‘How elders will save the world’

Book challenges readers to see the presence of elders as an essential component in completing our vision of society...

“The death of an old person is like the loss of a library” — African Proverb.

January is always a tough month. It just seems that the papers are filled with obituaries of past clients.

In particular, the news of Gwyn Frayne and her prognosis of terminal lung cancer struck a chord.

A social worker through and through, Gwyn’s countless volunteer hours towards improving health care is a walking testament to her ability to make use of the gifts she’s been blessed with by sharing them with her peers and future generations.

In many countries, such as Africa, Japan and Greece, elders are revered, respected and responsible to pass on wisdom and life experiences with younger generations.

In more Westernized cultures, we are bombarded with anti-aging solutions to fight the decline of beauty and strength. Consequently, we tend to view aging as a skeleton in the closet — something we are ashamed of and really don’t want to think or talk about.

William Thomas is a gerontologist and author of the book What are Old People For: How Elders Will Save the World.

He challenges readers to rewire their thinking and see the presence of elders as an essential component in completing our vision of society.

Thomas argues that having a large number of seniors is considered “elder-rich” and is seen as a positive advantage to a community or Eldertopia, as he coins in this book. A common thread through his book is to see elders offering warmth, wisdom and stewardship to communities and society.

Does that sound like someone you know?

I can list at least 50 individuals over the age of 65 that I personally know who take Thomas’ approach in later life. When I think about access to services for seniors, I immediately think about Gwyn and the dedication, leadership and voice she’s providing for seniors in our community.

Gwyn would be the first to say she’s not alone in her volunteerism.  She’s right (of course she is!).

As we age, we tend to volunteer more. The 2010 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, showed individuals aged 65 to 75 volunteered 235 hours per year, compared with 156 hours per year for all Canadians.

Readers might be thinking, “This whole idea of Eldertopia is quite idyllic, but is it realistic?”

Well, the same argument could be made about reducing our carbon footprint or obliterating the shark fin trade. Like any vision, it starts by raising awareness and becoming more conscious about the issue at hand.

Marcel Proust once said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Instead of seeing seniors as a drain, let’s see it from a different vantage point and become more aware of the contributions our grandparents and elders make to our future generations.

This gets us one step closer towards dispelling the myths of aging and reducing bias against our seniors. Let’s stop seeing aging as a problem, but rather embracing this longevity and unlocking the answers to how we can better live together as a society.

And Gwyn, thank you for all that you do and model for our community. I am a better at what I do as a gerontologist for having had the opportunity to work alongside of you.

I for one will continue working with the long line of others to protect and nurture seniors in being able remain independent and healthy in their communities.

Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Solutions. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Thursday.