Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Advantages of Being Older

An older couple arrived last week from the States to help us out as Centre Host & Hostess for the next 6-8 months here on the SIL Centre in Ouaga. Yesterday afternoon, the husband and I sat on the front porch to talk about the experiences of the past week. They are, of course, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by all the new people they’ve met, the new responsibilities they’re learning, and the process of adjusting to a new living situation in a culture very different from their own. At one point in the conversation, he turned to me and asked, “Why would you let an older couple like us come to a place like this to fill the roles you’ve asked us to fill? We’re not so young anymore and the gas tank isn’t as full as it used to be when it comes to energy and stamina.”

I thought for a few seconds before replying. That’s about all it took! Three reasons came to mind almost immediately.

First of all, an older couple has valuable life experience. It’s true that some people grow old and wise... and some just grow old :) But I believe that most older people have learned some lessons in life that will serve them well in relating to others and working together to accomplish a task. Because of their experiences, some good and some hard, they’ve likely learned valuable skills in setting priorities, showing grace, being diplomatic, knowing when to yield and when to stand firm, and understanding different cultural & generational values and practices. Younger people bring energy, passion, and enthusiasm, but still have the hard road of experience to travel, for which there is no substitute.

Secondly, while most older people have less gas in the tank than they used to, they’ve learned techniques and strategies to compensate for their lack of energy and stamina so that they are able to achieve virtually the same results. Running increasingly low on brawn, many have correspondingly learned to use their brains to find ways to do things more efficiently, in ways that require less energy and effort. Whereas most younger folks would simply trust in brute energy, strength, and enthusiasm to run over a problem, older folks are forced to find ways over, under, or around it. Life experience can come in real handy here too.

And finally, older people can often be more motivated in their work and service. Why? Because they know they’ve only got so much time left and they want to make it count. For some, it’s their last chance to make an impact, to make a difference, to make their lives count for something besides keeping up with the Joneses and enjoying a comfortable retirement.

Yeah, I know there’s a downside. Older people tend to be less flexible and adaptable, more set in their ways. Some have simply grown old rather than old & wise, and can thus sometimes do more damage than good, especially in a cross-cultural situation like we have here. But in that case, our location here in Africa may be to our advantage. Only older people who have learned valuable life skills, have learned to compensate for their limitations and weaknesses, and want to spend some of their remaining time to make a difference in the world will have the necessary skills and motivation to get here. The rest will simply stay home. Something to think about, anyway :)

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