When we're young we often think we know it all. No one can tell us what to do or how to do it. We think we invented having a good time. We believe the world is ours for the taking. We behave like we're invincible.
Someone once told me that at 21 you want the body you had yesterday and the mind you will have in 60 years. To know at 21 what you will know at 81 is a powerful thought. Think of all the mistakes you would avoid, all the decisions you would change and all the people you would cherish rather than take for granted. Even more enticingly, imagine being able to soak up all that wisdom right now from within your own community or family.
The trouble is most of us are far too busy to see, acknowledge, question or listen to the people who have already trodden our path. Yes they faced our dilemmas many years ago, but whilst details may change the fundamental issues of life are timeless. Our older citizens have loved and lost, seen their careers go up and down, had their struggles with finances and accommodation, brought up children and juggled family life, and faced many of the health problems that can still leave us fearful in the 21st century.
Theirs is a knowledge base unlike any other. It provides younger generations with an opportunity to learn about experiences many are yet to have, which in a world that wants everything instantly is surely the ultimate in satisfaction. Rather than embracing this, however, many older people are simply considered a burden to be pensioned off and forgotten about. Not as aesthetically pleasing as their younger counterparts and with the slightest lapse in memory labelled as dementia, there is a belief in society that they should be excluded from working, driving or, as one middle-aged business-owning mum once astonished me by saying, shopping in supermarkets on a Saturday.
I'm in my thirties, but if I am lucky enough to get to my 60's, 70's, 80's and 90's I want you to see me, not my grey hair or my wrinkles. I want you to listen to my stories, learn from my life experiences and not dismiss me as a number, a statistic or a problem that either needs solving, forgetting about or extinguishing. I don't want to feel isolated, hopeless or worthless like so many of our elders do right now, but instead to live in a world that understands and embraces ageing as a positive stage of life.
Perhaps by then we will also have recognised the value of our older generations by giving them a government minister to stand up for their rights and fight their corner. We have a minister for children, and ministers for pretty much everything and everyone else within the UK, but for some reason our growing ageing population isn't afforded their own unique representation within government as the decisions about how the country will be run are taken.
It is almost as if we consider our older people to be immune from the current austerity, and that somehow they live in a bubble of ageing perfection. Or maybe it's just that they aren't really considered at all, which is a frightening prospect when you think that funding the health and care needs of our older people in the future is one of the biggest challenges the UK has ever faced. Meanwhile, many of our elders are being severely affected by shortages in affordable housing, the rising cost of living, losses in pension funds, lack of employment opportunities (for those who still need or want to work), cutbacks in public transport, and the changes in our society that are creating less personal service and interaction.
It is perhaps no wonder that I often read comments from younger people vehemently arguing against getting older. They don't want to lose their money, independence, purpose or standard of living, nor do they want to need care or be the recipient of poor care. For all of us who possess youth rather than experience the time to change this culture is now. We are in a unique position to learn from our elders so that we can look forward to the promise of wisdom in the future, and most importantly to engender a culture that sees older people as an asset, not just a number.