Elders in American society

By sdmptww on Fri, Mar 8, 2013 - 6:40am

I thought I might make an observation or two here about American society and our elder resources that we generally do not utilize.

Not that I think this will be news to anyone here but generally our society sucks at transferring information from generation to generation.  Because we are all into the myth of progress, or as I tend to term it "be happy, it just gets betta and betta" we have done little to encourage our seniors to engage and help with knowledge transference through the generations.  When I moved here I had lived in the really big and fast-paced city for the majority of my life.  While I immediately enjoyed just absorbing the cleaner air, the sounds of nature and my developing land base I quickly found I couldn't identify most of the animals or plants.  We hired a local older man with a chain saw and a small tractor to help clear some of the woods from the edge of the house and I quickly found he was a rich resource on trees.  He could identify every one of them.  So he was very helpful in helping me selectively clear.  Only those badly diseased, too close together or not with a useful side.  I have wild cherry, sassafras and long-leaf pine that has nearly disappeared from this area due to logging.  I would not have been able to do that well without him.  And I would not have begun my journey in understanding my bioregion and land-base without engaging him and asking questions.

My mom is good at identifying herbacious plants and I've gotten much better at identifying plants at the two and four leaf stage but walking with her and asking lots of questions.  She is also good at sensing the weather, something she gained from her parents.  Both of them could look up at the sky and know the time of day within about thirty minutes (I'm getting there), know whether the weather was going to change (working on this as well), and smell a rattlesnake (not even close to being there though I keep trying).

Those of us who are trying to prepare for the next great social discontinuity need to engage our elders in helping to educate.  Not just stories but useful information and ways of adapting.  And now that I'm close to being an elder (I suspect my younger neighbors thinking I'm already there) I need to share info readily and openly.  I try and interestingly have found that like stray animals who need a home and seem to know which ones to target, young people will find you if you treat them as adults and share openly.  So the purpose here is to encourage transference of knowledge, up and down.  We need to get better at this and fast.  Find someone older and younger and get started.  Sharon

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Amanda Witman's picture
Amanda Witman
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Posts: 409
This is a great reminder, ptwisewoman

Thank you.  You've got me thinking, and it's a welcome start to my morning.

My grandparents knew about all kinds of plants and trees, as well as the local animal population, and made it a priority for their four children to have a foundation in botany as well.  I had forgotten that my dad still must have this tucked away in his memory somewhere, but your post reminds me that I'd like to have some ongoing conversations with him about it.  I'd like to turn my dad loose in the woods with my kids, over and over, so they can absorb it directly from him.  (My mom grew up in a family that was not connected to the land in that way, and much more entrenched in pop culture than my dad's family, but she's game for a good hike even if my dad is the one doing the talking.)

It seems that my generation -- technically "gen X" -- has had a general attitude of self-contained independence rather than generational interdependence.  I think it's largely and unwittingly cultural, that idea that we all must fend for ourselves, youth or elder.  Unfortunately those channels of wisdom between generations have been largely disregarded in many (perhaps most) American families.

Yet another thing we can do our best to consciously change with the next generation.

I sometimes indulge myself in thoughts of being a wise elder when I am old.  I guess if that's my goal, it's up to me to accumulate the knowledge and lore that the younger generations need, so I can fill that role effectively when the time comes.

TreeGap's picture
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I really love this: "I sometimes indulge myself in thoughts of being a wise elder when I am old.  I guess if that's my goal, it's up to me to accumulate the knowledge and lore that the younger generations need, so I can fill that role effectively when the time comes."

I think that is very much needed.  It makes me wonder how in our popular culture the elderly came to be perceived as weak and irrelevant, rather than as wise and a source of life-enriching knowledge. 

The loss of the inter-generational transfer of knowledge has really wounded the world we live in. 

I like your goal, I'm making it mine as well.   I really believe that it is going to be needed.

Dragline's picture
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Book Recommendation

If you've never read "30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans", it is well worth the effort.

jasonw's picture
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Posts: 1029
Wisdom and knowledge from many many generations ago

A couple of treasured resources I have come across over the years. 

Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake 1805 (Dover Books on Americana)


Jas Townsend and Sons Video Series (YouTube)

sdmptww's picture
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Posts: 56
The elderly perceived as weak and irrelevent

Treegap:  Your observation that our failure to value the intergenerational transfer of info is right on.  Like Amanda I imagine at times that my senior years will be graced with some wisdom, hence my effort at humor with my user name.  I'm at best p/t but I am getting to be senior at a rapid rate.  While I did observe and learn from my grandparents, I also spent years in a big city and a lot of it is now buried in my brain and I'm having to dig it out.  At times that is as hard as getting Pensacola bahia grass out from around my fruit trees!

I do think there has been multiple routes to pushing the elderly aside and imagining them weak and irrelevent.  SSI actually gave both the elderly and younger folks the belief they were financially independent so generations from mine on down moved to visiting during holidays rather than living close by and being involved, or as I've done, moved my Mom in with me so I can keep her as independent as she is still in her mind.  And look at all I gain from helping her a bit.  But our society is also so enamoured with what it imagines as progress and every year things change so much that the past is irrelevent that we can't imagine that that might be more a factor of fossil fuel abuse and less a real part of the present and future.  And then there is the obsession we have with youth and paint-brushed appearing looks.  The elderly tend to look a bit silly if they tuck and pull the body too much.  We are a reality look into everyone's future and if you aren't ready for it, it can be hard to face.  But the future holds a harder life, less tucking and pulling and a real need to transfer useful information on a good life in hard times.  I am glad to see folks here are open to that.

We really have to do better.  While I don't have children, I am more than a bit worried about generations after mine.  We have done them such a disservice.  Baby boomers (that would be my generation) need to get off our butts and work a bit harder in helping to gather information and sharing it with those ready to listen and stop worrying about how much SSI we think we deserve.  Not harangue, not criticize, not ridicule because they are into some things that won't last or a bit too into rose-colored glasses, but really engage with them and help them to see a different world.  It will make the possibility of a future difficult life occur with a bit more grace and joy a much better possibility.

Poet's picture
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Posts: 1892
Killing Of Old Men

As we age, we'll want to strive to remain as those with control of resources and command of their faculties: able to disseminate life-preserving and life-enhancing wisdom to a younger generation. They are keepers of communal knowledge, effectively the only available library and link to the past.

Even in the paleolithic era, there are signs of older (50s, possibly 60s, which was about as long as one could hope to live at the time) people being taken care of in old age and, when they finally passed away, their bodies carefully laid to rest with flowers and small treasures.

Here is a collection of several folk tales from around the world about why it is not wise to kill off your grandparents. Seems there has always been a need for such cautionary tales...

Killing of Old Men


Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
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Posts: 1988
the return of the extended family?

With things getting so expensive, people losing their jobs, and so many homes wth underwater mortgages - I see more and more folks moving in with relatives. This is not necisarrily a bad thing. Perhaps we can see a silver lining in, as a society, the economic necessity of returning to a more extended family living arrangement. I honestly believe that the past few generations were an historical abberation. I think it's it's not natural for grandparents to live in NH, children to live in NY, VA, and MN, and grandchildren to live in CA and FL. Not only do the generations lose touch, but necessary skills are not passed down.

When I remarried in my 50s, I intentionally chose a family with deep respect for elders and close-living generations. My husband's mother's family is centered around two spots in VA and SC; my husband's father's side is all clustered around Ithica, NY. I can compare that to my background, with my parent's siblings scattered to the four winds and their kidsfurther scattered. I was shortchanged regarding nearby elders. I had to go out and seek them on my own."Adopted" grandparents, aunts and uncles were mostly what I had.

Contrast that with the situation here in SC. I have my son and his wife within bicycle distance, and nine other relatives two hours or less away by car.

Note that my son was economically forced to live with us for two and a half years, and he told me it was a good experience: he really picked up a lot of life-skills when he was here. Some of these were speific skills. For example, his step father taught him how to use a post-hole digger; I taught him how to cook several dishes and care for a cast-iron skillet. Some were more general skills. My new husband taught him things his irresponsible natural father never could, like how to get on an adult schedule, get to sleep on time, stop hitting the snooze button, and generally be a responsible adult.

So many life skills are taught by example and repetition. Some are only taught well when you'r living with an extanded family

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