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Gerontologist Enumerates His Responsibilities for Old Age

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

This week’s question is, “Who is responsible for me in my old age?”  The phrase is the title of a book edited by the late geriatrician and Pulitzer Prize winner Dr. Robert N. Butler and Kenzo Kikuni (Springer, 1993) based on a symposium with the same title.

The first section of the book is entitled “Individual Responsibility: My Good Old Age” and begins with a brief article by James. E. Birren, founder, former dean and professor emeritus of the Andrus Gerontology Center, USC.

Dr. Birren writes about “Fifteen Commandments for Responsible Old Age,” which he deemed as his responsibilities for his later years.  Here are portions of each commandment with a commentary.

  • Honor our children and all children and foster their growth.  The key is to remain close to our children without hovering or becoming an obstacle to their maturity and growth.
  • Leave the land and its people better than we found them.  Although written more than 10 years ago, honoring and caring for the environment is a mainstay of the green movement and growing business enterprises.
  • Avoid becoming bitter if overlooked by the passing young (people) and events of time.  Memories tend to be short in acknowledging the contributions of previous leaders.
  • Seek information and learning, and avoid dogmatic positions and postures.  Learning is a lifelong endeavor.  Birren suggests we can be a source of information for solving or moderating life’s problems.
  • Do no avoid risking face in attempting new learning.  Birren goes so far as to volunteer as a research subject in cooperating with scientists and scholars in their mission.
  • Foster physical and mental health and avoid excesses that deplete our body and mind, making us vulnerable to illnesses requiring treatment and care that can drain resources for others.  Taking care of our physical and mental health is a personal obligation and a responsibility to society.
  • If poor health should occur, cushion its impact so that it does not weigh unduly on others. Birren suggests that we prepare for poor health which may take the form of insurance, having financial resources and personal support that is not a burden.
  • Manage prudently and with affection relationships with others.  This extends to the showing fairness in the passing of possessions.
  • Initiate the expression of caring and love for others and not blame or rage against others for their inability to control the impossible.  Love, understanding, flexibility and forgiveness count.
  • Use the experience of many years to attain fairness and justice for others. Experience can become a tool to create a just society, community and family.
  • Promote the beauty and appreciation of nature and of human arts. The enjoyment is not only for ourselves.  We need to share our passion and knowledge to ensure that others also can also appreciate the beauty.
  • Continue to tend the garden of life, remove yesterday’s faded flowers and dead branches and foster new growth.  A beautiful and graphic metaphor that applies to each of us.
  • Anticipate death with provisions for the use of our body parts by others.  This is a personal decision that can provide the gift of life for others.
  • Prepare ourselves and others for our death.  Greet passing with poise, dignity and peace.  Advanced planning is a given.  Dealing with unfinished business and creating a legacy are part of the preparation.
  • Plant the seeds that will bloom for others in springs we will never see.  This may be the ultimate purpose in life.

Gerald W. Johnson, (1890-1980), journalist, author and historian wrote, “No man was ever endowed with a right without being at the same time saddled with a responsibility,” How true.

Birren shared guidance about what he perceives as his responsibilities.  Let’s think about them for ourselves.   Have a wonderful 2011.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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