How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Elder Exceptionalism

Elders’ gentle giving can balance our frenetically acquisitional lives.
Many people go through life fighting. Perhaps they battled their way up the corporate ladder. Or they clashed with family, friends, and romantic partners. Or they fought for a cause, even one that flied in the face of the era’s zeitgeist, like meritocracy over redistribution.

As they age, some older people replace fighting with getting along. They might replace corporate battles with rendezvous with their flower garden, realize that it’s hard to “make a difference,” or write about the not-controversial.

We tend to pity such people as used-up, out-to-pasture, living in the hereafter’s waiting room. Yet some fill important needs.

Elder exceptionalism

While younger people could do many of these things, older people, with less packed lives, more often have the time, experience, and wisdom to do them:

  • Mentor a young person.
  • Write their memoir and give copies to their family. Personal historians such as Francine Brevetti  help people do that.
  • Heal an estranged relationship that’s worth healing.
  • Be a loving taskmaster to someone who needs to clean their apartment, start looking for a job, lose weight, whatever.
  • Write an unnecessary kind email to someone: a friend, a professional they admire, whomever.
  • Lovingly plant eye-candy for passersby.
  • Make a hobby of philanthropy. It’s hard to give money away so it makes a big difference. I am particularly pleased with my donations to Phyllis Kaplan who runs a one-woman non-profit called the Children’s Medi-Fund. Without spending a dime on overhead, she finds, for example, seriously ill children who need something: a tutor, something to make them laugh, whatever. Elders have more time to go on a treasure hunt to find a charity they can be as excited about.

Advice for old and young

So, if you’re young, as you see wizened faces, don’t prematurely dismiss them as Irrelevant Others. And if you’re old, unless you’re in such pain that you have energy for nothing other than trying to stay alive (or figuring out how you can end it,) you have choices. On one extreme, you can be the bitter curmudgeon who golfs and drinks to death. On the other extreme, you can be the kindly person who prioritizes gentle giving, a capstone on a lifetime of more intense contributions.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 

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