Are you old enough to have heard this from someone perhaps your own age, but probably younger than you, but certainly not older than you? If so. How did you feel upon hearing it?
For me it was a bit like being called “Sir” in a shop for the first time. I thought at the moment that I was not yet a “Sir” and was offended by someone presuming I was. A female friend recalls feeling deeply angry when first addressed as “Ma’am.” Being seen as “old” is even more devastating for a woman than for a man? In either case, though, it is a shock to our self identity.
But nonetheless, there was some magic age that I had hoped for when quite young, then later a more equivocal age peaking as I approached 30 in 1971 (and thereby becoming untrustworthy according to the values of my counterculture days). Then for a good while I took pride in passing for younger than I was. And in those immortal days I really did magically believe that I might never get old!
“It’s looks good, considering your age.”
But I did grow “old” just a few months ago, prompted by the inevitable prostate check to which the technician responded with a cheery, “It’s looks good, considering your age.”
I did not at that moment have the presence to respond back that I was interested in how good it looked regardless of my age! Since then I have also discovered the perfect comebacks to looking good for my age: Why thank you, and so do you!
(I must give credit for that perfect retort to the right feisty Ashton Applewhite, who describes herself simply and neutrally as an “older.” For a taste of her style, here’s a link to her blog.
But back to our story. Until a few months ago, I would cleverly wish my “older” friends a Happy Birthday with the “helpful” note that now that they’d reach that “certain age” they would no longer need to count EVERY birthday, just every other one, or maybe every third one. I hoped it would give them a chuckle, and it probably usually did. Then something happened that I can’t recall very well but I came to feel that such silliness was a frightening denial and no longer the way to look at getting older. I actually admitted that I didn’t want to look younger, that I was in fact proud of my age, happy to turn 75 this October. It was an accomplishment, a point few male relatives had been able to surpass. Wow! 75!
…that peculiarly American insult: You’re history!
From that point onward I started to look about at many of the assumptions we hold as a culture and have been perpetrating. Like that peculiarly American insult: You’re history! Meaning of course that life has passed you by, that you no longer have anything useful to say or do, that something or someone newer and shinier has taken your place. Make way for some younger person!
Nasty comments blaming old people followed the recent UK referendum to exit from the European Union. Real vitriol from proEU younger people like “Old white people, please die.” Nothing like intergenerational intolerance to fuel ageism in either direction!
Has it always been thus? Have older people always been the butt of bad jokes, of unconscious cruelty? History tells many stories so we can’t be certain though, in archaic times (in Wilberese, infrared) so few lived into even middle age that no clear role for older people was likely to have emerged. The lack of social structure then probably would have favored the high ranking of young and healthy people of both sexes and a rapid decline in prestige among the small bands even by age 30 or so.
…a special honor to older members who could expect support from the tribe if they became ill or infirm.
Once people had managed to organize themselves in larger and more stable groupings as tribes (talking about Wilber’s Magenta) a huge leap in order and protection occurred that provided a security and sense of identity heretofore unknown to humans.
People felt they were the tribe, that there was no personal life outside the tribe, that all tribal members had places and value according to that tribes’ values. This included a special honor to older members who could expect support from the tribe if they became ill or infirm. And even if some younger members harbored some resentments, the power of the elders, their wisdom and intimate knowledge of the environment, of ancient customs, of the story of “the people” and their religious beliefs ensured that such resentment was never approved by the tribe itself. And it was hard to argue with the relative success of tribal organization.
But tribes aren’t the last word in social organization and the special status of the elders next had to take a bit of a detour as eventually “renegades” from the tribal life dared to develop a psychological ego that provided a separate sense of self, apart from the group identity. No longer bound by the old tribal rules, self expression “enjoyed” a reign where someone like Alexander the Great was among the most advanced consciousnesses in the world.
And he didn’t live long. Elderhood had lost its special status…
And he didn’t live long. Elderhood had lost its special status and in this “Red” period, whoever could prevail became the chief or king, for as long as they could hang on to the position. Once again, favor tended to accrue to the physically and mentally able. Often the leader was an imposing figure who was prepared to respond to any challenge from whatever source. Security declined as it depended on the continued rule of the top dog. If displaced, instability and much mayhem was often the case until a new strongman emerged. Hierarchy was firm but unstable.
Women did their best to align and direct strong men who could protect them and their children since in the case of dethronement, no one, man, woman or child was safe.
Eventually, to the rescue came “Amber,” the period of the great unifying religions and the pendulum swung once again back toward the collective identity. People developed a “conscience” and could label thoughts, feeling, and actions as good or bad. They could escape from the immediate rule of emotion and postpone satisfaction, even until the afterlife! Again, definite roles returned but more by class than as by individuals, as it had been in Magenta tribal life. People gained worthiness by performing their roles well and longer lives were again on the rise with the new security of societies in the millions now possible. Women’s’ status still depended on that of their husbands but women now had an alternative in a religious life, which granted them a special status, for example as a nun. The goal of ego, though that word did not yet exist, in the Amber world was to serve God and attain Salvation.
