Think about how seniors are depicted in TV advertising. They’ve fallen and they can’t get up, they don’t know how to use their phones, they compare notes on incontinence products. You’d think that once people reach a certain age, they’re an irrelevance that should be set off to the side while the rest of the world gets on with the serious business of living.
While age isn’t universally disrespected, there’s enough ageism, both deliberate and casual for older adults to internalize the feeling that they no longer matter. While changing societal attitudes is a long and uncertain process, there is much seniors themselves can do to combat the idea that they don’t have much to contribute.
For starters, most seniors will have to deal with the fact that the way in which they once mattered has changed. While some people continue working into old age, most retire. A lot of people define themselves by their job, and now that identity is gone. If they have children, their role in those lives has changed too. If their purpose in life was to raise a family and to succeed at their jobs, they’re going to have to reorient that purpose. So how do we deal with this matter of still mattering as we age?
Fortunately, even if the world doesn’t appreciate aging seniors, there are factors at play in their favor.
Advantages of Being an Older Adult
Seniors, especially retired ones, have a lot of things going for them that they didn’t have when they were younger:
- Many don’t need to earn a high income or any income at all. If they choose to work, they can do what interests them rather than what pays well. They can redefine work as more than something that delivers a paycheck.
- Most have time that they didn’t have in their working years. They can pursue interests and hobbies that didn’t fit into their schedule when they were younger.
- They are freed from expectations and from conforming to arbitrary rules. They can take risks. They can do things just to find out what it’s like to do them. They worry less about what other people think.
How Seniors Can Continue to Matter
Here are 10 tips for remaining relevant even as it becomes more difficult to blow out ALL those candles on that birthday cake:
1. Pass It On
Not everyone will want what you have to give, but some will. Have coffee with a younger person in your field and pass on a little of what you’ve learned. Recognize that you don’t have all the answers, but that your advice can be one part of a younger person’s education.
2. Learn Something New
Whether it’s welding or nature photography or understanding blockchain, become an expert in something new. One of the stereotypes about older adults is that their learning muscles have atrophied and that they’re stuck in the past. Surprise people with knowledge and skills they may not expect you to have.
3. Break Your Pattern
Routine is comfortable. It’s easy to get into a cycle of doing the same thing at the same time day after day. Even little changes can stimulate you to look at things differently. Eat meals at a different time. Go to a new cafe or coffee shop. Shop at a different store. Visit a park you’ve never been to. Read the paper at a different time of day. Changing your schedule exposes you to new people and new experiences.
4. Establish a Support Group
Get together on a regular basis with other seniors who also struggle with remaining relevant. But whatever you do, don’t use your time together to commiserate and complain. Instead, lay out specific actions you can take and hold each other accountable for following through on them.
5. Turn Your Focus Outward
At any stage of life, one of the best remedies for personal emotional struggle is to consider helping others. One way to do this is volunteering, but another is to bring a new attitude to every interaction you have with people regardless of their age. Avoid talking about yourself, but listen to others. Don’t worry so much about proving you’re still relevant. Think about what you can do for them.
There are a lot of people willing to offer support to seniors, but seniors can give support as well as receive it.
6. Seek Intergenerational Contacts
Senior centers are fine, but it’s also good to get out there and dive into the larger world. Join a club or organization where many of the members are younger. They may be patronizing toward you at first, but if you become a full participant, they’ll begin to recognize your value.
7. Don’t Be Ageist
Wait a minute, you might be thinking: shouldn’t that advice be for younger people in their dealings with us? Well, what do you call it when someone says, “Young people today are lazy and entitled, and they want a trophy for everything they do?” The fact is that seniors have a lot in common with millennials when it comes to age discrimination. Both groups struggle to be taken seriously even though both generations are made up of individuals who have much to offer. Approach any age group with an open mind.
8. Pat Yourself on the Back
You’ve made it this far and you’ve done some things in life. Maybe you’ve raised a family. Your children still need your love, but they no longer need you to take care of their every need. That’s good. If your workplace gets along fine without you, maybe that’s because you helped make it that way. If your community is prosperous, one reason may be that you were a contributor to it.
9. Focus on Effort and Accept Results
No matter what you do, some people are going to look at your age and discount what you have to contribute. If you’re living actively and offering what you have, and some people think you don’t matter, it’s their loss. You can control what you do, but you can’t control how others will react.
10. Recognize That You Really Are Slowing Down
Nobody lives on this earth forever, and no one remains forever relevant in every aspect of life. At some point your health deteriorates, you have less energy and your cognitive processes slow down. You may have to stop driving and may even require assistance with the tasks of daily living.
However, your worth as a human being never diminishes. The ways in which you’re relevant may shift, but you never become inconsequential.
When we’re young parents, children depend on us for everything. Through middle age, friends, acquaintances and coworkers rely on us. As we grow older, that dependence lessens. That’s life. That’s natural. That’s healthy.
You don’t have to prove anything. Give where you can and enjoy each moment of life as it comes to you.