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The Wisdom Boom

Every eight seconds, another baby boomer turns 65. When you read that statistic, do you think “silver tsunami” — an ominous metaphor if there ever was one — or do you think “wisdom boom” — a decidedly more optimistic take on the changing demographics of this country?

Encore, a national organization that’s inspiring people “in later life” to impact society for the better, hopes it’s the latter. I attended their annual conference this week and was blown away by the movement to reshape, reimagine, and rebrand “old age.”

It’s people like Samuel Lupin, 77, who has reclaimed the tradition of house calls, bringing much-needed health care to 4,000 homebound elderly patients and cutting hospital visits in half. Or former Black Panther Jamal Joseph, 62, who founded IMPACT, a nonprofit that has helped 4,000 young people find refuge from violence, learn leadership skills, and create art for social change. Or teacher-turned-Episcopal-priest Belle Mickelson, 67, who helps people of all ages harmoniously fiddle together, building connections in 29 remote Alaskan villages. All of these folks, by the way, won Purpose Prizes, one of Encore’s annual initiatives to reward and make visible the incredible work being done by older people. (How refreshing after the glut of lists celebrating people under 30, right?!)

Let’s be real: aging is a complicated phenomenon, as my fellow columnist, Jane Gross, writes so articulately about week in, week out. On the one hand, Americans are living longer and many are sustaining a high quality of life well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s — especially with the right kind of support, a huge topic in and of itself. As the Encore network shows, people are having a huge impact in their “third act” of life.

On the other hand, aging sometimes, pardon my French, sucks. Having frank conversations with my own parents, 67 and 68, about the frustration of chronic health problems and the grief over dear friends taken too soon, has made me aware of the very real and unavoidable suffering that is a part of aging. I sincerely hope that all of the talk about longevity and vitality doesn’t make people feel “weak” when being honest about the very real losses associated with aging.

At 36, in the throes of what I recently heard someone dub the “messy middle,” I look at my parents and my mentors — like an old geezer you all may have heard of, Parker J. Palmer — and I am most struck by the deep need I feel to understand their hard-earned wisdom. I can barely get my teeth brushed I’m moving so fast and juggling so much. Most days are like drinking from a fire hydrant. My husband John and I finally get Maya in bed and then collapse on the couch, exchanging exhausted smiles.

In other words, I know that I’m building stamina — emotional, physical, spiritual — but I’m not always sure I’m absorbing wisdom. Absorption feels like it takes time. I don’t have a lot of that. My life is measured by lunches packed, emails replied to, bills paid — all these incremental and too often mundane metrics of a life. All moving so damn fast. This column, truth be told, is one of the only consistent places I have to slow down and keep track of the larger meaning to be found underneath the daily hum. I’m so grateful for that.

At this frenetic pace, I need the communications that slow me down. I need my dad’s sweet inquiries: “How are you feeling, Court?” I need my mom’s gifts of perspective: “We had no idea what we were doing either, and you turned out beautifully.” I need On Being reader Jane Wedekind, whom I’ve never met but still takes the time, week after week, to tell me that what I’ve written matters: “Such a wise post!”
And I need the unspoken lessons, too. Louise, my 77-year-old neighbor, organizes a Buddhist sangha designed to further racial reconciliation in her living room, a half dozen people who create a tiny patch of peace every Monday night. Ah, that matters. Parker has an away message on his email that lovingly reinforces his need to protect his limited energy for the things that matter most. Ah, that’s how to say no with grace. Pat Mitchell, one of my dear mentors and collaborators, is 73, but seeks out and revels in friendships with people of every single age. Ah, I want to live like that, always.

In Composing a Further Life, Mary Catherine Bateson writes:

“As people grow older, some of the ways they have contributed in the past may no longer be possible, but the challenge to society is not only to provide help and care where these are needed but also to offer the opportunity to contribute and care for others.”

It’s obvious that the aging need the young: bodies break down; people become vulnerable, the full, fragile circle. But though it might not be as immediately obvious, we — the “young and hungry,” the “messy middle,” the just “over the hill” — need you. Make no mistake. I fear we sometimes don’t say that plainly, or even know how to ask for what we need, but it’s true. Intergenerational relationships are, perhaps, the most powerful and most untapped resource on the planet.

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