It’s 2011. I like to think I’m gaining at least some knowledge and insight as the years go by. I like to think I get better at what I do. I like to think that I’m more patient, better at listening, and have more empathy. But then, I have been accused of thinking too much.

A recent article posted in the New York Times talks about a program in California where medical students are paired with an elder individual in the community as a required part of their training. The program is called the “elder mentor program,” and the goal is for medical students to become more aware of physiological and cognitive changes associated with aging; and to gain insight into how they interact with medical professionals, etc.

At the risk of sounding too cynical, it almost sounds like an anthropology project to me. Since when did elders become a segment of society so removed as to require independent study? I know some elders would say it happened once they became “old” in the eyes of mainstream society; and they would agree that their experience often goes unnoticed. True enough … sadly.

As one who is experienced in aging (both personally — as are you — and professionally) I find it easy sometimes to point out where the gaps are in recognizing and addressing elder issues. I also find myself, from time to time, falling off the other side of the wagon, and believing I know “all about elders” — as if all folks over 60, 70, 80, or 90 are a homogenized group.

Given, in many segments of our population, extended families no longer exist. Families grow, move, follow jobs and dreams, and may end up on opposite coasts, or even in other countries. And acknowledging that in the time-consuming rush of providing for kids, working with them through school and completing career paths, it’s only much later the realization comes: How long has it been since we’ve seen Mom, Dad, grandparents and the rest of the family?

For many people, the only elders known are family members and since each of us is unique, we can’t define a realistic perception of elders based on grandpa and grandma. And what about those far-flung families above who don’t even have that example?

I was asked to speak at a gathering a couple years ago, and I asked the question: How many here today have immediate family in the area? I was surprised that no one raised their hand. (I’d expected the majority didn’t, but all?)

Understandably, in the aforementioned rush of family responsibilities, it’s very easy to spend most of our time around those most like us — be it related to our own age, profession or social activity. Somehow, though, people have always been able to do both — work, play and interact with various age groups.

On the one hand, it’s kind of disappointing that we have to invent ways to become familiar with any segment of our communities. On the other hand, if we’ve lost the connection, we need to get it back somehow.

Are we missing something?

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