Senior Citizens as a Resource

Interviewing 81-year old, Ralph Thacker, for my latest WhatcomTalk.com article reminded me of the incredible, often overlooked, resource that our senior citizens can be.

Mr. Thacker retired in his 70’s and eventually moved to a city where he knew no one. But what he did after that may, to some, be his greatest achievement. He followed his whimsy, because retirement afforded it. He researched the history of Fairhaven, WA’s founder, Dirty Dan Harris, a task no one had yet undertaken. Then he took another step: he shared that information outside of himself. He could have just made his discoveries for his own sake, but he chose not to. Because he took his hobby so seriously, I, and future generations, will benefit from his obsessive toil. What he found will not be lost in the dusty files of the public record.

Dirty Dan Harris boat Ralph ThackerI just finished reading a book about the Ancient Pueblo Peoples, the Anasazi–In Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts. The Anasazi date from around 1 to 1300 A.D. and much of the details of their civilization have been left to the modern day interpretation of ancient clues they left in deserts of the Southwest. Piles of rocks, fragments of pottery, flint arrow heads, petroglyphs, and ropes of human hair are all that we have to help us guess how they lived and what they thought.

Thacker is like the Wetherill brothers, the ranchers who stumbled across Anasazi ruins in their own back yard. They are both a kind of archaeologist, hunting for and piecing together the tiniest of clues that together paint a broader picture of another time. The Wetherills sent their finds to museums. Thacker made his into a modern day museum, a web site.

Without the tireless effort of these hobbyists–amateur historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists–a fountain of information would be sitting, inaccessible in a metaphorical cave in the desert for hundreds of years.

Granted, there are plenty of my elders whose opinions with which I cannot agree, despite their greater experience. But what a resource our senior citizens are. Their perspective, the “data” they’ve collected simply by being alive during a time and in a place we could not witness.

My book club has recently read books about World War I and II, noting sadly that we are approaching a time when those that lived it will no longer be with us. Let us not lose the wisdom of their experience, their direct observation, their mistakes. Let us not force future generations to hypothesize about what we did or why.

Is it our nature to undervalue the experience of our elders? As if we cannot honor our own wisdom without valuing it above others. Is it latent rebellion? Or is it the shame we’ve felt when past generations have made grave mistakes? I myself roll forward at such a pace that I am guilty of not taking the time to sit and listen to the disheveled stories of the seniors around me. But their oral history, their sometimes hidden wisdom, is a great resource that we overlook every day.

I want to hear from a witness what it felt like to be a woman who was not allowed to vote  or a black man who could not own property, just as I want my children to grasp what it was like for others to grow up in a land without clean drinking water, without a computer, and no access to a cell phone.

Despite the downfalls and overwhelming nature of the information age, I am inspired to know that the hard won wisdom of generations does not need to be lost when we die. The task of future archaeologists and historians will be deciphering the wisdom buried deep within the noise.

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