In 2010, people 65 and older accounted for 13 percent of the U.S. population. However, demographics are changing quickly. Those 85 and above are projected to number 72 million in 2030, constituting 20 percent of all Americans.
The elderly’s demands upon our health systems and social service programs are increasingly unsustainable. The number of those generating wealth and earning incomes is decreasing. Unemployment is high, and social programs supporting the elderly are strained.
To many, the debility and dependency of the elderly are unacceptable. Older Americans are commonly removed from their communities and relegated to hospitals and nursing homes. “There’s so much shame in our culture around aging and death,” said Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, according to the Huffington Post. “People themselves when they’re aging feel that there’s something wrong with them and they’re losing value.”
The sense of insignificance can push many to assert themselves in unappealing ways.
In a recent “Annie’s Mailbox” column, one daughter described the difficulty of dealing with her elderly mother. Her mother endlessly stole the limelight during conversations. Other readers confirmed they had experienced the same with aging parents.
However, this daughter reflectively provided a possible reason for her mother’s behavior; she was transitioning from being the coordinator of all family activities into a much less active participant in her children’s lives. She was experiencing how important it was to feel needed, and her connections and obligations were fading.
The sense of insignificance can push many to assert themselves in unappealing ways. The sensitivity of younger generations becomes critical at this time, and they must step up to validate the lives of the elderly by reinforcing the worth of each life- no matter how dependent or how difficult. It can certainly be challenging to care for a dependent parent. However, we are all called to honor the whole of one’s life and play an integral part of the intergenerational linkages that sustain the value of one who has lost the power to self-advocate.
Our culture fetishizes youth. In our past and in many cultures, old age was seen as an integral part of a spiritual journey that gave meaning to the whole of one’s life. “But today’s society is characterized by achievement orientation, and consequently it adores people who are successful and happy and, in particular, it adores the young,” wrote Viktor E. Frankl in his 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning. “It virtually ignores the value of all those who are otherwise, and in so doing blurs the decisive difference between being valuable in the sense of dignity and being valuable in the sense of usefulness.”
Intergenerational links provide solidarity with the elderly, building the bridges that unite them with a world where they belong, a world where they are visible as human beings. Pope John Paul II beautifully articulated in his 1999 Letter to the Elderly: “the signs of human frailty which are clearly connected with advanced age become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the different generations.”
The risk of becoming invisible is to become disposable. Frankl’s book was written almost seven decades ago, but his words define our times. The difference is that in 1946, western cultures neither approved nor promoted assisted suicide and euthanasia. Frankl faced and survived Nazi concentration camps; there, the dignity and worth for one’s humanity was absent, and intergenerational links were expunged.
In our past and in many cultures, old age was seen as an integral part of a spiritual journey that gave meaning to the whole of one’s life.
Today, Western societies are moving quickly toward assisted suicide and euthanasia. The rationale by those seeking an end of life solution is that any kind of life as they are living it is no longer worthwhile. If there was continuing worth, then why would one kill or seek to be killed? Isn’t there worth and dignity in just being human?
In 2030, 20 percent of the US population will be held responsible for financially straining every social construct in our system. Will our older population then be valued by their worth in just being human or will we need a metric of usefulness? If it’s the latter, will history look upon our solutions as compassionate or expedient, choosing humanity over usefulness? The strength of intergenerational links reinforcing the worth of a whole life will be the determining factor.