As I am writing the first draft of this article, I’m in a train on my way back to Christophe, after having spent a week with my mum. We celebrated her 87th birthday together and spent a tranquil week in perfect harmony.
We talked a lot, as is our custom. At first, it was mostly about the crises we currently face (Corona, global warming, plastic soup, etc.). But we noticed how we kept going round in circles of negativity, so we decided to quit and talk of other things.
One of the things we then discussed is the role old people play in our society. Being 87, my mum has given this considerable thought.
Money makes the world go round
Old people nowadays seem to be a problem for society. They have no use and they cost money. At least, that’s the general tendency. But that’s just one way to look at it.
Our society, our entire world in actual fact, revolves around money. People who no longer make money aren’t interesting. And when they cost money (even if they worked to provide for that money themselves), they rapidly become a burden.
When a company looks to hire new personnel, they want someone young (= cheap), but with loads of experience. But the people who have served for decades, accumulating experience, are let go. Because they are too expensive. And the ones who no longer have to work because they have reached a certain age, well, they are cast aside as being useless.
On and around my mum’s birthday, she received many messages in different forms and shapes from people who wish her well. Many of whom expressed their love and appreciation for her, saying they hope she will be around for another while. Which brings me to something all the money in the world cannot buy: love given and received.
We have a thing called VAT: Value Added Tax. It is money paid over commercial goods, and it goes to the government. The term “value added” is a bit of a deception, because VAT is added to almost all consumer goods. However, added value does exist, though it has nothing to do with consumer goods, nor money.
Old people add value
Even though she is old and therefore considered useless by our society, my mum adds value to the lives she touches. She has a very gently demeanour, doesn’t judge, and treats everybody with respect. On top of that, she is wise. And with those who are willing to listen, she generously shares her wisdom.
She also has accumulated memories of events that happened over her lifetime. She remembers a time when using real horse power was the norm. The introduction of the car, the telephone, the television. The washing machine, dishwasher (which she never had nor wants), the internet, the mobile phone, the euro, and many other things we now consider a normal part of everyday life.
She also remembers the second world war and the famine. She has loads of stories to tell from which we can learn something. And she has had a lot of time to think things over and form an opinion (or consciously refrain from one).
Everybody wants to grow old but nobody wants to be old
We are so caught up in the concept of our society that revolves entirely around money, that we seem to have forgotten the most basic values. There are things in life that aren’t things, and that are far more important than money and the accumulation of material goods. Simple human values like compassion, friendship and love.
We easily forget the importance of those things-that-aren’t-things, because they seem to be hard to fit into modern life. Either that, or we take them for granted.
Many elderly people are lonely. They have lost their spouse, and their family is too busy to visit or even stay in touch. Nowadays, many people answer the question “How are you?” with “Busy”. Always running around, having to do a million things. While their parent(s) sit(s) alone, feeling useless. Saying they understand why their children can’t stay in touch, but still…
What we tend to forget is that one day, if we are lucky (?), we will be in their position. We will be old and cast aside. Even though right now, we are very busy and playing at being important. We all hope to grow old, or so we say. But what for? To be treated like second class citizens? To be cast aside as useless, and to be considered a burden?
Happiness is, in part, an attitude. If you spend your days complaining about everything that you feel is wrong in this world, you’re not going to experience much happiness. If on the other hand, like my mother, you are genuinely grateful for a lot of small things, you will experience a lot of happiness.
I admire my mum for her gratitude. She’s grateful for the oranges I press for her in the morning. For her garden with its ever changing scenery. For the rain that sustains her garden. And for the sun too. For the meals I prepare for us when I’m with her. For just being together in silence. And eventually, for just being.
She has told me that she doesn’t always find it easy to grow old. Nor to be old. There’s lots of things about that that she doesn’t like. Last week, she told me that one day, when she was feeling depressed, she made a list of all the little things that bother her about being old. Within no-time, she had written down 40 things!
But… she didn’t hang on to the list, nor to the feelings of negativity. Instead, she picked herself up and concentrated on all the little details in her life that do give her reason to be grateful.
Imagine yourself as "old people"
The title of this article asks intrinsically the wrong question. For it is given in by the idea that everybody has to be useful in a material way. Furthermore, it’s a question we do not ask of other age-groups in our society. We do not question the “use” of young people, though the first 20 years or so of their lives, they only cost money, so to speak. We only ask this question with regard to old people, because we fail to see the potential in/of them.
And that is because you cannot express everything in terms of money. The single fact that they contributed to our current level of wealth should suffice. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves to even ponder the question. The leading theme here ought to be love.
Old people are people too!
Every person, no matter what age they are, is entitled to our respect, our compassion and even our love. Those “old people” are our parents. The people who raised us. They have stories, experiences and wisdom to share with us, if we will only listen. They love us, for we are their children. They are thinking adults with opinions and feelings, for old age doesn’t change that. And those who have already left us mentally (dementia) are still entitled to our respect, our care, and our time and love.
Let’s stop treating the elderly as second class citizens and start treating them with the respect due to every person. For one day, if we are fortunate enough to live that long, we too will be old people. And we too just want to be acknowledged and loved for who we are.
P.S. The image I used for this article is an oil painting painted by my mum earlier this month. She took up painting as a hobby after her retirement. This here is her first oil painting ever.
Very well expressed, Karen. And ye, why wishing for a long life if old age is so stigmatized.
Thanks for the compliment 🙂 Spending a week with my mum really made me wonder about it. Which starts a whole cascade of other questions.
One of the things I other think about these days, is that our society really needs to change. Not just for the sake of the elderly, but for all of humankind. The current capitalist society doesn't work anymore. We need to find a better way based on basic human values.