This special event recognized that senior citizens are human treasures with knowledge and skills that can be appreciated. They are valuable and precious in ways that are not always obvious. Seniors have gathered many decades of life experience that endow them with an almost unfathomable amount of human understanding. The vast reservoir of problem-solving expertise within each American senior citizen can only be attained by way of traveling life’s road. Our communities would be overlooking a very precious resource if we were to allow their sometimes frail appearances to dupe us into thinking their lives have grown to be of little tangible value. Within their lives are the answers to so many problems we face as individuals and as a community. They help us to remember that experience is the greatest teacher.
The “greatest generation” gathering was also distinct because it stands in contrast to the fact that in so many other ways our culture seems to overlook and even dismiss the decades of hard work seniors have contributed. Rather than being celebrated for their lifetime of work, service and community building, seniors face a culture that seems to care little for them. For too many seniors, as they arrive at the time in their life when they ought to be able to relish and enjoy their “golden years,” they are presented with a whole new set of situations which can be quite perplexing.
While retirement from a lifetime of work is often a long awaited goal, it is also a time of change and of facing new challenges. These may include feelings of being nonproductive and no longer being needed or useful. These challenges should not however include facing a political system that would deny health care and housing and heat in the winter. Lately they seem to be facing the assault of some politicians who send a message that they now have become a burden, after a lifetime of work. This represents a great human indignity. For most, retirement already brings a set of financial worries. In an era of rising prices for food, clothing, and fuel seniors somehow are expected to live on a fixed income. While advocates for elders are decrying political proposals that would cut budgets “on the backs of seniors and the poor,” Howard Bedlin. of the National Council on Aging (NCOA), says that’s already happening. “One out of three seniors in the United States is economically insecure, yet the public perception is that seniors are doing fine and not struggling.”
Deteriorating health, malnutrition, lack of shelter, fear, loss, depression, isolation, boredom, and financial incapacity are the most common problems that senior citizens face today. The frailty of the human body grows with the aging process regardless of who the person is. The fact is that low-income elders now pay 25% of their incomes for health care out of pocket, despite having Medicare. This can then lead to other financial difficulties that affect such basic needs such as food and housing. Nearly six million older Americans are at risk of going hungry and 40% of seniors recently faced housing problems such as being unable to pay their mortgages or living in dilapidated housing.
In spite of difficulties, the retirement stage can be a great adventure provided one is not severely afflicted with these difficulties. Becoming freed of certain responsibilities enables them to focus on different things and contribute in different ways. Most seniors continue being a support to other family members, even as they are exploring their own interests and activities. Continuing to care for their children and grandchildren can bring relief and joy in stressful times. I often marvel at the wisdom and compassion contained in stories grandparents relay to their grandchildren who become enthralled with the trials their elders encountered in their lifetime. Kids become particularly fascinated to hear how their grandparents had to discipline their parents when they were youngsters. These precious stories of lived experience offer a perspective that can act as a healing balm to most present difficulties. To this day, I become captivated when my father tells stories of having to survive in snowy mountains during World War II. They always leave me feeling humble and grateful for the challenges that I might be facing at any given time.
Retirement can and ought to be a fulfilling and happy time if afforded the opportunity to do “all the things we’ve always wanted to do.” Travel, spending time with friends, volunteering, learning new things (taking a class, exploring a new language, craft making, reading, gardening, etc.), all become possibilities. It can be a time to enjoy a sense of accomplishment for life’s work, spending more time with children and grandchildren and all sorts of new pursuits.
Key to maintaining an active and fulfilling senior stage of life all hinges on maintaining one’s health and well-being in all areas. Financial health depends upon good planning, saving, and sound and humane government policies. Physical health requires activity, good nutrition, disease prevention, and regular health care maintenance. Mental, emotional, and spiritual health involves developing healthy relationships, positive family engagement, stimulation and active involvement in nonmaterial pursuits that include reflection, community involvement, friendship and faith in something greater than oneself.
“The only source of knowledge is experience” Albert Einstein
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing.”
George Bernard Shaw
Editor’s note: Dario Lussardi is a licensed psychologist-master, providing consultation and therapeutic services at the Community Counseling Center in Wilmington.