Elderquest: Gender Identity in the New Old Age


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By Charles Nicholas, Dee Aguilar and Sarah Quandahl

Elder heroes behave very differently from younger ones: their journeys are often inward rather than outward, backward rather than forward, slow and intentional rather than fast and impetuous. But their actions are just as heroic, if not more so, for the stakes are higher, time is short and the flesh is weak. Victory, and it’s far from guaranteed, is full acceptance and then a willingness to let it go as one helps others to prepare for the ascendancy of the next generation. This is what we call the elderquest—the search for wisdom, connection and integrity in later life, and those who go on this quest are providing us with new and more positive narratives for successful aging.

The boomers, whose first cohort turned 65 in 2006, may be the generation that is suppose to change everything, but they are still unwilling to think about aging. And who can blame them? Most of today’s literature, film and popular culture, as well as its public and private discourse, continue to insist that aging is to be feared (or denied altogether) and that the old can only be pitied or scorned. It is important to engage the elderly and alter their attitude toward their own aging, and more closely approximate the experience of the “new old age” in the process.

Reaching 60 no longer means the immediate onset of inevitable decline and withdrawal for anyone except the seriously ill or the deeply depressed. Advances in medical science, longer life spans and a decline in the birth rate are all scientific and demographic facts. As a result, more and more people are living longer and longer, and this gift of an additional 15, 20 even 25 years of mostly healthy, potentially productive living is really a whole new life stage that precedes and outlasts the final stage (the onset of incapacitating physical and mental decline).

Those extra years do come in old age, but they don’t come at the end. They come during that new gift of years when we are still vital, still curious, still relatively healthy and active, and most importantly, still developing emotionally and intellectually as we search for and begin to develop a broader, deeper and more carefully considered perspective on the meaning and value for all of life.

The elderquest concept provides an imaginative approach for reflecting on the experience of aging—one that is analytical, mentally stimulating and appealing to individuals of many ages as they each travel their own life journey.

The Nebraska Humanities Council, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Nebraska Educational Telecommunications are hosting a free, eight-week program starting on Jan. 28, 2011, that will explore aging in films. Audience members will be able to relate to the film characters and their elderquests, which we hope will compel them to apply themselves to the elderquest concept of wisdom, connection and integrity in later life and provide us all with more positive narratives on the aging process. Films will include “Strangers in Good Company,” “Last Orders,” “Sunday in the Country,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” “Since Otar Left” and “Starting Out in the Evening.” Each week experienced instructors will guide an in-depth discussion of the feature-length film after it is viewed. Those interested in the program can participate from their own homes via a broadband Internet connection or by joining in at one of the congregate sites.


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