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Older People Contribute Little to Society

Do less-industrialized societies treat the elderly better?

One common belief held by industrialized societies is that cultures found in less developed parts of the world treat their elderly with reverence and respect. But cultures with harsh climates or living conditions actually provide less care for older adults who are disabled or have dementia [source: Holmes]. Treatment of the elderly depends largely on their perceived usefulness to society. In hunter/gatherer cultures, for example, an older or infirm person is more likely to be denied care, even to the point that it hastens death. Elders are more likely to receive life-extending care in agricultural or industrialized societies.

Some people treat older adults like antique autos: They can handle a Sunday drive in the park, but you wouldn't try to get any real work out of them. In other words, they were useful in their prime, but no longer.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. With years of personal skills and professional expertise, older adults are a highly valued volunteer force. Senior Corps, for example, boasts 500,000 members ages 55 and up, meeting community needs that range from mailing newsletters for nonprofits to fostering hard-to-place children [source: Senior Corps]. And older adults who participate in MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnerships advise and encourage high school students in navigating the challenges of school, relationships and career planning.

Older workers can be assets to businesses, too. In surveys, employers have reported that older workers are more reliable and have a stronger work ethic than younger workers. They also take fewer sick days.

And some people blaze history-making trails in later life. American primitivist painter Anna Mary "Grandma" Moses took up the art at age 75 when arthritis made embroidery too difficult. One of her paintings sold for $1.2 million in 2006. And Mary Harris "Mother" Jones hit her stride as a workers' rights activist when she was in her 60s, earning her the title of "the most dangerous woman in America" [source: AFL-CIO].

On the next page, we'll discuss how the generation that sang the '60s anthem "The Times They Are A-changin'" took those words to heart.

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