Linda Phillips: Older people make extraordinary contributions
Excitement abounds. Rumor has it that Santa Claus, one of the most beloved people in our part of the world, is coming to town.
As a gerontologist who has been in the field for around 40 years, I find it ironic that such a very, very old man causes such an excited stir in a country that worships youth. Who would have thought?
Maybe Santa Claus is revered because he just isn’t like other older people. He doesn’t fit with the negative ideas that many people have of elders. For instance, Santa Claus isn’t a burden. His knowledge isn’t obsolete. He isn’t disabled. He isn’t senile. He doesn’t seem to be one of those older adults who gets money from the so-called entitlements, Medicare and Social Security, that some people believe are bankrupting this country. He isn’t usually the butt of jokes that underscore the horrors of aging.
As a gerontologist, however, I would submit considering what Santa Claus “isn’t” is not sufficient to explain the excitement. Rather I think the excitement is about what he contributes to each of us. On the one hand his contributions are extraordinary and yet in other ways they are just like the day-to-day contributions made by older people every day.
For example, Santa Claus takes care of families. In this country about 14.8 million people 65 years and older serve as unpaid caregivers for their disabled family members. Yearly, these older caregivers contribute about $159.8 billion in services, an economic contribution that allows our long-term-care system stay afloat.
Similarly, he contributes to children. About 1 million individuals 60 and older serve as parents for their co-residing grandchildren with and without the help of biological parents. Countless more provide unpaid, day-to-day child care services to grandchildren so their biological parents can work. Many of these arrangements work out quite well if you judge by the lives of people with names you might recognize, such as Carol Burnett, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Al Pacino and Willie Nelson. All were raised by grandparents.
So, Santa Claus’ contributions are extraordinary, but they are also like those of so many other older adults, like Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s primary caregiver, and Oprah Winfrey’s grandmother, who make every day contributions that go largely unacknowledged. While Santa Claus creates a legacy and serves as a repository of history and tradition, he is not unlike scores of other older adults who do exactly the same thing.
So my advice?
The next time you hear a joke disparaging an older person or listen to a rant about all the bad things about seniors, object. Remember Santa Claus and the millions of other older folks who deserve credit and our gratitude for serving every day, as incredible national resources.