The stunning news earlier this week that Pope Benedict XVI was stepping down as leader of the Catholic Church put all the complicated and often confounding issues surrounding aging in a global spotlight.
While papal watchers and the media speculated on a political motivation for the resignation, including the pressures of leading in light of the clerical sexual abuse scandal and growing secularization in Europe and the Americas, Benedict, 85, put it simply: “Before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of leading the world’s one billion Roman Catholics.
What struck me in the days since the announcement have been the often vehement negative reactions—not to the pope’s decision itself—but to the idea that he had been able to accomplish much at all in his advanced years—as if age alone disqualifies one to make a meaningful contribution to society or one’s workplace.
I saw dozens of comments on social media and in the mainstream media that outright mocked the man and chastised him and others who dare to work so long into their “twilight” years. This ageism appears to be growing, which seems—on the one hand—confounding to me in light of the enormous number of seniors in our society and their growing political and societal influence—and on the other hand—understandable. The younger generations are not to be faulted for feeling stressed and even resentful at the prospect of either competing for limited jobs and/or supporting this exploding and increasingly needy population.
This lack of respect and empathy isn’t limited to the U.S. Look at China, where for centuries the elderly were revered. But in just a few years, with modernization and the migration of the young to big cities, we’re witnessing the collapse of the family safety net. There’s a huge market for institutionalized long-term care (and an influx of foreign developers) and the Chinese government has even resorted to regulation to force children to visit their elderly parents.
Back in this country we’re witnessing the marginalization of people as young as their late 40s—most visible in the frustrating inability to find jobs in a soft economy. I’ve seen this among many of my friends and family members. Heck, I went through it myself in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, when I was laid off from my former job and struggled to compete for entry-level positions with recent college graduates.
How do we even begin to address these issues in a constructive manner? I’ll leave that up to our expert audience of geriatricians, academics, sociologists and long-term care providers to ponder as they often share their wisdom here. I do believe that a little compassion, kindess and empathy from all sides is a good start. It’s a discussion that will only grow in years to come.