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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Favor of Elders – Alzheimer, Wisdom and Leadership

About two years ago I listened to a lecture at the University of Minnesota by Dr. Peter Whitehouse, and I was lucky to be invited to a luncheon with this authority on Alzheimer and about 20 other people. The conversations, the wonderfully innovative ideas, and the view on elderly people greatly appealed to me. I have often shared with our children my observations, thoughts, and worries about how poorly or inconsiderate and underused aging people are often treated in many Western countries, even though this might be unintentionally. It always brings a smile to my face how many more elderly people in, say Spain and Italy as compared to the U.K. or the Netherlands are part of everyday life, walking, stick bound or not, to the park for a chat and a game of jeux de boules, or to a bar where they discuss local and global issues while enjoying a coffee or something stronger yet. And these are just two examples of participation in daily life but it’s quite different from the many elderly people, often in similar shape, living in homes.  Homes where everything is provided for them within the walls of this home and with little or no interaction with the outside world. No matter how great these homes may be, and I know for some it seems a good match with their needs and wants, but for many it isn’t and it sure is far removed from soliciting the elder’s passions, capabilities, and wisdom and inviting them to speak to students, employees and other groups to inspire and invigorate their audience.

One of the things that really bothers me is impatience with elderly people, only half listening to their stories which are often perceived as boring, outdated, or the same-old-same-old. It bothers me when elderly people are being disregarded where they should be appreciated for all they gave, did and are. Do we take enough time to listen to their experiences, their world view, and their lessons from life let alone that we invite them actively to spread their views and wisdom?

Back to Peter Whitehouse. About eight years ago Peter and his wife, Cathy, founded an inner-city charter school in Cleveland called The Intergenerational School. It's common to see the school's young students working with older volunteers, including many who have Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Peter Whitehouse gives his elderly patients with memory loss an unexpected prescription: Stay socially active. Some of his favorite advice is to perform volunteer work, and he has created a school where they can do just that. At The Intergenerational School staff are looking at whether volunteering at this school improves the quality of life of the volunteers. They look at five variables: cognitive functioning, stress, depression, sense of purpose and sense of usefulness. The research is small-scale but the first outcomes are very positive.

Over to quite a different setting but a similar perspective, which is that of making use of elderly people. “The Elders” is an independent group of global leaders like former U.S. president, Nobel Peace Laureate, and veteran peace negotiator Jimmy Carter, former first woman president of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, former Algerian freedom fighter, Foreign Minister, UN diplomat, and an expert in peacekeeping Lakdar Brahimi, and Gro Brundtland, the first woman Prime Minister of Norway, and a medical doctor who champions health as a human right. What these people have in common? To become an Elder in this group you can no longer hold public office. Elders are independent of any national government or other vested interest. All Elders share a common commitment to peace and to universal human rights and they all offer their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. The group was established by Nelson Mandela in 2007 and is chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The group has worked successfully on a variety of projects all over the world, and, just to be clear, we’re talking old people. But these Elders are clearly change makers. People who can lead by inspiring example and who create positive social change while inspiring others to do the same. Now that is what I call ‘making good use of elderly people.’ But it shouldn’t have to depend on your resume and a great influential career whether you are being regarded highly and consulted for your wisdom, should it?

A third venue where we here of the ‘use of elders’ is in the travels, books and work of Minneapolis based consultant, speaker, and author Richard Leider, who wrote Claiming Your Place at the Fire (2004) with David Shapiro. Leider leads annual safaris through Tanzania. Sitting around a fire with the area's Hadza elders, his group shares in the words of wisdom that have sustained the tribe for centuries, listening to their stories and parables.

I could continue with the role of elders in American Indian tribes, but I think I made my point. For a short while I was wondering whether this topic wasn’t too much out of place on a blog on Change, Leadership, and Personal Development. And maybe it is, but couldn’t and shouldn’t elderly people be viewed and treated like this in our society as well? Sure, there are certain fields in which we see very elderly people, just think of judges and politicians. But that’s a very limited group. How do you look at elderly people in your company, your neighborhood, your family? Do you actively solicit their wisdom and treat them with dignity and respect? Elderly people are close to the end of the line as far as dealing with change, having lived (through) leadership, and as far as personal development is concerned. Let their experiences, perspectives, and wisdom not go unused if they are willing to share, and support them in leading a meaningful, engaged last part of their life.

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