NEW YORK—He sat in front of his television, flustered and unable to figure out how to use his 42-button remote control, even though his son had written directions for him.
It no longer mattered that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond knew how to use a slide ruler to solve logarithms.
“I, at age 75, am incompetent at skills essential for the everyday American life,” Diamond joked.
Although he may not know how to work his television, Diamond is a celebrated expert in multiple fields including geography, ornithology, ecology, and environmental history. He is most well known as the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
His latest book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? explores the ways in which tribal societies handle some of the issues that are now growing in the United States.
Diamond spoke about his chapter on elderly care at The New School on Jan. 7.
Diamond does not recommend that modern societies return to hunting and gathering; instead, he advocates that there is much to learn from the traditional society’s treatment and view of retirees.
Most of our current voters or leaders have no personal experiences of those things, but millions of older Americans do.
—Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and scientist
Problems such as nursing home treatment and Social Security funds are growing issues in the United States, especially since the elderly population is estimated to grow at an even faster rate than it has in the past.
In 1860, one-half of the American population was under age 20; in 1994, one-half was age 34 or older, according to the United States Census Bureau.
In 2000, there were 34,991,753 Americans above the age of 65—12.4 percent of the population. Ten years later, the number increased to 40,267,984, or 13 percent of the population.
The projected population of people 65 and older in 2050 is 88.5 million, which will comprise 20 percent of the population of the United States.
As people focus on how to best facilitate the aging process, Diamond argues that one should not forget that the older population still has an invaluable contribution to make to society.
Diamond believes that there should not be a formal retirement process. Just as the elderly in tribal communities do not stop babysitting their grandchildren, making tools, or picking food because they have reached a certain age; the elderly in modern societies should continue to offer their insight in work environments and at home.
“I’ve seen so [much] value in my friends in their 60s, 70s, 80s who are still active as farmers, lawyers, and surgeons,” Diamond said.
According to Diamond, older people are better at synthesizing information and experience, providing a particular type of insight that cannot be found in books or on Google.
The wisdom gained from the personal experience of living through events such as World War II and the Great Depression cannot be learned from secondary sources alone.
“Most of our current voters or leaders have no personal experiences of those things, but millions of older Americans do,” Diamond said. “Unfortunately, all of those horrible situations could come back. Even if they don’t come back, we have to be able to plan on the basis of the experience of what they were like.”
Diamond spent decades conducting research in tribal societies such as that of the Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, the Pacific Islands, and others. He refers to such tribal societies, or small societies who still live mainly on hunting and gathering or farming, as traditional societies.
In his years of interaction with tribal people the story of one particular elderly woman sticks out in his mind.
In 1976, Diamond visited Rennell Island, a remote Polynesian island in the South Pacific Ocean. He met an old woman in her 80s who was blind and could not walk. The islanders’ chances of surviving a natural disaster relied heavily on the experience of that one woman.
In 1910, when the woman was a teenager, a cyclone hit the island and destroyed most of its produce. The population survived by eating certain species of wild fruit that were normally deemed inedible.
“If another big cyclone was to hit Rennell Island, the only thing that would save the inhabitants of the island from starving to death would be the memories of that old woman,” Diamond said. “She was the only person alive who could remember what fruits that were normally considered inedible would be safe to eat when nothing else was available.”
Although many things can be easily looked up in modern society via the Internet or books, there is value in knowledge that comes from personal experience rather than the World Wide Web.
Old people should not be left to play bingo among themselves in retirement homes, but they should be out and about sharing their memories, as they are the keepers of little facts such as which exotic fruit tree is edible or how to get the best meat during a food ration. We never know when such information might prove useful one day.
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