I want to make it clear at the outset that this post is not something I have thought about extensively, nor do I come at the topic from a professional stance. I am neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. Indeed, at times I am uncertain about whether I know anything at all for certain about human behavior — or what any of us knows about it.
What I can say is that I find both people who behave in ways I wouldn’t have expected and ideas about why they behave the way they do very interesting. I like to think about behavior even when in the end all I that I may be able to say is that I am puzzled by it. Humans are social animals. I’m certain about that even though to me human behavior is often puzzeling.
We’re moving into a period when the largest generation we’ve ever had, the so-called baby boomers, will be coming rather rapidly now into its twilight years. The baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1963-4. There’s some disagreement about whether it ends in 1963 or 1964, but we can see that it’s 17-18 years long and that means that a very large number of people in America and in other countries will be growing old together. In 2011 the oldest members of the group reached 65 and began retiring at a rate of about 10,000 people a day on average. By 2028-2030 all 78 million of them will have reached 65 at least. The oldest will be 82-83. As this group grows older by the day the usual issues that come up with elderly people will likely be magnified simply because of the numbers.
We are living longer because we have learned a lot about how to take care of ourselves and we have managed to keep ourselves alive increasingly in ways we don’t seem to understand. People are living longer and the numbers always seem to be larger that we predict. Many are living increasingly to be 100 or more. Medicine is increasingly turning acute disease into chronic disease, and in some cases we are surviving even chronic disease beyond all expectation. We now recover from diseases that might have killed us earlier.
Many take the opportunity to live extended meaningful lives by taking care of themselves, yet others do not always do so and even seem ambivalent about the possible extension on life they’ve been given. Many seem to have trouble dealing with it. They go off by themselves. They may start off trying to have a social life, but it is difficult. They grow lonely and insecure. Time gets away from them. Their sleep patterns change. They may begin to eat irregularly as well. They become dehydrated and malnourished and unless they make an effort to get back into the world, they are in trouble.
Such patterns of behavior ultimately affect their view of the world. They may go off at the slightest provocation. They may feel alienation, confusion, paranoia, hostility. But remember, these people are not serial killers, they are just have confused ideas and motives? They are never quite clear about what they intend to do before they do it, or what they may have done even after they’ve done it. We need to make it easier for them to moderate or reverse these behaviors — we need to help themlimit their reclusive, extreme behavior.
One of the major difficulties may come from allowing people past a certain age to be entirely alone. There should be community mechanisms in place to allow other options. At the very least, people that are alone need to be given opportunities to allow them to interact with others or to rebuild a little social capital when that may be found wanting. Some organized interactions between the old and relatively younger people ought to be possible and likely would even be valuable to the young and well as the old. These activities could involve seeing a movie, a play or simply having dinner and conversation. A light schedule or touch may be best for some elderly, while a fuller schedule of possibilities may be better for others.
In the end, in a world with many problems, one cannot legislate behavior, but it may be possible to lessen some of the burdens of growing old for some while at the same time providing significant learning experiences for the young.