Today’s blog is the second part of an extended entry about dignity. The previous personal story prompts these additional observations about dignity in our older years.
Like the self-image of the older men in the previous entry’s story, many of us who are older—perhaps any person at any age—can face the loss of dignity in our lives. Today, two major observations: How dignity can diminish as we age, and how we can bestow it on each other.
I think it’s probably true that, wherever we are in the process of aging, any of us can face a perceived diminishment of respect or honor. Where ageism runs strong, older adults can have their dignity taken away by attitudes and actions that demean or diminish their worth. (Think about the narrow-mindedness behind the generational insult, *“OK, Boomer!”) In some cases, the well-intentioned honoring of elders may also hide widespread disregard.
Speaking personally now: As my well-being becomes more-and-more precious, I’ve come to realize that I can’t rely on physical strength and agility, stamina, youthful good looks or excellent health to provide me with feelings of personal worth. My friends are a strong source of worth—but there are fewer of them as the years go on. The dignity that came with my profession is no longer available. Whether taken from me, inadvertently given away or just leaking out—respect and honor have sometimes become elusive in these later years.
Without dignity, my self-perceptions could become self-fulfilling prophecies of diminished capacities, measurable worth and loss of personal power. If I doubt my capabilities, mistrust others’ perceptions or stop trying to be respectable, this gradual loss of dignity will eventually show itself—in my posture, my tone of voice and unnecessary silence.
What can stop this slow decline? In my estimation, I can solve this problem by bestowing on others what dignity they may have lost, refilling or refueling their sense of worthiness: Where I still have positive relationships with others, I work at being a dignity-bringer. I try to make “God loves you for who you are” tangible, reliable and lasting.
To be specific, I offer to others my assurances of their value in the greater good, those special characteristics of older adulthood on which the society depends. I trade stories—not only about the past, when respect came with our earlier roles and responsibilities, but also about the present, when we continue to demonstrate how our older adult gifts are necessary.
Because I’m curious about others, I use questions that help them unspool the richness of their lives, not only as history but as instructions for the present moment. I notice and name older adult character traits—patience, gratitude, wisdom—as worthy. I try to treat other elders as intellectual and spiritual equals. I remember what I have learned from these fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters in the faith. Where it’s helpful, I celebrate others’ milestones and continuing accomplishments.
If I lose my self-respect, that could signal an eventual decline in my overall well-being. I don’t want to yield to that process. Because my spiritual, mental and physical health may also be dependent on the dignity of others, I can hold onto my own self-worth as I bestow dignity on them.
Such is the way of God, whose love for us can be seen in our mutual declaration of each other’s worth.
*For NEXT AVENUE’s thorough critique of intergenerational shaming, see https://www.nextavenue.org/ok-boomer-generational-divide/