Celebrating Older Americans Month: Lessons From My 105-year-old Living Grandmother

 I recently learned that the Month of May is Older Americans Month. I was surprised to learn that Older Americans Month was established way back in 1963. At that time, only 17 million living Americans had reached their 65th birthday and, “About a third of older Americans lived in poverty and there were few programs to meet their needs.” https://acl.gov/oam/history

As of 2016, there were 49.2 million Americans who were 65 years of age or older, and that number is projected to double to 98 million by 2060. This website further adds that “Historically, Older Americans Month has been a time to acknowledge the contributions of past and current older persons to our country, in particular those who defended our country.”   https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/Aging%20and%20Disability%20in%20America/2017OlderAmericansProfile.pdf


Different Cultural Perspectives On Aging And The Elderly 

I truly admire how elders are respected and looked up to in my home country, similar to several other cultures around the world. The elderly are revered in so many different ways beginning with honorific language. For instance, mzee in Kiswahili – spoken in certain parts of Africa – is a term used by younger speakers to communicate a high level of respect for elders. Often, the aging do not enjoy such treatment here in the United States. In contrast, here in the United States, youth culture is revered, and aging is sometimes considered an impediment – something to be stopped, something to be hidden from view.

A 2019 article in Parent’s Magazine expressed concern citing the American Society of Plastic Surgeons statistics from 2017 that more than 21,000 teenagers had received Botox treatments. https://www.parents.com/news/more-girls-as-young-as-13-are-getting-botox-experts-warn/

As another article notes, “Young girls are trying to preempt a grim reality: that their worth dwindles as their age increases. Yet it seems that the horror of an older woman is still greater than that of needles jutting from baby faces.” https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/mar/25/teenagers-botox-cosmetic-surgeons-concerned-yomi-adegoke


My 105-Year-Old Living Grandmother

I am originally from Nigeria in West Africa where aging is viewed differently than it is here in the United States. My grandmother turned 105 years old this year, and she is a vibrant and valued member of her community.  I had the opportunity to go back and visit with her in January 2020 before the pandemic hit, and I am so glad that I had that opportunity to do so. She reminisced about the time in her youth when she and her friends went to the square to see various dignitaries and stories of how they worked and lived life. A week ago when we last spoke on the phone, she regaled me with more stories, some of which she continued from where we left off in January 2020, and others about the news about “the corona” in the news outlets. In fact, she requested that I bring a computer and video to do more recordings when next I come to visit her. Of course, she suffers from arthritis in her knees and ankles when she wakes. She said that it gets better once she starts moving around.  She eats relatively healthy, has an excellent sleep hygiene that correlates with nature’s dusk and dawn, and surrounds herself with “younger” folks – her definition ranging from infants to 90-year-old adults! It occurs to me that she was just a youngster of 47-years of age when President John F. Kennedy and members of the National Council of Senior Citizens designated May as “Senior Citizens Month’ which was the prelude to the current Older Americans Month.


Around The World

In Japan, a person’s 60th birthday is considered a very big deal. A celebration called Kankrei is held to mark the rite of passage into old age. Here in the States, we celebrate retirement from work life, but there is no celebration of passing from middle age into the elder years. Similarly, China, Korea, Japan, and India hold the elderly in high esteem. They teach “filial piety” derived from a Confucian teaching, and nearly 75% of elderly Chinese, Japanese and Korean parents live with their adult children. Again, some people may consider this a bit culturally extreme with elderly parents living with their adult children, but again, the goal is to highlight the various ways that the elderly are incorporated into daily and ongoing life in different societies.

In other countries, children are required by law to stay in touch with their parents! According to a 2013 TED talk, “Article 207 of the French Civil Code, which was passed in 2004, requires that adult children “keep in touch” with their elderly parents. The law passed in response to a study that showed a high rate of elderly suicides in France, and to a heatwave in which 15,000 mostly elderly people died.” And, consider this, in China where there are 185 million people 60+, a new Elderly Rights Law mandates that children visit their parents frequently, no matter how far away they live. If children don’t comply, they could face fines or jail time.” https://blog.ted.com/what-its-like-to-grow-old-in-different-parts-of-the-world/  While again this may be considered extreme to face jail time, again it is shedding light on the different ways that other societies are incorporating the older generation into the current life.

Living a long and healthy life is what so many people aspire to. The sense of worth and value to the younger generations that the elderly bring with their life experience is incalculable. However, that ideal seems incongruous with the general attitude today toward the elderly. I often wonder if my grandmother would thrive here in the States if she was not valued as she is in Africa. Looking to our elders for wisdom should be part of the collective consciousness of a nation. How can we shift in the United States to revere the elderly for what they contribute to the well-being of society at large? I don’t have any surefire answer to this question, but for starters maybe there could be a little more hoopla around Older Americans Month. Share your thoughts about how we can shift our attitude toward revering the elderly. This month – and beyond – I hope you take the time to recognize and appreciate the older and elderly individuals in your circle and in our society at large.