Isabel Tom on Healthy Perspectives on Aging and Loving the Elderly

Isabel Tom is an author and speaker passionate about serving the older adult population. Between growing up in an intergenerational household and working in the field of aging, Isabel has over 35 years of experience with older adults. She is the author of The Value of Wrinkles: A Young Perspective on How Loving the Old Will Change Your Life and she spoke with us about common views of aging and how to value the elderly in our lives.

There are many things about getting old that seem to scare many of us. What do you think is at the root of those fears?

I’ve heard so many people say they would like to die before they get old. I think deep down there is this belief that the older we get, the less attractive, the less capable, and the less valuable we are. People are less afraid of the actual process of declining and dying and are more afraid that they will be a burden to others. We believe this lie that we have nothing contribute to society as we age. At the heart of it, society has led our older citizens to believe they are worthless and in the way.

You talk about how our society is increasingly sensitive toward racism, sexism, and other social injustices and yet at the same time we’re very much okay with belittling the older generation. Why is our sensitivity so selective?

To be heard, someone needs to speak up. When it comes to social injustice, someone needs to confront us about our negative attitudes towards a certain race or population. This is how we learn that our attitudes are unacceptable or offensive.

The problem when it comes to age is that with time, older adults are weaker and more frail to the point that they may not have a physical voice.

I remember one time when I was visiting an elderly man who was probably in his 90s. He lived in an assisted living home and a hospice nurse had come to visit him. He was known for being one of the most pleasant residents. He was sitting at the dining room table and he was trying to say something, so we pulled up a chair and got close to listen. His voice was very faint. He was mouthing words, but every word that came out was garbled. He was trying to say something, but we could not understand. He literally did not have a voice.

Other times, I believe that as a society we don’t have ears to listen. An older person may say something and we choose not to listen because we’re “too busy” or think an older person is just complaining.

Eventually, older adults get the message that their voice doesn’t matter. This issue is so prevalent that you hear ageist remarks everywhere. It is shameful to be old. And so even older people joke around about how useless they are: “You don’t want to hang out with an old guy like me!” It has become a huge problem.

You’re a Chinese American growing up in a home you shared not only with your parents but also your grandparents. How does that experience help you form a healthy perspective on aging?  

I think I’ve been able to reflect on both Chinese and American culture and observe the good and bad from each.

Because my parents taught us to the respect elders, we didn’t value them less because they were older. They were considered part of our immediate family. I think that part of Asian culture is something that is really positive.

Both “Mama” and “Yeye” (which means paternal grandma and grandpa in Cantonese) were very healthy in their old age.  Aging was physically hard for them, but they were valued, and when you are respected and valued instead of diminished and isolated, that makes a difference.

Yeye lived to 98 and Mama to 102, so grandchildren and great grandchildren surrounded them – especially Mama, because she lived longer. And while I have no scientific data to support it, my family likes to joke that “with each great grand-child Mama had, it added another year to her life.”

When someone is surrounded by family and people who love them as they age, it makes a difference on their entire being.  

When someone is surrounded by family and people who love them as they age, it makes a difference on their entire being.

Having grown up in a household with my grandparents has helped me also gain an accurate picture of what aging truly is like. So often, people have misconceptions about getting older because they have limited exposure to older adults. Maybe their grandparent live far away and they don’t see them often, or their grandparents died early. Or there may be older people in their neighborhood but they don’t know them well. Because I lived with my grandparents, I was front and center to watch my grandparents age for the first 35 years of my life.

What are some examples of what we can do to make the elderly in our lives feel valued?

There are so many different ways to do this. I’m currently doing a series on my podcast where I’m using the five love languages to provide people with a plethora of ideas as to how they can value older adults.

To keep it simple though – if you want the elderly to know they are valued, include them in your life. When people hear my story, they think that they need to live with their grandparents or aging parents to show that they truly love their elders. That’s not true at all. What I say is this: “You don’t have to live with them to love them, but you do need to include them in your life.

Invite them to things. Tell them what’s going on in your life. Listen to their stories and thoughts. Intentionally carve out time regularly to see them. Send them gifts and visit on days other than special holidays. Offer to help them. Find ways to include them in your organization (if this is in the workplace). Find ways to hear their stories and testimonies (if you’re in the church/community). Find ways to involve them in family gatherings. Really any time you spend with them will communicate that you value them.

The Value of Wrinkles is full of this kind of practical advice on how to make the older people in our lives feel valued. Ultimately, the book argues that by “blessing” the elderly, our lives, too, are being “blessed.” What’s the biggest takeaway for all of us?

Having an older person in your life is a gift! We often think that it’s a burden to care for an aging person. It is a lot of work, but when my last living grandparent, Mama, passed, she was 102. I was 35 and I had spent my entire life at that time with her. I had three young kids who were 1, 3, and 5, and I drove them to my sister’s house where Mama lived several times a week to visit and help keep Mama company.

People often made comments about how blessed Mama was to have a family like ours care for her. But when she died, I looked back and in reality, I was the one who felt so honored to get to serve her.

We can use our youth, our energy, our muscle, our minds, to bless the older generation. When we do, what we find is that we’re the ones who are blessed in return. We learn that serving an older person is such a gift.

Learn more about Isabel’s latest release, The Value of Wrinkles: A Young Perspective on How Loving the Old Will Change Your Life.