Your poignant editorial Tuesday prompts me to augment your advice to readers with an important reminder to people older than 50, of the personal health benefits of accepting other points of view, and — as you urged — to act with compassion and empathy to right the wrongs we see, hear and feel.
We face constant reminders that Vermont has one of the oldest populations in the country. Yet I wonder how many of us older than 50, regardless of where we live, realize persistent refusal or fear of expanding our emotional, intellectual and physical capacities to understand and empathize, is among the chief causes and symptoms of various systemic diseases, among them, early-onset dementia.
Every year, there are reputable scientific studies published that provide alarming evidence of the deleterious effects of segregation, disengagement, isolation and loneliness on our overall health, regardless of age. These challenges hurt the brain health of seniors more than any other population, even before COVID-19 created the physical barriers we all must observe, and the emotional stressors those barriers have exacerbated.
To seek out and embrace differences of opinion, to revel in the opportunity to learn new things — even those that challenge and take us outside our comfort zones — can contribute to the brain’s capacity to fire off beneficial new neurons. It, indeed, is a privilege to expand our circle of friends and associates, and it is a privilege to meet, engage and understand those who don’t look like us, don’t think like us, and don’t act like us. Add to those, the privilege of civil debate, as letter writer Courtney Mattison noted, a profound contrast to the catastrophic violence that caused loss of life and desecration of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. We need to hold sacred the privileges that many in other countries do not have, as the events of the past year have proven there are those in our own country who have been denied these privileges as well.
As we age, the privileges of expanding our world view become even more precious, evolving into urgent self-care responsibilities, as essential as watching our weight, exercising regularly, monitoring our blood pressure, and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels. At the 55-plus gated community in north Jersey where my husband and I have a condo, most of my neighbors are retired from careers in academia, law, medicine or business, and they are avid participants in activities at the complex’s fitness center and clubhouse. During the past four years, however, they have engaged in such inflammatory and alienating arguments on the community’s Facebook page, that I all but take bets on someone duking it out — or worse, suffering a needless stroke or heart failure. It’s become so ridiculous that some residents decide where to go to for breakfast according to whether they’ll encounter a neighbor there who recently lambasted them on social media!
Obviously, no community is immune to neighborhood disagreements, unacceptable behavior or dangerous conflicts, and there have been plenty of examples in Rutland, as evidenced by front-page stories in the Herald during the past year. In this new year, may we all follow your editorial’s recommendation to act with compassion and empathy, to right the wrongs we see, hear and feel. And may those of us who are more “wizened,” do our best to exemplify the behavior we hope to inculcate and see among our young people. None of us wants to be afraid of what could happen next — in our government buildings, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces or in our own homes.
Liz D. Weinmann lives in Rutland.