The Aging of Martha’s Vineyard: Discerning aging’s social benefits

The social benefits of an aging community at first glance appear more difficult to identify than aging’s economic implications. When we consider “social” issues, we enter the worlds of narrative and culture. Stories best illustrate social issues. Our past stories create the context for the stories that we are in the midst of living. The culture of a community is defined as our shared beliefs and values, expressed in our shared expectations of behavior. The culture of any community is neither simple nor logical. Emotion, experience, and tradition combine to frame the way that we see and interpret everyday experiences. Bias abounds in this mix, and can cloud objective assessments of relationships. In this realm of culture, our community is getting older. And this aging affects the way we see ourselves and our neighbors.

The development of an age-friendly community reveals its beliefs, values, and expectations of behavior concerning aging. A culture can be negative. For example, if we view aging solely as a diminishment, we can easily devalue the opinions of those who are older. After all, the elderly come from a “different time,” and have “lost a step or two.” “Their strength is gone.” “Their opinions reflect the bias of bygone times.” “Their experience is irrelevant to today.” Widely shared beliefs of this type are those of an age-unfriendly community. In such a milieu, the contributions of an older neighbor are likely to be undervalued and unappreciated, and the social benefits conferred by an aging community rich in experience can be obscured or lost.

The apparent difficulty in defining social benefits belies their importance. Stories can show us where to look for these benefits. Our own stories can demonstrate the benefits of an aging community. Many of us have very positive memories of experiences with a grandparent. Memories of baking cookies at the holidays, going on a special trip, fishing, walking dogs together, going to the beach, or reading books give us personal examples of the positive aspects of family life with an older relative. These recollections show the profound influence an older adult can have on a person’s life. For many of us in our memories of our grandparents, wondrous “benefits” resound. Our grandparents helped us learn skills, shared traditions, nurtured our confidence, introduced us to new ideas, and lived as examples of love. While not everyone has had the blessing of engaged grandparents, everyone has had the informal experience of someone older than them who has taught them something invaluable about life. That guiding relationship of older to younger is one of the most important benefits of an aging society. 

The guiding relationship between older and younger is not limited to families. It can be informal or formal. For decades, formal intergenerational programs have existed in the U.S. These programs generally pair young people with older adults, sometimes with older adults with significant disabilities like Alzheimer’s. Often skills are transferred from young to old rather than the reverse. Surveys of participants of these programs uniformly report that they are highly satisfied. They often cite the emotional benefits of feeling helpful or valued. One example on Martha’s Vineyard is the Y’s intergenerational Elder Tech program. In this program students assist seniors in learning to effectively use modern technology.
Mentoring programs are another formal way in which communities engage the talents of older citizens. Mentoring programs abound on the Island. They range from business advice to mentoring young people with difficult family circumstances. More generally, volunteerism by older adults provides opportunities for people to “give back.” The benefits to the community are large.

Finally, as we age, at some point our capabilities will diminish. Aging, the spiritual writer Richard Rohr notes, is a period of loss. Yet, he points out in his book “Falling Upward,” the losses inherent in aging can refocus life on more essential truths that only those with experience can appreciate. A focus on achievement, often a feature of youth, changes to a more holistic view of a life well-lived. The messages of these later years are messages not just for the old, but for all those who will have the opportunity to grow old. 

This essay is the fifth in a series written by Leon L. Haley, Ph.D., and Robert Laskowski, M.D., on the aging phenomenon on Martha’s Vineyard. Haley is a Professor Emeritus of Public Policy at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Laskowski is a retired geriatrician and healthcare executive. Both writers are active members of Healthy Aging M.V.