Let it be known, I don’t feel sorry for older adults.
I do, however, respect older adults. I admire older adults. And I learn from older adults. But as for being sympathetic to people just because they are old? Nope. To the contrary, I believe older adults should be congratulated for their longevity and for making the most of this extraordinary accomplishment.
To put an even finer point on this perspective, I empathize with older adults. With respect to older adults I recommend that “sympathy” and “empathy” not be used so indiscriminately and interchangeably. Though the meanings for both are profound, literally, there is a difference. Webster’s defines sympathy as “sameness of feeling” and empathy as “ability to share another’s emotions, thoughts or feelings.”
Whether it is the original intent, “sympathy” has become synonymous with condolence. Whereas, “empathy” conveys an inherent sensitivity or appreciation for one’s circumstances. The subtlety of this differentiation is particularly evident with respect to aging and older adults.
To show sympathy – in word, attitude or action – marginalizes the accomplishment of longevity. You might as well say, Sorry for your loss … of years, independence, health, memory, mobility and life — sooner than later. Instead of enabling a “Woe is me” mentality; isn’t it more productive to encourage personal accountability. To empathize, conversely, is to show older adults that you recognize the value of their accumulated years of experience, resources and potential.
Older adults certainly are not pathetic and aging certainly is not pitiful. There’s no need to feel sorry for, or even sympathetic toward older adults, especially those who live healthy, purposeful lives. A chorus of “Longevity Rules!” is more appropriate.
Stuart Greenbaum is lead author of the blog Humble Sky and president of Greenbaum Public Relations. He serves as a gubernatorial appointee to the California Commission on Aging.