6 Reasons Seniors Make the Best Allies

Since living in Worcester, Massachusetts nearly two decades ago, I have savored an awkward interaction that I had with an elderly gentleman. Unbeknownst to me, I thought that I sat alone at the often unnoticed Leesville Pond south of the College of the Holy Cross campus. The pond surrounded the All Faiths Cemetery and Crematory. So, I fished the pond knowing anything that came out of it would be tainted by car exhaust, irrational thoughts about human remains, and other environmental waste washing down from the former mill town.

The autumn, overcast sky made for a pleasant day to sit quietly trying out my new fishing rod. While I sat piddling around, experimenting with new lures, and untangling my fishing line from debris, I saw a man sitting on the other side of the pond. The older man sported a pair of tattered Reebok shoes circa 1985, jeans worn out at the knees and along the side, and a discolored (dirty) shirt with holes across the belly, frayed along the collar.

The slender senior made eye contact with me, waved slightly, placed his fishing rod on the ground, and made his way around the pond’s edge. As he approached, I could not ignore his uneven smile, slightly yellow skin, missing teeth, and short stature. As we stood there for a moment trading small talk, he began to tell me a story involving a young man that looked like me. I responded, and wryly asked, “He’s tall?” My new friend said, “No, he was a colored fellow.” He stopped, saw my face, and asked, “Do you prefer colored or negro these days?” Momentarily taken aback, I paused, and astutely replied, “Black or African American.”

The man continued to finish his story and gave fishing advice, as I respectfully listened to him. We ended our chat and he wished me a good day. He limped back around the pond’s edge, stepping on various rocks, and barely missing the mud on a few occasions.

I think of him many times when I have contact with elderly White men, wondering if they are going to blurt out something racist, sexist, homophobic, or other inconsiderate statement. I developed this shortsighted bias due to a lifetime of images, trusted stories, and experiences. In my mind’s eye, I have a clear visual of what prejudice resembles.

Truthfully, I am not confident if any generation has a corner market on making inappropriate statements. Older adults, elderly or seniors in our community are often presumed to be insensitive or culturally unaware compared to other groups of people because they grew up during a different time.

People can be too quick to believe older people are disconnected, indifferent, unaware, and disinterested because of their age. It is presumptuous to believe so unequivocally. In actuality, older men and women may be in the best position to see the world from a unique perspective giving them an advantage over others. When searching for a courageous entrepreneur, it may be in our collective interest to actively seek out older people who may be an ally. Here is a list of reasons they could be allies:

  1. No Dog in This Hunt — From a young age, people position themselves to garner influence or power over their lives, others, and their environment. Some seniors have learned to take less investment in the day-to-day, balancing out what is really important in the scheme of life, ignoring the insignificant, and investing less in a particular outcome.
  2. No Prisoner to Fashion — The latest social, cultural, and political fads come and go. As a newcomer to the game of life, tenderfoots can get caught up in the zeitgeist or intellectual fashion of a particular time submerged over the head. Seniors have seen more than a few waves of fashion giving guidance so they see the silver lining, know what may be fleeting, and use experience to integrate the best qualities from each.
  3. Gratitude — When a person has been able to survive the turmoil of life with its cascading troubles from across the globe, our seasoned veterans have a way of demonstrating whole-hearted appreciation for what it takes to succeed in life. With more days behind than ahead of them, each day is welcomed treasuring small gestures, cherishing time with family and friends, and honoring the value of those around them.
  4. Legacy — In my family, people live into their nineties and well past one hundred years. The advantage we gain is a sense of connection to the past from someone who lived it, giving personal reflections and insights hard to tackle through books and second or third person accounts. Through lived experience, older people give a full account of the past with insights to approach problems differently in the present. They know better than most the horrors of discrimination and legacy of empowerment to create change.
  5. Forgiveness — It may be surprising to many, however, seniors provide a testimony and teach others forgiveness during times when it is most difficult. With patience and an open heart, older people have had experiences that showed them the power of forgiveness better than most can appreciate. Through faith and hope, they can show the way to sort out one of the most difficult experiences allowing people to gain perspective and greater appreciation. Forgiveness is not a gift to others. It allows people to live more fully with the fading burden of unbearable animosity, distrust, hurt, and isolation among other feelings.
  6. Authority — Someone who garners and brings trust, respect, experience, forgiveness, and appreciation for others in one package also provides unequalled influence especially during periods of uncertainty, confusion, competing interests, and other beleaguered times to provide comfort and peace of mind.

Each of these reasons would make older people phenomenal allies. It is a reminder that all people including older citizens play an important role in creating personal, community, and organizational change. They bring their cultural lens to see the world from a different perspective. All too often, people see older people as obstacles to be avoided or ignored instead of viewing them as allies to foster innovation and creative exchange of ideas. Their experience, values, and perspective offers a cultural lens no one else could offer.

What other great qualities do you believe older people have to offer? What sometimes prevents you from working with older people? Share your thoughts below.

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Originally published at jelaniaustin.com on July 15, 2014.