05/05/2012 11:37 EDT | Updated 07/05/2012 05:12 EDT

We Respect Our iPhones More Than Our Elders


Buildings will eventually crumble and therefore will never really be an ongoing legacy for humankind. Our true legacy will emanate from our relationships with our children, family, friends and community.

While there are many positive developments over the last few generations having to do with human interaction, such as multiculturalism and the integration of people of all backgrounds in our society, the one area we will be remembered for negatively is our decision to marginalize our elderly and demonize the process and reality of growing old.

One day Western society will be remembered for our inelegance in managing our older people.

I saw the loneliness in the eyes of our elderly when I conducted religious services at a local home for the aged. It is a loneliness that stems from familial, societal and communal abandonment and it looked oh-so grey.

Imagine you are 80, someone who loved socializing with friends, all of whom are now gone. The phone rings -- it is a young man selling time-shares. You talk for a long while and ask him to call tomorrow, because you need to look forward to something.

Imagine you are 85. Your mind is rich with wisdom, knowledge and advice accrued from decades of life experiences, such as the escape you made from your homeland with a baby in your arms, or getting your children through school by working three jobs.

Yet at the end of your days you sit alone in a room of insulting space waiting for a melodramatic soap opera on TV so you can stifle the noise in your geriatric mind that speaks so loudly about days past.

We have abandoned our old folk, and done so effectively. Why? They are not wounded animals wandering off to the forest to lick their wounds and die. Seniors are not ugly because of their wrinkles or yellowing fingernails. Their folds and crinkles are exquisite like the trunks of an aging redwood.

We are the unsightly ones, sad and tragic members of this silly "Botox age," committed to the absurd and fleeting dogma of physical perfection. Mark Twain said, "Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been." He was right.

We need to reverse the disrespect we have shown our elderly. We need to apologize in an authentic manner so that our seniors believe us. We then need to take our aging family members out of the Home for the Aged, so that they don't sit alone, bemoaning the final chapters of their lives and gagging over that putrid smell of sterility. Let them feel surrounded by the love they introduced us to.

None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.

~ Henry David Thoreau

For those we cannot bring home, we need to establish regular visiting programs through our synagogues, churches, mosques, schools and families. Let us adopt the practices of Natives who bestow the valued title of "elder" upon their aged, and from Asians who position their matriarchs and patriarchs in places of honor by asking them for advice with serious intent. Let us do the same with our elderly.

Let us revisit a model of reverence and value for the aged that integrates senior men and women back into our community and props them up as our wise leaders and teachers. Let's give back to our seniors what they so deserve: respect.

My Aunt Sylvia, of blessed memory, used to say, "This business of growing old is not a very nice one." And she knew what she was taking about because she lived until she was 93 years old.

Sylvia knew what it felt like to be looked on as an "old woman," because she had been sexy and attractive in her earlier days. She knew people would often speak to her like "the old lady" because her mind was like a steel-trap -- healthy and sharp, right up until her last days.

Soon we will be the elderly. We need to prepare. Let us do so knowing our natural inheritance includes weakened and spindly legs and a spine that will curve like the bend of a ram's horn. Let us be conscious of the fact that youth is followed closely by the creases, and wisdom, of age.

A positive generational legacy is crucial. Ours will be incomplete if it does not include great honor and respect for our elderly, and an acceptance of the mistakes we have made in our handling and mismanaging of our seniors.