Older and wiser: learning from those who have done it before

Lately I have been thinking about the type of society we live in.

There is the individualist society, where the individual is prioritised over the group, individuals are encouraged/expected to be strong, independent, resilient. When there are problems, individuals are expected to solve them, pull up their socks, get on with it, put their big girl/boy/other pants on ….

On the other side is the collectivist society, where the group is prioritised over the individual, individuals are generally self-sacrificing, dependable, generous, helpful to others. When there are problems, these are more shared ….

There are pros and cons in both of course and I am not going to get into all that now … maybe in another blog. One aspect however, I do want to look at and that is about the different ways older people are viewed in different societies.

An Indian man wearing a pale purple shirt, black pants and bare feet walks with an elder who holds his shoulder for support whilst holding a light-wood walking stick. The elder wears all white and a cream pagri. He sports a white beard and wears a black necklace with a gold medallion around his neck.

“Why should I make all the mistakes myself when I can learn from those who have come before me? Life is too short.”

There is lots of value in someone the older they get – as a wise younger person said to me one day – “Why should I make all the mistakes myself when I can learn from those who have come before me? Life is too short.”

However, I feel in our society we do not always value that value.

“But things have progressed!”, you say. We do things differently, quicker, better … we know more … times have changed. Of course, that is true for some things. Certainly, advances in technology, medicine, and scientific research have all provided new and at times better ways of doing things, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bath water – or in this case, the older person.

An Indian man in a brown and orange striped shirt and cream hat stands in between two Indian elders, one supports himself with a dark wood walking stick. Both elders wear a pagri on their heads, and traditional, light-coloured long shirts and pants.

When does someone become too old to be useful? When does Google provide better information than lived experience

There is an advertisement that has a woman talking about how much her mother always did for her, so when her mother needed help, she called this particular organisation to help her mother. Why do we get someone else to look after our parents/grandparents/elderly aunts?

Or the plethora of retirement villages and nursing homes where older people can be safely kept. Why hide older people? Why do we feel they have less worth or knowledge about things than we do?

When does someone become too old to be useful? When does Google (and other similar avenues) provide better information than lived experience?

Engel wears a white and blue button-up shirt and tortoise shell glasses, whilst eating a mango flavoured scoop of ice-cream in a cone. A brown haired toddler smiles alongside her whilst holding a purple, bubble-gum flavoured ice-cream in a cone.

I remember the first time I babysat one of my grandchildren. Naturally, her parents were nervous about leaving her this first time and there was extensive information given to me about feeding and sleeping times and methods. While they were away, I sent them a photo of the peacefully sleeping baby … my son’s response? “It’s like you have done this before.”

Older people have done this before … often many times … sometimes well, sometimes maybe not so well …. but to presume that Google is better than lived experience is perhaps missing something vital.

Some years ago, when my father was still alive but in the advanced stages of dementia, there was pressure on my mother to go with him into a retirement village with a nursing home attached. She was not happy to do this as she knew that for my father it would be the end and for her it would mean leaving her comfortable, beloved flat with its beautiful garden balcony and convenient location. She was happy there (still is).

After holidaying with my parents on a cruise, with some mixed results, I asked mum what she wanted from her offspring. “I want you to trust my judgement and support my decisions.” Well, we did, and the result was that though Dad did in the end die in hospital, he lived the remainder of his days at home with mum, treated with dignity, respect and love … something that should be available to us all.

Engel wears a lime green cap. hot pink t-shirt, black pants and black sneakers alongside her mother, who wears a dusty pink shirt and light blue pants, and carries a bright coloured bag. They walk along a metal boardwalk with side railing in the Australian bush.

… to presume that Google is better than lived experience is perhaps missing something vital …

My mum continues to live in her flat, next door to her new partner, with her garden, her philosophy classes, her numerous books, and other possessions, close to the shops she needs, friends she visits, a park she walks in, a train to catch to where she wants to go ….

I have reflected on her request all those years ago to trust her judgement and know that I still have much to learn from her. We live in different states but speak often. Our conversations tend to go for some time, largely because what she has to say is not only interesting but tends to provide me with some gem that I can take into my life.

And I realise that that is because she has done this before …

About the Author

Mental Strides' Mental Health Consultant, Engel Prendergast smiles warmly at the camera. Engel has her hair back, and is wearing tortoise-shell glasses, a floral scarf and an apricot-coloured shirt.

Training led by experience, natural compassion, and a determination to help others

Engel Prendergast is our Mental Health Consultant, working with organisations and groups to build a culture that supports good mental health.

Engel is an accredited Mental Health First Aid and safeTALK Instructor, and Lifeline Crisis Supporter and Mentor. She holds a Bachelor of Science (Health Promotion), Diploma of Counselling, and a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.

With natural compassion, a determination to help others and extensive experience in training and facilitation, Engel provides an environment that fosters learning and ownership.

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