Its time for elders to step forward and play a stronger role in addressing serious global environmental changes
More than 40 years ago the late Maggie Kuhn, an American social activist and devout Presbyterian, was forced into retirement on her 65th birthday. That was the accepted code of practice at the time. Maggie responded, not by taking up her knitting needles and seeking the porch rocker, but by founding the Gray Panthers movement to work for social and economic justice and peace.
Maggie Kuhn reasoned that her aims could be achieved through honouring maturity, unifying generations, being actively engaged and encouraging participatory democracy. She famously explained her view of the elder role in society in characteristically down-to-earth terminology – “The old, having the benefit of life experience, the time to get things done, and the least to lose by sticking their necks out, are in a perfect position to serve as the advocates for the larger public good.”
This type of declaration had an unquestionably strong emotional underpinning when it was first uttered, but the underlying motivation has recently been backed up by hard statistics. For example, in December 2012 the Huffington Post reported an interview with Dr Dilip V. Jeste, Director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at the University of California. The Institute conducted in-depth interviews with a thousand older adults and concluded that, even in the midst of physical or cognitive decline, most respondents reported a feeling that their well-being had improved with age. Factors which were found to counteract actual health deterioration and which appeared to significantly contribute to subjective success in aging were education, better cognitive functioning, better perceived physical and mental health, less depression, and greater optimism and resilience. In other words, many elders feel they have become better able to tackle difficult issues and, in so doing, may actually improve their own health.
As we move into 2013, Canada’s population has just edged past the 35 million mark for the first time in history. One in every seven of these millions is over the age of 65, and the fastest-growing population segment is the over-80s. In the years following World War II Canada had a large baby boom which swelled the ranks of the work force in the last decades of the 20th century and played a significant part in the country’s historic growth and development. The boomers are now starting to retire, and the ratio of the employed to the retired has started a decline which is projected to last for a very long time.
In the previous century people in their later years received a level of acknowledgement quite different to that on offer to today’s seniors. The older members of communities were regarded as elders and respected for their counsel and for their historical knowledge of events, resources and natural phenomena. This situation still prevails for elders in many First Nations communities, but in non-native communities embedded in a shopping mall culture and submerged in electronic information clouds, seniors have, to a large extent, become invisible.
Today’s seniors face pressures of marginalization from their younger compatriots, but many remain aware of the creative role they once played in society, and of the moral and intellectual resources which they still have. They can point with some pride to the fact that actions and protests against environmental and societal ills and grievances are not a unique feature of today’s Generations X and Y. The environmental movement was launched 50 years ago by some who are now elders in response to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring indictment of the pesticide assault on the environment. Images of the current protests in B.C. against oil pipelines and oil tankers reveal a noticeable proportion of grey heads and wrinkled faces amongst the throngs.
Concerns and actions over pensions and health care have long been the main concerns of seniors, and will certainly continue to be foci of attention in coming years. But for a growing number of elders, sometimes defined as “seniors with attitude”, the rapidly deteriorating global climate outlook and the intransigence of governments in coming to grips with dying oceans, melting ice caps, and extinctions of species and ecosystems have become the sparks for growing concern and rising indignation. Modern medicine and technology have tipped the scales for elders, giving them a decade and more of additional time in which to be active and involved, either within elder ranks or by joining with their much younger but similarly motivated compatriots,
Some of today’s elders will recall that they have been here before. As young disaffected people in the late 1960s they rejected the post- World War II system of their parents. From their ranks came the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators and the dedicated activists who established environmental organizations such as Greenpeace. Aging boomers now have an opportunity to return to their youthful idealism and to work to improve the environment and address pressing problems such as climate change. They have an opportunity to volunteer and to actively embrace newly rediscovered values.
Elders might have to reluctantly admit that they were themselves part of the system that created the present global environmental situation. In fact, a nagging sense of guilt might underlie some elders’ growing concerns over the increasing vulnerability of the ecosystems which underpin our 21st century life-styles.
There are many role models for elders to follow if they elect to address the enormous challenges of the rapidly changing world. Vancouver’s own David Suzuki, himself now an elder after more than 40 years service as a scientist, broadcaster and author, gives a definition of humanity which serves well as an elder objective. “Our great evolutionary advantage has been the ability to lift our sights and look ahead, to imagine the world as it could be and then make the best choices to move toward that vision”.