I learned a lot running for elected office this year. As a statewide university board candidate, I met voters aged 18 to 91. Students, university employees, alumni and others shared their strong views on education.
Early on in my campaign, I saw that my platform was most focused when it included the greatest diversity of thinking, backgrounds and life experiences. By interacting with the youth of the Sunrise climate movement to retired educators, I benefited from learning from the widest intersections of age, culture, gender, socio-economic status, disability, race, sexual orientation and political parties.
While many people shared their vision for the university, a common theme I heard was how age impacted their civic engagement. Older people reported barriers such as ageism, the lack of transportation and technology needs, while younger people stated the lack of child care and free time as factors.
Robert N. Butler, the first director of the National Institute of Aging and 1976 Pulitzer Prize General Non-fiction winner, “Why Survive? Being Old in America” (1975), defined ageism as prejudicial attitudes towards older people, old age and the aging process; discriminatory practices against older people, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people. Interestingly, the same ageism definition can be applied to youth.
Today, it’s not easy to define “older adult.” Definitions can rest on everything from chronological age and life expectancy, to eligibility for government benefits or even health status.
The idea of people being classified by age, reminds me of the first day of a human sexuality psychology class I was teaching. An older college student raised their hand and said, “I hope the class won’t be biased and think because I’m older, that I know everything about this subject.”
A second later, an 18-year-old student raised their hand and said, “And, I hope the class won’t think I don’t know anything, because I’m young.” The students’ comments helped set the expectation that we would all learn from, and with, one another.
My good friend, Mrs. Prindl, 107.5 years old, remarked, “Life gets really good after 80, Susan.”
In general, Mrs. Prindl spoke less about age than anyone. Every summer at her cottage in Suttons Bay, she proudly kept track of not only the number of people that visited her, but also the diversity of their ages and backgrounds.
I remember telling her about some older folks I’d met who said they wouldn’t plant a tree because they might not be around to see it grow, or people who wouldn’t share their opinions about a proposed senior center, because they might not be around to share in the responsibility for paying for it. Her comment: “As a society, we need everyone’s participation, every day, regardless of any of their particulars.”
My active, widowed father, 86, lives a successful intergenerational life. Under his roof are an array of dogs, my 50-something single sister who has had serious health issues, and our family friends — a 30-something single mom and her preschool daughter. Every day, my dad’s home hums with diverse thinking and creative problem-solving, so that everyone’s needs are met.
My life was deeply enriched this year by the people I met who respectfully shared their differences of opinion, experiences and backgrounds. I’m more convinced than ever that as a society we need a table large enough for everyone.