During this period “elders” could reappear as respected authorities…
This new world was much more complex than any previous one. It included a bureaucracy that served as a kind of worldly form of religious government. As the dominant force in the society, this traditional arrangement could usually defeat or contain resurgences of Red energies, which all individuals in their normal development would go through before reaching Amber, if they ever reached it. And surviving Magenta remnants could easily fit invisibly into the conformist Amber atmosphere. This great sponge of a level lasted for centuries and is easily recognised in the West as the High Middle Ages. During this period “elders” could reappear as respected authorities, blanketing life with a sober and conservative “smother” of very slow change.
And one innovation forecasting a continuing concern for the old and the ill was the first appearance of hospitals. The prosperity of Amber life allowed special institutions of the Church to care for the bodily and spiritual concerns of people as they approached death. Often little could be done for their bodily ailments but some palliative care was provided. Making peace with God and atoning for sins, however, was the ultimate purpose of this often charitable institution. Nursing provided another role for women to subsist outside of marriage.
As centuries passed in relative stability, other institutions also developed. Schools and universities, business alliances, trade leagues and and guilds emerged, providing and controlling many aspects of everyday and professional life, especially in the slowly, and then rapidly, growing cities. These changes in time provided a basis for truly modern life to evolve and eventually challenge the medieval hold on society.
In the 19th century “old folk’s homes” became widespread, at least in America…
While allowing many more choices for many members of the population, the growing importance of capitalism, as it came to be practiced with its emphasis on merit rather than inherited position, allowed the role of older people once again to be re-examined. In the 19th century “old folk’s homes” became widespread, at least in America, and allowed the newly indigent class, who formerly would have been cared for by their family, to live at a subsistence level when no longer able to compete with the younger and healthier “work force.” They were expected to provide for themselves with gardening and household chores to the extent that they were able and sometimes conditions for them were indeed miserable in poor communities that could provide little support through taxation.
As the 20th century progressed, these institutions for the elderly profited from the generally ever more prosperous societies of the West and care for the elderly fell into a by now well worn groove. The best part of this new story is that virtually no one grew sick or died without public notice and response. But as we enter Wilber’s Orange age, a not so nice part of this new story is that these “nursing homes” as they came to be called became a convenient way to “dispose” of people who could no longer work or care for themselves. Modern homes tended to not provide any space or accommodate a lifestyle that would allow the elderly to stay with relatives or with any others who could “look after them” as their personal abilities and resources dwindled.
The demographic shifts in the 20th century dramatically demanded re-sortings of national budgets in unprecedented ways. Average life spans in the West increased by over 20 years in that century, greatly boosting the number of years that many people spent in “retirement.” Retirement itself came to mean rather specifically those years after 65 when Social Security (in the U.S.) automatically provided at least a subsistence level of monthly financial support “just for staying alive for another month” (as a Social Security functionary happily put it to me as I began my own S.S career!).
Social Security…automatically provided at least a subsistence level of monthly financial support “just for staying alive for another month”…
Of course one does not have to retire at 65 or so but they can begin collecting benefits then, including MediCare, the U.S.’s form of “socialized medicine” for the elderly only. Thus for nearly 3 generations now, a typical worker’s life span includes some 30 to 40 years of labor followed by now 30 to 40 more years of “non-productive consumption” as a right wing economist might describe it. So far we still have no new model of how to positively, let alone satisfyingly, spend those years from the 60’s to, ever more frequently, over 100. Some are fortunate enough to have provided for their own comfort, but most have not as they have come to, perhaps blindly, believe that official programs would take care of their financial, housing, health and care needs to the end.
When Social Security began in the late ‘30’s, it was expected that few would collect benefits past age 65 for more than a few years, certainly not for decades! And few ever planned any activities beyond their favorite hobbies and pastimes, projected from how they, while working and homemaking, dreamt of their leisure time. Sort of a suburban life as it was on the weekend, without the daily commute. And it was largely a male view of later life. But now many women also collect Social Security benefits as they too have put in their years in the workforce a nice bit of padding for a couple in their later years!
Even though we have been entering Wilber’s next level Green since the 1960’s, many of our institutions, including nursing homes, still follow the old Orange plan. So in many respects we have a “factory plan” for our elders. As cognition or health declines, people are moved from their homes into intermediate “assisted living” facilities. Here everyone has a complete little one bedroom apartment on a floor of a high rise where perhaps hundreds of other “oldsters” also live in virtually identical units.
So in many respects we have a “factory plan” for our elders.
My mother lived in one while her modest resources and health continued. At first she ate in a communal hall once a day with others with whom she established at least recognition with, then retreated to eating in her unit exclusively, relying on me for semi-weekly trips to a supermarket which gradually filled her freezer with unrecognizable portions of old meals. Eventually she lived on ice cream, chocolate and cookies and seldom even turned on the TV until the inevitable transfer to a nursing home for her final years.
Everyone in the assisted living unit was elderly. The carpeted halls were silent. Most had no social life and the ONE caretaker/administrator couldn’t possibly be expected to organize any such activity. If people came in with expectations of continuing a pre-existing more or less normal life style, little in the new surroundings aided any continuation of that.
