A New Agenda for American Leisure

By Walsh, Edward R. | Parks & Recreation, November 1993 | Go to article overview

A New Agenda for American Leisure


Walsh, Edward R., Parks & Recreation


The graying of America challenges leisure professionals to correct the inequities that persist. The old gray mare ain't what she used to be to use a colloquialism. She's demanding much more than tokenism. As Professor Richard Kraus rightly points out, "Many more older persons are open to the idea of continuing creative growth, self-actualization through their later years, in the immense amount of leisure that is available to them."

As one resident of a Nebraska old age home poignantly put it: "I don't mind getting old. It just seems like it bothers other people." William Butler Yeats echoed similar sentiments in his poem, Sailing to Byzantium:

  "That is no country for old men.  The
    young
  In one another's arms, birds in the
    trees--Those dying generations--at
    their song.... An aged man is but a
    paltry thing,
  A tattered cloak upon a stick."

In his book, The Pursuit of Loneliness, sociologist Philip Slater indicts our society for its mistreatment of unwanted people:

"We throw the aged and psychotic into institutional holes where they cannot be seen .... Our approach to social problems is to decrease their visibility.... When these discarded problems rise to the surface again ... we act as if a sewer had backed up."

Several years ago the wire services reported an extreme example of self-imposed isolation. In downtown Tampa, Florida, a retiree took up residence in a cemetery's empty receiving tomb. "It's dry and peaceful... nobody's going to trouble a fellow living in a tomb," said the gray beard.

As I see it, there are several significant ways in which, through leisure services, we can help resurrect those aging citizens who psychologically have consigned themselves to the dark tombs of their dotage. Professionals surely have considered these approaches before, but "let's look at the familiar until it seems strange," as G.K. Chesterton urges.

The enthusiasm of oldsters who have been jaded by routine and depressed over a growing sense of futility must be rekindled. How? By igniting creative "imagineering." Edward Fisher, Professor Emeritus of Notre Dame University, offers this prescription.

"Even in old age, you need adventure. Not the kind that comes from going on safari, but adventures of the heart, mind and spirit.... A sense of usefulness, especially in the declining years, is more important than fame or fortune. To find a way of being useful that is right for you takes some exploring .... The big thing is not to trivialize time."

Too many so-called programs designed for the elderly trivialize the scant time left in their lives. Are leisure agencies guilty of scheduling no-challenge activities that fall to spark interest among older people? Do organizations spoon feed our elderly the same pablum programs-- TV, movies, bingo, card playing and the stale remnants of recycled programs? Those forced feedings may pacify, but they neither satisfy nor nourish spirits. Why offer bland Brand X programs when they crave "the fight stuff?."

Contemporary culture worships the god of consumerism, and we practitioners of leisure too readily sacrifice older clients on the altars of program expediency. In his book The Minimal Self, Christopher Lasch stated: 'The social arrangements that support a system of mass production and mass consumption tend to discourage initiative and serf reliance and to promote dependence, passivity, and a spectatorial state of mind both at work and at play...."

Relying on gimmicks, gadgetry and those threadbare golden oldies does not promote well-being and zest for life. For oldsters who are ready, willing and able for fresh challenges, there's a smorgasbord of nourishing alternatives we should spread before them.

Enable More People

Community service certainly offers us professional programmers vast possibilities. Charity begins at home, the Good Book says. Why then do so many administrators lack the courage to relinquish even a modicum of program control? …

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