Human beings of every age need to belong. This is a need so basic that we rarely think about it unless loneliness brings it to our attention. As children, most of us safely belong to our families.
Part of growing into adulthood is widening and deepening our various circles of belonging. We belong to our schools, our social groups and friends (and these days our social media contacts too), our community of co-workers, clubs, churches and neighborhoods. On the upward slope of life's mountain, there is a growing richness and complexity to our belonging, which nourishes us as an essential food.
It is only past midlife that the slope turns downward, and our lifetime of belonging begins to thin out. Children move away. Parents become ill or die. The peak of our career passes, and we edge toward retirement. Friends move or drift away. I think this is part of what used to be called "midlife crisis" -- a marked shift, at first slow but gradually accelerating -- of belonging. This shift is one of the universal losses of aging, and unless we pay attention to it and adjust for it, this loss can have a deleterious effect on our quality of life, our health, our mood and even lead to depression and other serious illness.
In my new book Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser I cite some of the current scientific research about the importance of belonging, and how essential a factor it is for healthy aging. I also introduce the concept of Elderhood, that final "hood" that follows childhood, adulthood and parenthood. In traditional and village societies from time immemorial, elderhood was a time when the community invited its elders into new kind of belonging. In traditional elderhood, elders were the holders of the stories and the histories of the community, the keepers of knowledge about animals and plants and means of survival, the loving companions of young children. Elders had lived through frost and famine and war, and knew how to prevail in the face of disaster.
During the recent tsunami disaster in Malaysia, the populations of some low-lying islands survived only because the elders in those communities knew and remembered the early signs of an impending tidal wave and sounded the alarm to get the people to higher ground. Tsunamis were so rare that none of the younger adults knew the signs, and without the elders' warning would have perished.
In modern post-industrial societies, these traditional roles for elders are vanishing, and elders are left to themselves to discover their own individual ways to regenerate new ways to belong as old ones fade away. This is not an easy task. When I present my book to audiences, people often plaintively tell that they have much to offer, but no one seems inclined to listen. "I have stories," one women said. "A lifetime of them. But I can't get my grandchildren to stop texting and watching their iPads long enough to listen."
Indeed, this is our world now. One of the real fears of growing older is that as our family and social networks fray and our adult children move away to live their own lives, that at some point we will be fated to live out our last years in some institutional setting. And those fears are real. The research indicates that the incidence of clinical depression and depression-related illness is two to three times higher in such facilities than when elders -- even very aged ones -- can still live independently.
We all know that this state of affairs is not right, but what can be done? As I like to say, only half-jokingly, "76 million baby boomers can't be wrong" -- about their aging, that is. The sheer size of that demographic group will force our society to adjust. It will be painful, but in the end there is no choice. Elders need their elderhood, and the larger society needs it, too. A purely youth-oriented, consumer-driven society is neither healthy and sustainable, and one of the deep contributions the baby boomer generation can make is to educate us through their activism and voices that young, middle, and old need to be knit together as one whole cloth for society to prosper and grow.