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13 Lessons for Aging Well—Lesson 8

Care for others.

Newsflash! The oldest old in America care for their families, their communities, each other.

We’d expect the opposite, right? That the very old are cared for, not vice versa. But in the vast majority of cases, the evidence is there—all around you, to debunk this theory. Here are three elders featured in my book who care for others:

Juana: She wakes up early to make rice and beans for her children. She’s 94 years old. Her daughter lives downstairs, her son lives in another city. Both still depend on their mother for lunch. And she depends on them for rides.

Margaret: She checks in on her neighbor Jackie every day at 4pm. It is just something she does in her senior apartment complex. One day, she stopped by for a visit and asked Jackie (a former nurse) to check her vitals. Something was wrong. Jackie called 911 and saved Margaret’s life.

Eddie: He errands for his friends and family. He picks up groceries, books, and even underwear for his uncle in a nursing home. At the end of the day, he always has a good story about the things he picked up for others. A good story is what makes his day.

Then there are semi-famous nonagenarians who are community activists, like Grace Lee Boggs (age 95), whose love for Detroit and the environment continues to inspire, worldwide.

Just this week in the Wall Street Journal, Yumiko Ono reports on Japanese elders made homeless by the tsunami who are providing support for each other in the form of a regular knitting club.

The stories are a-plenty. As a sociologist, I like to call attention to what I call reciprocal care networks. These networks, made up of non-kin, and kin alike, are vital to those aging in place, those who feel isolated, and honestly, vital to all of us who want to feel part of something larger than ourselves.

These networks are also crucial in constructing resilient communities.

Whatever you call it, the message is the same. Elders are not only care-receivers, they are also caregivers. Even into their 90s.

So when we hear talk about global aging societies as a “drain” on resources (as I keep hearing on the news in relation to Japan, for example), let’s remember that elders add value to our families and communities in a multitude of ways.

This is the eighth in a 13- post series on living well, adapted from Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond

Copyright Meika Loe

Meika Loe is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Colgate University. She is the author of Aging Our Way: Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond.

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