Late summer into fall seems to be the time that humankind sets aside time to honor its elders. Senior Citizens Day was originally celebrated in the US on August 14, the date on which Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935. Fifty-plus years later, in 1988, then-president Ronald Regan declared August 21 to be national Senior Citizens Day. Two years after that, the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Senior Citizens Day, which was first celebrated on October 1, 1991, but is now observed annually on August 21. And in Japan – where elders are generally held in very high regard – Respect for the Aged Day is celebrated each year on the third Monday of September.
Three themes echo through all of these elder-honoring observances: celebrating the ways in which older people contribute to the human family, expressing gratitude and appreciation to and for them, and ensuring that seniors receive the support and assistance they need. For example, on designating August 21 as Senior Citizens Day Ronald Regan wrote:
“For all they have achieved throughout life and for all they continue to accomplish, we owe older citizens our thanks and a heartfelt salute. We can best demonstrate our gratitude and esteem by making sure that our communities are good places in which to mature and grow older – places in which older people can participate to the fullest and can find the encouragement, acceptance, assistance, and services they need to continue to lead lives of independence and dignity.”
Celebrating Elders’ Contributions
In many places around the world, from 21st century Japan to indigenous tribal cultures in Africa and elsewhere, the honoring of older people is a way of life. In Japan elders are regarded as “national treasures,” and in tribal cultures they play a variety of essential roles. As story-tellers, initiators of the young, chiefs and clan mothers, elders help transmit shared values to younger generations, serve as role models and provide guidance, and offer wise perspectives on important and complex matters, with detached concern for individuals, the tribe as a whole, and the natural world that sustains them.
In the US and other countries where attitudes toward older people are conflicted and less respectful, holidays that honor them are essential, for the well-being of seniors themselves and for our collective well-being. As Hubert Humphrey observed in a speech on November 1, 1977, “…the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life – the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
On August 14 or 21, or sometime in between, consider ways you might honor the older people who have enhanced your life or the quality of life for others. Here are a few possibilities:
Spend some time recalling older people who have blessed your life in some way – a mentor, a grandparent, an older author, someone in your community, or an elder you have never met personally but whose example and legacy have contributed to the human family.
Express gratitude to these elders in person if possible, or in a letter or by phone, letting them know specifically what you appreciate about them and how they have affected you and perhaps others as well.
If you know them well and they live nearby, invite them to do something with you that they would enjoy – going on a walk, attending an art opening, sharing a meal. Or suggest a visit and bring a token of appreciation – a small bouquet of flowers for a lover of nature, a card you and/or your children have made, or a container of their favorite food. If the older person is a member of your family, invite other members to join you and consider making such a gathering an annual event.
If the older person is deceased, you might pay tribute by making a donation to a group whose work he or she valued and supported. And if the elder is a cultural figure to whom you have no direct access, observe a few moments of silent gratitude for his or her life and contributions.
Honoring Ourselves and One Another
Honoring ourselves as older persons is often more difficult than honoring others, but it is equally, if not more important, especially in cultures that are less than friendly toward age. In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vibrant old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. In The MindBody Code, he writes, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”
Numerous studies have demonstrated that negative views of age, which are often unconsciously absorbed, can become self-fulfilling prophesies. Believing that “it’s all down hill anyway,” it is easy to become complacent and forego health-friendly choices and activities, thus helping bring to pass the very losses we fear. A recent (2016) study at Trinity College, Dublin, revealed that negative attitudes toward aging carried throughout life can have a measurable, detrimental effect on mental, physical, and cognitive health. And Becca Levy and her associates (2002) found that internalizing negative stereotypes of age reduced life expectancy by more than seven years, exerting a more powerful effect on survival than gender, socioeconomic status, or smoking.
We now know that the things we most fear about age, like debilitating frailty and severe dementia are the exception, not the rule. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, and neuroscience all suggest that ageist attitudes can be replaced with more optimistic (and more accurate) views of aging through questioning assumptions, seeking accurate and heartening information, and actively “rewiring” our brains through a variety of meditative practices (more on these another day.) Numerous studies have revealed that having a positive view of one’s own aging is associated with higher levels of life satisfaction (Brothers et al, 2015), better self-rated health (Beyer et al, 2015), and improved social networks (Menkin et al, 2016).
If you are over 65 or so, take some time to reflect on your own gifts and the ways you contribute to others’ lives – with friends and family, through work / volunteering, in your community. What specific qualities and skills do recognize in yourself as an older person? how do they benefit others? Take some time to recall and savor memories of feeling connected and contributing to others’ lives.
Consider hosting a mutual appreciation lunch for a few older friends sometime between August 14-21, or anytime! Invite them to bring food to share, as well as memories and appreciations of one another. Set aside time during the gathering to acknowledge the gifts you see in each other and to share a favorite memory of each person there. You might consider providing some bubbly (alcoholic and non-) for mutual toasting.