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In a few weeks, I will turn 71, so I feel like an expert on what it’s like to be an “older person”—but I learned more than I ever expected as I considered the intention of this United Nations Day.

The UN has set aside this day—the International Day of Older Persons—each year to recognize the needs and challenges of older persons as well as the significant contributions they make to human society.

Last year I celebrated my 70th birthday in Ethiopia where, among other activities, I participated in a 10K race in Addis Ababa. Here in Canada, I run races with many people my age. But in Ethiopia, where the average life expectancy is not quite 66 years, I felt conspicuous not only as a white North American female tourist but also as an older person. 

Everyone was friendly and gracious, and some people made a point of running next to me and greeting me as “Mamacita,” an affectionate phrase meaning “Little Mama.” With no translation necessary, I knew they meant it kindly, even admiringly.

Comparing Canada to Ethiopia may not seem fair, since North Americans generally live longer than sub-Saharan Africans. Fair or not, that is the case. But beyond such national statistics, we find many factors impacting life expectancy within all countries. More localized factors include proximity to health care, access to clean water and basic sanitation, sufficient nourishing food, infrastructure development, family and social support, stability of government, educational opportunities, and ever so much more.

Regardless of life expectancy, in stating the purpose of this day, the United Nations calls for four areas of engagement:

  • Promote the rights enshrined in the Declaration [of Universal Human Rights] and what it means in the daily lives of older persons;
  • Raise the visibility of older people as participating members of society committed to improving the enjoyment of human rights in many areas of life and not just those that affect them immediately;
  • Reflect on progress and challenges in ensuring full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms by older persons; and
  • Engage broad audiences across the world and mobilize people for human rights at all stages of life.

What do these four areas have in common? I will distill them to one core concept: A call to recognize and honor the dignity of all persons throughout their lifetime.

Among the many quotations within the Baha’i writings about the dignity of all people, I especially like Abdu’l-Baha’s words linking dignity with justice:

When perfect justice reigns in every country of the Eastern and Western World, then will the earth become a place of beauty. The dignity and equality of every servant of God will be acknowledged; the ideal of the solidarity of the human race, the true brotherhood of man, will be realized; and the glorious light of the Sun of Truth will illumine the souls of all men. – Paris Talks, p. 156.

Considering specifically the needs of older persons, the Baha’i International Community has written:

… there must be full integration of the aging in the human community, since the community should be an extended family in which everyone, of any age, is an essential part, and not only allowed, but encouraged, to make the fullest possible contribution to the wellbeing of the whole; and that in considering the needs of the aging in the process of development we must take into account the wholeness of the human being the moral and spiritual dimension, besides his emotional, intellectual, and physical nature when discussing the special contributions of older persons to development and their sharing in the resulting benefits. – Baha’i International Community to the first UN World Assembly on Ageing, 1982, Baha’i World, Volume 18, p. 397.

What might this look like within our communities? Here are some fundamental questions to consider:

  • Are older persons considered in selecting locations and timing of events?
  • Are they consulted in program and event planning?
  • Are we genuinely curious about the past and current life of older persons?
  • Do we intentionally honor and benefit from the knowledge and skills older persons may have?
  • Since “ageism” is another form of prejudice, do we look beyond age and see the person instead? Limitations and infirmities do in fact happen at all ages.

This quotation from the Universal House of Justice may seem like an unusual one to include in an essay about “older persons,” but I love the reminder that the community is strengthened through inclusion of people of all ages.

Youth also take part in the life of the Baha’i community as a whole and promote a society in which all generations—elderly, middle-aged, youth, children—are fully integrated and make up an organic whole. – The Universal House of Justice, 10 June 1966, Youth in Every Land.

At my age—at any age, really—I am fortunate to be healthy enough to enjoy fitness activities such as running. But the point isn’t so much about physical fitness as it is about all persons—perhaps most notably older persons—being enabled and supported in doing whatever we can at any age. 

Expressing creativity, contributing to the uplifting of society, continuously learning, helping and guiding others, having daily purpose—the list goes on and on. Thank you, United Nations, for setting aside a day every year to remind us to be mindful of the diverse needs of humans at every stage of life. Truly everyone has the right to live in dignity on this lovely planet we call home.
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  • Oct 05, 2019
    This is such an important discourse. Thank you for such a wonderful and insightful article dear Jaellayna. What is the meaning of your beautiful name?
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Oct 05, 2019
      Thank you for this comment, Kathleen - and also for your curiosity about my name. The short answer: It doesn't mean anything, it's just some letters from other names strung together. There is a longer answer (where those letters came from and why they were selected) but that pretty much sums it up.
  • David Menham
    Oct 03, 2019
    Thanks for sharing. Although officially retired, In practice I don’t aim to retire until I am actually expired.
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Oct 03, 2019
      I like your rhyme (don't aim to return until I expire) - sounds like a rallying cry. Let's keep marching forward!
  • Karen Duncombe
    Oct 01, 2019
    Very enjoyable read. Excellent points. Having an interesting life path myself, I have been able to relate to ‘feeling old’ in body since I was 30. Now that I’m almost 67, I observe my friends experience health issues that are distressing to them. I have a certain feeling of calm, having so many years of learning how to cope. Interestingly enough I’ve noticed two things recently. Only now, do I get a deeper recognition of my physical condition (as it’s more closely aligned to my age ?). But also, I sense much more respect (on sight) that I haven’t really ...earned...other than from gray hair ?. But that counteracts how awful it was when we were young, and afforded very little respect...I’m not looking forward to increasing vulnerability.
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Oct 02, 2019
      Thank you for sharing your own path, Karen. I suspect you've done more to earn respect than just have your hair turn gray. WIshing you well as you continue this journey.
  • Chris Cobb
    Sep 30, 2019
    The elderly and children, to a lesser extent young people, are the main victims of ageism in the West today. The elderly often cannot afford to retire and are discriminated against by employers as their 'peak' earning years dim. Children and young people are similarly taken advantage of by predatory student lenders and other kinds of predation at the expense of the vulnerable. Maybe people under 30 and over 60 should gang up on the Middle Aged- LOL.
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Oct 01, 2019
      You are right about vulnerabilities at both ends of the age-spectrum. The "ganging up" idea sounds like something out of a dystopian book/film. Interesting to think about, even if you are just playing with ideas.
  • Allen Warren
    Sep 30, 2019
    PS Lao Tse means Good Old Boy.
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Oct 01, 2019
      News to me - thanks for the info.
  • Allen Warren
    Sep 30, 2019
    What happens to a society without elders? Look around. Did we elders have Elders? We have AbdulBahá. I'm planning to live another seventy years. So much work to do. I am inspired by your running. I plan to join you today. Baby steps.
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Oct 01, 2019
      Good luck in your next 70 years. And who knows? A bit of running might even help you make it. I'll be cheering you on.
  • Gary Reusche
    Sep 30, 2019
    Nice Jaellayna, older sister. By a couple of years. :) I have one question. Don’t look in the mirror, and answer: “How old do you feel?” I don’t know if it is written in the Writings or not, but I have always believed that the soul is in another time dimension. It doesn’t age like the body. If healthy, and there is no obstruction between the soul and the body, does the soul lose its power over time? I don’t think so. And keep running. :)
    • Jaellayna Palmer
      Sep 30, 2019
      Greetings to you, brother Gary. You are right, we needn't let either the mirror or our years-on-earth define ourselves. As to different time dimensions for soul & for body, hmmm . . . I'm going to have to think about that. You may be right, though we won't know until we get to the next world.