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25 Sep 2020

The Cultural Coach: Elders Have Something to Teach Us

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September 25, 2020 Category: Commentary Posted by:

By Linda S. Wallace

Linda S. Wallace

Dear Cultural Coach:

Senior citizens contribute to our society by volunteering, mentoring youth, caring for or raising grandchildren and holding full-time or part-time jobs. So why is it when we see them on TV, in films, or in the news they always seem to be sitting around in senior citizens’ centers socializing or working out? — Older but Wiser

Dear Older but Wiser: 

Make it a rule never to form an opinion about a community or generation based upon how its members are portrayed in the media. 

Writers, producers and reporters tend to view people and communities through cultural lenses, so we might end up seeing or hearing a world that reflects journalists’ hidden beliefs and biases.

Whether the subject is senior citizens, Southerners, Texans, or gays and lesbians, the media often portray communities with a broad brush, ignoring the finer details. In such instances, each of us must fill in the missing pieces of information. This is a skill that requires patience and practice. 

As Americans are living longer, society is struggling to learn how to deal more competently with our agile and surging ranks of elders. Older Americans are joining gyms, enrolling for the first time in college, bungee jumping, running for and getting elected to Congress, creating start-up corporations, sending emails and taking computer classes, chasing drug dealers off of urban street corners, campaigning with their dogs in an effort to get people out to vote, feeding the hungry and providing free health care to working people who can’t afford it. This is an impressive resume that any generation could claim with pride.

Now, I can hear the whispers of “OK,Boomer” out there.

I’ll be the first to admit America has a generation gap. I discovered this at work when I attended a reception where jazz music was softly playing in the background. As I’m thinking, “isn’t this a mellow event?”, a young person walks over to me and says, “This music is so boring.  I’m about to fall asleep.”

In my generation, people who listened to jazz were avant garde. Now we are just old school. 

Ok, so the generations may not like the same movies, music or books. Still, older Americans are walking, talking libraries of life and history.  Life’s lessons, after all, often require great suffering before great success. 

I asked a few chronologically gifted people to talk to us. Here’s what they had to say:

Treat senior citizens with respect, but don’t patronize them. Avoid the tone you would use in chatting with a 5-year-old child.

Don’t assume that an older person must be hard of hearing. Some older adults complain that younger people often talk loudly and overly enunciate when they converse with them.

Remember, not all senior citizens are senile. Offer advice when seniors ask for it or when the situation warrants it, but try not to make it a regular practice. (Seniors, the same advice applies when talking to young people.)

A senior’s memories and life’s lessons are also part of the family’s legacy. Instead of complaining about the stories, write them down, videotape them or make an audiotape so generations yet to come can cherish them. Try to see the beauty and wisdom that age (and youth) bestows.

Some elders lament people treat them as though they are invisible. When you look at someone, look at who they are on the inside — not at skin color, wrinkles or disabilities. 

If a senior citizen is driving the speed limit, and you are not, don’t get mad at him or her. Rage is best reserved for the lawbreakers, such as yourself. The drivers who speed, tailgate and intimidate other motorists kill people and put others at risk. We should all be honking at you.

If you are young, find a senior citizen as an ally, and, if you are old, find a young person to be an ally. Serve as one another’s cultural coach. 

Friendships between the people from different races and generations help to raise the collective cultural IQ of a community. 

Seek out common ground, and common interests will follow. 

Linda S. Wallace is a freelance journalist and communication specialist who helps clients develop cross-cultural messages for the workplace and the media. Readers are invited to submit questions on work or personal problems related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical differences. Address your questions to [email protected]

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