Elders, not Elderly

My friend, Veronica Dungee Abrams’ mom passed away a few weeks ago, and then I  learned of the passing of her mother-in-law. In their 80s and 90s, both had long lives. Their deaths heralded what we knew was coming. And now it’s here. We are the elders.

My dad used to say, “I don’t feel any different than when I was in my 20s.” When he said this, he was in his 60s and had just climbed off a ladder after painting our 2400 square foot frame house. No one thought anything of it. This was not a feat. It was just a completed task. My dad jogged five miles a day, was healthy and vibrant. But really, I couldn’t believe it when he said that 65 years old felt no different for him than 25. Now I get it. Aging really is numerical, not psychological. There are, however, some realities that can’t be overlooked and we seem to talk about them … a lot.

“What medications are you taking? I thought you exercised enough not to need that.”

“Medicaid, no Medicare – whatever. What choices am I supposed to make?”

“I look in the mirror, and I don’t know the person looking back.”

It’s true. My friends and I are talking about and experiencing aging. Inwardly, like my dad, we feel the same: interested in life, ready to take on new challenges, planning for a future.

Yet, as the deaths of our parents, aunts, and uncles affirm our new responsibility, we recognize that we’re a bit … frightened.

It may sound silly and obvious, but we’ve never been elders before. Like most, we want to live a long life, but we aren’t so sure we’re ready for what befalls us as we assume this new role. Not only are we supposed to possess a life’s wisdom that many of us feel we don’t have, we are expected to share knowledge through the transmittal of family history and use our wisdom to be a part of the change we want to see in the world.

We have noticed that we are better able to manage time. The frenetic pace of doing, doing, doing, is slowly moving into our past. We take time more often to reflect on the arc—the trajectory—of life. We think we’ve acquired an understanding of many things: why something continues to happen, how to change patterns of behavior, who to welcome and sustain in our circle of friendship. Interestingly though, we aren’t quite ready to call those insights “wisdom”.  That’s not a term we connect to ourselves.

wisdom quoteWe spend time now talking with kids and grandchildren about family, our race, and our history. We fully recognize that just as the school systems didn’t teach us about the contributions of African-Americans to the greatness, beauty and economic viability of our country, today’s academic curriculum still doesn’t include us. We know it is up to us to share what’s truly important about our heritage. Not just the DNA analyses so popular today, but the real stories of what family members — parents,  great-grandparents, cousins — and even neighbors, suffered through, how they rose, how they achieved, and how they gave back.

Daughters of the Dream is my effort to capture that history, to prompt you, regardless of your race, to reflect on the role that black people have played in our collective past and to encourage you to share your experiences, insights, and wisdom with friends and family. While I believe that my self-reflection and understanding have grown as I’ve aged, I know that age is not the sole marker of wisdom. Recently, I’ve watched the actions of high schoolers from across the country organizing and demanding prudent and reasonable gun laws. I recognize and applaud the wisdom of their efforts. I reflect on the leadership of millennial mayors in Jackson, Mississippi, and Compton, California, and my hometown of Richmond, Virginia and I appreciate and celebrate their wisdom.

I think I am beginning to come into my own as an elder, but I refuse to be elderly, at least not quite yet. And I know, for sure, that wisdom rests across generations.

7 Replies to “Elders, not Elderly”

  1. As you know, Tamara, I am among those elders who refuse to be elderly. I count that attitude, along with great genes (and one nice pair of corduroys), for keeping me from becoming pre-maturely elderly.

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  2. I was discussing this very topic today with a friend. As my 84 year old mother visited me last week, I reflected on my mother’s ability to stretch out her day, connecting her past experiences with the present moments all the while excitedly anticipating the future.
    I asked my mom about her energy, which on most days surpasses mine. She wisely explained that she makes choices about her day and how she spends her time, recognizing the blessings of each day. “Wisdom indeed comes from living.”

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  3. Well said. Your mom will always be my hero because of my the “Green Book.” Because if her tenacity and fortitude, I can now enjoy the family that my dad was unable to. Make it a great day!

    Yvette

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  4. I am settling into my role as elder. And as a white woman with white grandchildren, I like that many of our conversations are about race and racism. I am teaching, yes, but more importantly listening. And learning. This holds true also, as I work with those in my field who are much younger than I, and/or newer to this field. It is becoming less difficult to raise the topic of racism with other whites.

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