Teaching the Young About Growing Old

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A few years ago, a Girl Scout troop in another state contacted me for some advice. As part of their community service, the group was planning to visit a nearby assisted living center. They had stumbled across my website and hoped that I would be able to help them with ideas about what to do with or say to the elderly residents. It didn’t take me long to figure out that they were scared to death. Even their middle-aged leader admitted that she was very uncomfortable with interacting with frail older adults.

I offered suggestions about asking specific questions that would trigger memories and conversation. What was your first job? What’s something funny that you or your siblings did when you were young? But during my conversation with the teenage girls, I discovered that most of them had negative images of the aged seared into their minds. One girl talked about the depressing scenes in movies and television shows that feature elderly people slumped over in wheelchairs, drooling or muttering nonsense. Another talked about a grumpy elderly man who lived next door. Several of the girls admitted that they had never even been inside an assisted living center.

The episode reminded me that people of all ages often dread visiting older adults, especially those who are in a state of physical decline. As I travel the country, I often hear middle-aged folks confess their own dread of visiting aging loved ones. Some even look ahead to their own lives and admit that they would rather die than live in a senior care residence with a “bunch of old people.” Though I understand their desire to remain active and fully engaged until the end, the truth is, none of us really knows how our last years will play out.

The thing that concerns me most is what we are unintentionally teaching young people about growing old. How we can expect young people to learn compassion toward the frail elderly if we adults are not willing to first model compassion for them? It seems that if young people hear their parents talk about older loved ones in derogatory or mocking tones, the youth are likely to follow suit. It makes me wonder, too, what will happen when those parents grow old and feeble themselves?

Perhaps it is time to take an honest assessment of our own attitudes about aging and older adults, especially those in physical decline. Ask yourself what younger people are learning from you about the value of frail older adults. Do they see you showing compassion to the elderly? Or do they watch you shy away from situations in which you would have to interact with them? Think back. When was the last time you took a young person to visit someone in a senior care center?

By first accepting responsibility for our own attitudes, we can begin to model compassionate behavior toward older adults, and in turn, lead the way for younger generations to build relationships with the elderly. Remember that even though one-time visits may temporarily perk up someone’s day, it is only when we invest time and energy into relationships that we will really make a difference in a frail person’s life.

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