in concrete sidewalks and brick or stone walls. Might we also imagine the impulses for passion and creativity that could emerge from within the solid isolation of homes and the hard, inflexible institutional structures of many long-term-care facilities?
They often take hold and populate areas very quickly. Rapid population growth of the “oldest old” (people above age 85) is a major global demographic trend. But this shouldn’t cause fearful, fatalistic projections if we recognize the potential abundance –– rather than scarcity –– that results from incorporating the untapped source of human capital oldest old people can provide in the forms of mentoring and sharing institutional memory. And those forms can vary widely. American journalist Doug Larson is right when he writes, “A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.” The older we get, the more diverse from one another we become. Nature loves diversity and supports it within species. We should, too.
They can provide benefits that help all of us thrive. Just as weeds stabilize topsoil and keep it from eroding, so, too, can such longstanding social values as diligence, compassion, and responsibility held by many of the oldest among us help to prevent the erosion of our civil norms. And just as weeds can add fertility to the soil or have medicinal or economic value (think dandelions and chamomile), likewise people of all ages have the potential to fertilize social ventures with new ideas, add to the common revenue, and attune our cultural perspectives on an ongoing basis.
One person’s weed is another’s food source or flower. Instead of perceiving old age as a human condition that competes with youth for scarce resources, what if we consider the abundance of sustenance and beauty we might reap if only our society has the courage to integrate back into our communities the oldest old among us? The natural resilience of many very old people can render this task quite feasible, if we are willing to let a new nature take its course.
Like so many weeds whose value was unknown in the past, only later to be discovered, there is a vital crop of humanity eager to be harvested and engaged.
What are we waiting for?