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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A New Old Age

Air Date: Week of

Growing old doesn't have to be about nursing homes and wheelchairs, as Dr. Bill Thomas writes in his new book, "What are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World." Dr. Thomas talks with host Steve Curwood about how our elders could be powerful leaders, if only society would let them lead.


CURWOOD: Okay, take a moment now and listen to these synonyms for the word "old." On the one hand you have “mature,” “ripened,” “seasoned” and “tested.” On the other hand you have “obsolete,” “outmoded,” “out-of-date,” and “passé.” And all too often, says Dr. Bill Thomas, it’s the negative side of aging that gets the most spin in today’s society where the population of senior citizens is expected to top 70 million in the next 15 years.

Dr. Thomas is a geriatrician in upstate New York who sees America's seniors as a potentially powerful group of leaders - if only society would let them lead.
He's written a new book called "What are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save the World," and he joins me now. Dr. Thomas, hello!

THOMAS: Hello.

CURWOOD: So, I got to ask you this: we know about various “isms” in the world. There’s racism, there’s sexism, and now there is adultism?

THOMAS: Yeah. You know, when I talk about this idea of the cult of adulthood, what I’m really saying is that the adult point of view has become so powerful in our society and so pervasive. There’s really two main groups that are left out. They would be older people and children and younger people.

CURWOOD: So, what do children lose in this process?

THOMAS: If you look at children today, you can find many, many examples of how childhood is being restructured and positioned really as a leaping off point that can lead you to what’s really worth while and that’s life as an adult.

CURWOOD: What do you mean?

THOMAS: I think you can really point to two ways that adulthood has changed the fabric of childhood. One is the vast increase in organized sports activities that are offered really as a preferable way of children spending time and energy compared to the much more open and organic and playful summer vacation that a lot of listeners recall for themselves. For example, in the place of the sandlot kind of baseball game, instead of that we have a little league which keeps statistics on the batting averages of the children. Those two things might seem the same, but they’re actually radically different. And the second thing I want to say about play is that, the amount of time that children play has been declining and strangely enough or not, children have been adopting more and more adult type activities in preference to open-ended play.

CURWOOD: So, what is lost for older people in the system?

THOMAS: Wow. I mean, wow. It’s devastating. We are witness right now in our society, we are witness to a systematic program of destruction that is aimed at the, literally aimed at the eradication of what for 10,000 generations would have been known as elderhood. We live in a society now that is organized around the precept that adulthood lasts forever. That once you become a productive, independent adult there is no other acceptable way to live. And I’m a geriatrician, so I take care of older people, and I can tell you that there are millions of people out there who are clinging on to the myth of independence because they’re afraid that if they lose their grip on independence they’ll be removed from the community and placed in a nursing home. Our society looks at old age and sees one thing: and that is decline. And is, therefore, blind to some of the most miraculous things that old age has to offer

CURWOOD: Now, you admit that there was going to be some question as to the title of your book and the subtitle ended up being, “How Elders Will Save the World,” and I have to say this is a pretty weighty responsibility for people you say who have been devalued by modern society.

THOMAS: Right.

CURWOOD: So, Dr. Bill Thomas, how will elders save the world?

THOMAS: Here’s a couple of ways why I think elders will save the world. First, elders historically around the world and through history have been peacemakers. And I don’t mean old generals. I mean old people. Old grandmothers and grandfathers have historically been seen as peacemakers and have functioned as peacemakers and let me just say, why elders are good peacemakers is the very fact that they can no longer win bar fights. They can’t enforce their will through violence on other people and they can serve as peacemakers for that very reason.

Now, let me just say that surveys show that the emotional life of older people in general is more positive, less negative, more resilient generally than the emotional life of younger people. And there is a long, long history of elders as stewards. Elders speaking on behalf of the world of which in the not distant future they’ll not longer be a part. The reason that’s often been true is that elders generally don’t lust after the latest sports car from Ferrari; they’re generally much more interested in the well-being of their family and the future well-being of their grandchildren and so on and so they have a different take on the environment very often than younger people do. The second thing I think is really important: we used aging as an adaptive evolutionary trait to develop a new period in the life cycle that’s not shared with any other animal and that period is elderhood. And the first and primary function of elderhood is grandparenting and it’s been a staggering success. I mean if you put grandparenting up against the wheel and fire, grandparenting is a way bigger invention than either of those two things.

CURWOOD: So, give me some details of this grandparenting adaptation in our evolution that you say is so important.

THOMAS: Well, you know, in particular, I want you to think about what grandparenting let’s us do. It affords human beings the opportunities to support the young, not with the energy and resources of one generation, but with the energy and resources of two generations. And so old age and grandparenting has actually been critical to shaping who we are as a species.

CURWOOD: Bill, I got to ask you one thing about grandparenting--are we really talking about grandmothers here?

THOMAS: Wow, you put your finger right on it. I was trying to be polite to the grandpas out there. The truth is the research indicates that grandmothering is pretty darn important and there are studies around the world that show, for example, there’s a study from India that shows a household where the mother’s mother is living in the household, that wife will have a higher level of fertility and her children will have a higher level of survival than a household where the wife’s mother’s not there. All around the world there’s lots of evidence that grandmothers increase reproductive success and decrease child mortality. And part of the reason I wrote this book was to help people see the potential for a new future where old age is truly respected and an honored part of our social fabric.

CURWOOD: Dr. Bill Thomas is a geriatrician in upstate New York and is author of the book "What are Old People For?: How Elders Will Save the World.” Dr. Thomas, thanks for taking this time with me today.

THOMAS: Always good to be with you.



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