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Interview: How to Create a Culture That Values the Old


dr. arthur w. frankAs one Lebanese old person involved in the Missing Voices study remarked: "Respect is better than food and drink."

Dr. Arthur W. Frank, Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary, had a heart attack at age 39 and cancer at 40.

The experience changed his life, resulting in three groundbreaking books: At the Will of the Body (reissued in a new edition in 2002), The Wounded Storyteller (1995) and The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine and How to Live (2004).

Recognized nationally and internationally for his work, Dr. Frank has served as a visiting scholar in the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

I reached him in his office at the University of Calgary.

Ruth Dempsey: If we are going to make a good old age for ourselves, middle age is the time to get working on it. Can you tell me some things we can do in middle age to create a culture that values old people?

Arthur Frank: When "elders" are spoken of with respect, it’s because they have accumulated both some stock of wisdom – stories, for example – and they have skills in when and how to share that wisdom to best effect. Becoming such an elder doesn’t happen by itself. As you say, individuals have to begin in middle age. Thus, live an examined life and cultivate sources of wisdom. Read and ponder. Practice making yourself available to others. Think about what others want and need to fulfill their lives. Think critically but not skeptically about the world we share. Be aware but not seduced by what is new.

RD: In one of your early publications, Health Care for the Elderly (University of Calgary Press), you seem to argue that the issues of health care and the elderly can only be resolved by establishing a culture of mutual responsibility. What steps can citizens take to create such a culture?

AF: Part of what remains an issue since that early seminar is the question of resources and the financing of health care. A responsibility that all groups confront – including, for example, illness advocacy groups – is the relation of their demands to the needs of the whole. My specific fear is that, as all groups lobby for all their possible health care needs, the system will collapse.

Canada’s elderly will do worse under any transition to private insurance, because the elderly will be least insurable, or insured only at the highest rates. Thus, the elderly have the greatest interest in preserving the principles of the Canada Health Act. This interest may require accepting certain limits to care, even age limits on some medical interventions.

RD: There’s an old Inuit legend that says, "The Great Spirit must love stories, because the Great Spirit made a lot of people." And in The Renewal of Generosity, you write: "We all must make ourselves good stories for each other." Can you talk to me about how we make ourselves "good stories for each other", as we grow older?

AF: That’s a huge question, and different people will find different ways. I believe one step that affects many people is to live lives that are less saturated by mass media, including all forms of corporate and media branding.

Increasingly, our "stories" are little more than brand names that act as stand-ins for shared experiences, and these so-called experiences are already structured by commercial interests. "Experience" has become an occasion of using some product, as in "your travel experience" or "your dining experience."

I know I’m reasserting an old and well-worn criticism of consumerism and commodity culture, but I see the media saturation of lives becoming more intense. Today, instead of the story you quote, we’ve got: "The Great Spirit must love products, because he made a lot of box stores."

To have stories, you have to live a life that knows itself in acts other than consumption.

RD: How do you think the aging of Canada’s population will impact the stories we tell each other about ourselves and our country?

AF: Older people have longer memories, if they choose to remember, and the memories that engage other people require work. If people could learn to see underlying patterns in situations, they would notice recurrences of those patterns. Then, stories about the past could be told in ways that will be more readily perceived as valuable to living in the present.

As I mentioned previously, the accumulation of years does not make an elder. We become the products of our struggles. That means spending less time with the accessible, the conventional, the ready and easy, and instead spending more time with what requires
particular efforts of engagement.

The stories I think people want to hear are about what has been hard won. Stories about being a fan – a spectator – hold little interest. Stories about being a participant are almost always interesting. Our problem is that the conditions of many lives favor watching – consuming – rather than creating.

The question that middle-aged people need to imagine being responsible for when they are older is: What have you created, out of your own imagination and commitment?