I recently read a 2017 qualitative study that involved 1849 women over the age of fifty who shared their views on aging. One of the findings that stood out for me was that all of the participants claimed they “still felt young on the inside and often experienced shock when they looked in the mirror and saw the reflection of an older woman.” At the same time, many of these women expressed frustration because their “intelligence, experience, and wisdom gained from [their] vast experience was no longer a valued commodity by corporate America or by the young.” Others expressed the desire to feel valued and needed as they aged.
As I thought about the insights women in the 2017 study shared, I wondered how the world would react if a hidden civilization of time travelers were discovered. I can imagine that corporate leaders and younger workers would be filled with questions about observations from the past, present, and future. I have no doubt that such a civilization would be viewed as a world treasure.
Sometimes, I think of aging as an opportunity to travel through time. In many respects, we don’t change on the inside, but our bodies – our traveling suits—get worn as we continue our journey. We may do what we can to preserve our bodies and to keep traveling, but we know that we will not be able to survive forever. We also know that we have accumulated vast treasures from our travels that many of us are ready to share. But when others look at us and see our worn suits – the ones we need for survival—they might as well be seeing alien creatures from outer space. As the older ones, we need to find ways to communicate with those who need what we have; but it will take a great deal of effort on our part.
One of the beautiful treasures we can offer is our growing ability to see patterns. We may not be able to process information as quickly as we once did, but we can see relationships and draw on our experience to recognize “the bigger picture.” As neuroscientist and author, Daniel Levitin explains, “In general, older people have acquired more information and experienced more just because they’ve lived longer. That leads to an increased ability to extract patterns—to see similarities in circumstances and situations—which can lead to better decision-making and better problem-solving.
Part of our ability to make connections and see similarities in different situations can also be useful in predicting future outcomes. In other words, businesses, educational institutions, and other organizations could potentially avoid some costly mistakes or falling into the “re-inventing the wheel” trap by engaging qualified older adults to work as consultants and to participate in decision-making teams. Paraphrasing a Farmer’s Insurance advertisement, “We know a few things because we’ve seen a few things.”