I experienced a lesser form of “age-restricted community” when I “retired” to an old trailer park community in Clearwater, Florida at age 65. I had limited funds after a divorce and soon discovered that I could establish myself quite economically in such a community in an “updated” 20 by 40 feet (6m X12m) “mobile home” with additionally a nice porch in front and a screened patio on one side, AC of course, and electric heating that came to less than $200 per month for utilities and community fees. But there was little life in the social life there. People largely remained isolated in their cooled units with some interaction at the central mailboxes/laundry area, which is where announcements of special events like illnesses, hospitalizations, deaths and funerals were posted.
But there was little life in the social life there.
I wanted to blame others, the system, whatever, for the disappointment I felt, which led to a spiritual crisis and thus I discovered my part in this scenario, thanks to Eckhart Tolle, Andrew Cohen, Ken Wilber, Don Beck, and several others who gave me new eyes to understand what had happened to me…and to my neighbors! Eventually, after a few years of study and experimentation, I left Florida for a new life in rural Umbria with by beloved Adelheid “Heidi” Hörnlien. But that’s another story.
The big lesson from Florida was that a community of only older people was not for me. And I’m now sorry for the part I played in my mother’s final years isolated from “real” life. But that’s where we’ve come to in the first decades of this new century.
As we now look at the current stage of the “Third Act” of our lives as this new century unfolds, we can pass on to an Integral view of what’s happened to us, from a Teal or occasionally maybe even Turquoise point of view.
Most of us Boomers now entering that mysterious “post working life/homemaking” period have lived through quite a transition that began in the 60’s and into the 70’s. However naively, we “rocked the world” with our hippy postmodernist Green (propelled by our then adolescent Red energy) and are still enduring the long fall of both Blue and Orange dominance. Whatever our “faults,” and as a demographic group we certainly have them, we have become masters of deconstruction and do not lightly allow authority (even if merited!) to script our lives.
With 30 or 40 years in our Third Acts…we can demand and develop our own visions for our later years…
All the more so since our ability to self reflect has reached ever higher levels, driving us relentlessly into self-authorship. That makes it difficult for us to swallow the “going quietly” into the previously prescribed assisted living or nursing home situations, which became the usual fate of our parents and grandparents. With 30 or 40 years in our Third Acts and in ever extending good health and intellectual acuity, we can demand and develop our own visions for our later years, keeping in mind that as we age we become ever more differentiated from each other. Ever more do we develop our individuality and become more difficult to manage, especially by the bureaucrats who have designed programs for how they think we should spend “our declining years.”
This really is an incredibly exciting time to be alive. At whatever age we may be opportunities for multigenerational living are reappearing, with genuine chances for more peer to peer relationships, both within our “demographic” group, as well as reaching across generations. This is especially important because the young are much more at ease with emerging technologies but woefully ignorant of history and the cultural continuity we can provide them to temper their relative groundlessness.
…the young are much more at ease with emerging technologies but woefully ignorant of history…
That’s one approach. Another is living situations with people not of a similar age but with similar interests where regardless of age a rich cross fertilization can take place. Such communities do exist and often these experiments find fertile ground in, no surprise, California. Perhaps there because California is a century old symbol of rootlessness, so where better to undertake experiments in re-rooting, in discovering new ways to cement us all together after a couple generations of separating not only by age but by so many other now discredited criteria, such as race, sex, sexual orientation, handicaps, and other formerly marginalizing factors.
We don’t know yet how we’d like to live in our last decades. Most of us are ill-prepared for an uncertain future, especially one that lasts for decades. And if we were fortunate to provide financially for our “old age” that doesn’t mean that those once secure “investments” will outlive the next new technology.
…we will be seen by the young as what stands between them and their own futures…
Fortunately, we ex-boomers can bounce with the times, but we must not “burden” society with our numbers or we will be seen by the young as what stands between them and their own futures. Truly collaboration must be the way and we can all contribute to that new way of being together, reminiscent of that far away Magenta time when egolessness was simply a fact so that all members of the tribe felt they were truly important and included in all phases of tribal life.
Reminiscent but NOT the same! It will have to be a new integration, including many more ways of being and living, including some traditional options but transcending them in this emerging global consciousness.
About the Author
Mark Davenport. I came to Integral already late some ten years ago in my mid 60’s, prompted by a deep dissatisfaction with my recently acquired “retired” life that I had ironically been looking forward to since sometime in my 50’s!
Bearing Bachelor’s degrees in Arts and in Education and a Masters degree in Italian Literature, I floundered into Drug and Alcohol Counseling, with many make do jobs in between and afterward, spending my last “working years” in retail sales. All was preparation for an Introduction to Integral with “A Brief History of Everything” a few months after retiring which has led me in wonderful directions since, including moving to Italy to be with my German born partner and wife, meeting Integral people in the flesh, most notably at IEC 2014 and more recently as a presenter on Integral Ageing at IEC 2016.
My current interest in ageing is kept uptodate at our Facebook group “Masterminding Integral Ageing” and at our website integralageing.com