As anyone who lives in a major city knows, the most frustrating drivers, the ones that cause the most even-tempered of us to lose control, are not the speed racers. Although they may be more dangerous (I don't know the statistics), the ones that put us over the edge are the cars crawling along, seemingly sight-seeing or lost or just enjoying the pace. And inevitably the driver of said vehicle is not an inexperienced teenager (if only!) but a white haired, steering wheel clutching, senior citizen.
Grateful to have kept my hand off the horn and my big mouth shut, I try to think that it could be me. In fact, please God, someday I hope it will be. And not only would it be poor character to shout, but it demonstrates such a clear lack of respect. Through years and experience, the elderly are frequently wise and worthy of our admiration. Especially when they make impressive choices about how to live the "rest of their lives." (If a new soap is started, I claim the copyright!)
In this country, the aging are frequently seen as drains on Social Security and the Medicare System. Or, in a slightly more positive light, as permanent fixtures on the grassy greens of our numerous golf courses. Are these the only two options? A retirement spent discussing physical ailments and haunting dingy bingo halls or a retirement spend frittering away the time on recreation? Club Med goes senior...
As we live longer, some wise folk are reevaluating their opportunities. Complete retirement can be a drag, the days long and meaningless, spouses getting on each other's nerves. The "grass is not always greener" (whatever course you play at).
Some of the particularly astute have decided to involve themselves in the most productive activity of all: giving back. They recognize that they have something valuable to offer (false humility is a trap, not a virtue) and they want to share it. And they know, as we are sometimes slow to learn, that the giver is always the greatest recipient.
In these acts of giving, they probably add more years to their own lives than any round the world cruise possibly could.
At an age where their contemporaries are giving up or checking out, some unique individuals are channeling their energy and experience in more meaningful directions.
Instead of writing off our senior citizens, we should be focused on learning from them, and emulating their actions.
From the grandparents in our neighborhood who are reading to disadvantaged children at the local library, to Herbert Stutz who is sponsoring and developing programs to help working parents keep their children off the street, the "elderly" are giving back in droves. And teaching all of us something about the key to longevity and its opportunity.
Instead of writing off our senior citizens, we should be focused on learning from them, and emulating their actions. When I think about what I'd like to do in my older years (besides finally stop worrying about my weight), I know that I hope to be involved in meaningful activities, and to be treated with respect -- not contempt.
While it's appropriate (and rare) to respect all elders, those who are actively involved in giving back to the community are the real role models. They make it seem easy. And obvious.
I remember hearing of a woman in her 70s with grandchildren all over the U.S. who went to Chile to reach out to the Jewish population there. "Mom," said her daughter, "don't you want to spend time with your grandchildren?" "Of course I do" she replied. "But there's work to be done. You can't just sit back." And she didn't even know Spanish!
This is a world of working and striving. It is not a world of relaxation (except briefly) and certainly not of retirement -- unless it means shifting gears. And although that may shatter some dreams (Pebble Beach I hardly knew ya), it is actually more fun and more life-enhancing to care for others than to indulge oneself.
We all need a break and some pampering once in a while, but it should be an unusual occasion, not a lifestyle.
The Wall Street Journal profiled a number of elderly people and what they are in the midst of doing, including Robert Chambers (he founded a company that steers low-income people to buying new, base-model cars at prices and on loan terms equal to those obtained by people with more negotiating savvy and solid credit), Martha Franck Rollins (she started a program to rehabilitate former prison inmates and expanded her job-training programs to include the downtrodden of the Richmond, VA area), Bernard Flynn (he helped start River Partners, a non-profit committed to river restoration in California) and Herbert Stutz (who in addition to his school projects, created ReServe to place restless retirees in part-time positions with social services and government bodies that need qualified employees but are on a tight budget). Each person is creative and unique. It made me feel that I could do more. It made me hopeful for the future and it made me feel sad for those who have stopped trying, stopped thinking, stopped making a difference.
It's never too late to make a difference. And we shouldn't let any person (family members or otherwise), any billboards or advertising campaigns or blockbuster movies tell us otherwise.