By Orion Breen (This originally appeared in the Portland Daily Sun)
Maine has the oldest population in the country, and that’s just fine with me. My grandfather would probably say we have the most experience and the most character. The country that forged the golden idol of perpetual youth, where everything comes fast and easy and immediate gratification is king, is now waking up with one heck of an economic hang over. And the guy with the white beard who told us to work hard now and save for what’s really important, that nothing worth having comes easy, he is starting to make a lot of sense right now.
He could gloat and say I told you so, but he won’t, that’s not the way he does things. He knows we have to learn some lessons the hard way. But have we learned our lesson? Have we got our priorities straight? Sometimes, as my grandfather would say, it seems we can’t tell our tail bone from our elbow.
There was a time when communities valued the wisdom of the elders, when age was not a detriment, but an advantage. I dare say, our biggest untapped resource is not the gulf steam wind currents waiting to turn the turbines of giant floating wind farms, our biggest untapped resource is our elder population.
Some may say their ways are outdated, they can’t work because they are slow on the computer, but really we are afraid to show them we can’t do anything without one. We can’t even add or spell without an electronic aid. Our skills are perpetually going obsolete, not theirs.
Our elders know if you want something you got to get your hands dirty, what you get out is what you put in. You can’t get everything from the one stop big box store (where everything is made from away) because it’s convenient, and then complain that there are no jobs here any more. You just convenienced yourself out of one.
Our elders are people who can grow things, who can build things, who can fix things. They are people who remember where they were when a man first walked on the moon. People who dreamed big, who know what we can accomplish when we work together, who know the meaning of the word sacrifice. How can we dare to dream a better future if we do not build it on past experience?
Our elders have experience. They are people who remember segregation, who know that what is accepted is not the same as what is right. People who not only hope for change, but have seen it. Who have experienced the growing pains, the set backs, who persisted on, who knew there was no end to the work to be done and still got up everyday and worked hard so that things would be a little better for you and I.
Our elders are people with so much to give, who are so invaluable, who are truly one of our greatest assets, and are made to feel all too often like a burden.
How can we show we have learned our lesson? For one thing, we can start listening to them. We can put them at the center of our communal life instead of shunting them to the side. We can show them we value the work they have done, and continue to do. It’s estimated Maine’s 65 and older population volunteer almost five million hours a year with an economic impact of over one hundred million dollars. After all these years they are still what’s keeping things together. Ready or not, one day we are going to have some mighty big shoes to fill.
So let’s give some thanks. Even though we continue to make a complete mess of things, they don’t scold us, they just help us make things right. And they do so with a humility and grace that makes me think, Maine could be more than the oldest state in the union, we could be the wisest.
(Orion Breen is a proud member of Hour Exchange Portland, a community service exchange of neighbors helping neighbors where everyone and their time is valued equally, no matter their age. Find out more at www.HourExchangePortland.org )