There may never have been a worse time to grow old than the 21st century.
That’s the contention of MIT computer scientist Philip Greenspun, who recently suggested in his blog that a combination of modern technology and new prejudices “reduces the value of old people.”
“An old person will know more than a young person, but can any person, young or old, know as much as Google and Wikipedia?” Greenspun asks. “Why would a young person ask an elder the answer to a fact question that can be solved authoritatively in 10 seconds with a Web search?”
Worse is the fact that the skills that it takes a lifetime to develop are now rendered obsolete within years by new innovations in technology – meaning that the young often know more than the elderly about how to get by in the world. This, Greenspun suggests, has never before happened in human culture.
As for wisdom? Greenspun doesn’t discount it, but says that there’s a paradox here: “Unfortunately, the young people who are most in need of an elder’s wisdom are the least likely to realize it.” The end result is the same: this is a terrible time to grow old.
Doris Bersing, a psychology faculty member with Saybrook’s Graduate College of Psychology and Humanistic Studies, doesn’t disagree with that basic conclusion, but thinks Greenspun has left one critical element out of the equation: the elderly themselves.
Even if a young person wanted to receive guidance from knowledgeable elders – and don’t be mistaken, many of them do – where would they find one? How would they connect? Too often, they can’t.
“True elders are scarcely available to guide and initiate the young today,” Bersing says. “The senior population in the United States, once at the helm of their communities, has isolated themselves in ‘adult only’ retreat centers located outside many of the major urban communities. An elder succinctly summarizes this as follows: ‘Do not expect much help from us elders. Most of us have been relegated to retirement enclosures, golf, bingo, tourism, and uncreative play, separating ourselves from the problems of the homeless, the untaught, the unfed.’”
Wise seniors and capable elders have taken advantage of our market-based society’s ability to segment populations into interest groups, and thereby segmented themselves out of their traditional roles. A key to reconnecting the wisdom and capacity of elders to the young who need them, Bersing says, is for elders to actively reconnect.
The difficulty is that, at this point, many don’t know how: and that’s where new fields of psychology, like geropsychology, come in: helping people find both the sense of purpose and the practical skills necessary to play a valuable role in society as their own lives and capacities change.
“It is time to re-integrate our elderly and the role of the elder back into our communities and lives,” Bersing says. “I remember James Baldwin saying ‘Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.’”
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