On Being an Elder

Article excerpt

The idea that elderhood should have developmental tasks would seem to contradict the very idea of an old age rich in being. In fact, doing is and must remain (until the last breath is drawn) an element of every human life. For adults, the idea of putting being first in daily life seems an unlikely route to gaining influence in the world. Some would argue that the measurable decline that accompanies aging obviously and permanently disqualifies the old from playing an important role in society.

From my great-grandmother Georgiana Williams to my grandparents, Durwood and Olive Saxon and William and Vivian Thomas, to my parents, William and Sandra Thomas, I have been molded, shaped, influenced and educated by my elders. Even as an adult physician (and specialist in aging), my elder mentors-former National Institute on Aging director Frank Williams and his wife, Carter Catlett Williams, the leading social worker in aging-along with thousands of patients and their families, continue to lead me toward a deeper understanding of age and aging. The hands of an adult may have typed the words on these pages, but elders provided any and all of the truths they contain.


My practice as a physician and an ingrained habit of observation lead me to ask: What does it mean to live as an elder? How can elderhood shape the future we all share? What are its most important functions? What does it offer usyoung and old alike?

I remember being at work in a nursing home one day when I was called on to do a history and physical examination of an elder recently admitted to the facility. I sat down with the woman and ran through the usual topics related to her diagnoses and medical history. Then I questioned her about her family. Quite unexpectedly, her eyes welled with tears. She told me that her mother had died when she was five years old. In those days, people believed that a widower should not be entrusted with the care of young children and so, following the custom of the time, she and her younger brother were sent to live with relatives. To distribute the burden, authorities sent her to one family and her brother to another. Over time, they lost contact. Now she lay in a bed in a nursing home, still grieving the loss of a mother, brother and father 75 years before.

Rarely have I felt so inadequate. My education and training had given very little attention to such difficulties. How could I hope to help her find peace within herself? The institution I worked in was well prepared to deal with depression, psychosis and dementia but had next to nothing to offer those struggling with guilt and grief three-quarters of a century in the making. Even these limitations might have been overcome if this woman had believed that old age was a time for healing and making peace. Working from a developmental approach to aging, I see now what I could not see then. I can imagine an alternative wherein this gentle soul could be received warmly as the newest member of an intentional community. Surely, the elders of such a community could have done much to bind up her wounds. Instead, she found herself confined to an institution, attended by an ill-prepared physician, with the means of her healing nearby but completely unavailable.


Adulthood never stops whispering in our ears, never stops reminding us that doing is more important than being. Accustomed to valuing that which can be touched, or at least counted, we are often confused by the indistinct nature of being. We are taught not to rely on the pillars of emotion, affection and love as the basis for understanding self and society. Society is especially eager to inflict these doubts on elders: Few escape its ceaseless propaganda in favor of doing. The idea that being has virtues of its own is routinely undermined. The result is a stunted form of aging that subsists on the thin gruel of long-ago victories.

I remember visiting a California retirement community in the late 19905. …