By Marianne Delorey, Ph.D., Executive Director, Colony Retirement Homes
“Any coward can fight a battle when he’s sure of winning; but give me the man who has pluck to fight when he’s sure of losing.” ― George Eliot
According to the dictionary, courage and bravery are synonyms. While they may mean roughly the same thing, I believe they are often used in different contexts. The word brave is often reserved for youthful and impulsive actions. Brave is often used to describe the actions of soldiers or first responders. On the other hand, courage often connotes actions that require maturity and forethought. For instance, people can have the courage to stand up for what is right.
This topic is particularly important to me right now because I have a 16-year-old son who thinks he is being brave when he jumps off a 30-foot ledge into a quarry. He recounted at length how pleased he was with himself one day that he talked someone else into jumping. I shook my head, listening to what many probably would count as peer pressure. Was it really brave to jump? He and his friends point out that it depends on the individual. To some, jumping is a fun rush. To some, jumping requires them to overcome a great deal of fear. I wonder to myself what matters when calling something brave. If running into a burning building is not necessary, is it still brave? Does the outcome matter? If the person running into a building unnecessarily finds a child who by all counts shouldn’t have been there, does the foolhardy action become brave?
Our elders are seldom described as brave. Exceptions exist, of course. After the Fukushima meltdown, 200 elders volunteered to work in the radioactive area to spare the youth from radiation poisoning. Most elderly people do not think of themselves as brave for just continuing on, but sometimes, their perseverance is worthy of noting.
I think about what bravery looks like in the elderly. Here is what I believe:
- Courage is taking your first shower alone after a bad fall.
- Pluck is packing up your whole house and moving to a new place where you will have to start over again.
- Spunk is being able to throw out those family heirlooms that you never liked anyway.
- Brave is being willing to take your next breath when your partner of 50 years has just taken their last one.
- Nerve is telling your opinionated child that YOU will be the one to decide when it is time to stop driving.
- Fearlessness is asking your doctor to test you for memory loss.
- Boldness is finding a reason to laugh even when everything hurts.
- Heroic is watching every last sibling and neighbor die before you and still being willing to engage in life.
It is a shame that thoughts of bravery are often focused on youth. It strikes me that you need to be even more courageous to age. People who grow old need all the spunk they can get to conquer the aches and pains of aging. And they certainly need the pluck to manage a society that was not built with them in mind.