For years we worried about Joe Biden being the oldest person to be sworn into office, and now we’re gushing with surprise over the wisdom, humility, expertise, and even-temperedness with which he’s handling his impeded transition to power—qualities that people who’ve watched him a long time say he didn’t used to have.

Maybe we’re the ones who now need to grow up.

At the very least, we ought to recognize what hypocrites we’ve been. As we’ve searched our souls trying to become more aware of racial and sexual prejudices, we’ve gone right ahead bashing people because of their age. We sometimes even seem to boast as we do this, as though our frustration with diminished capabilities speaks to our own vigor and the value we place on freshness, ingenuity, and round-the-clock work.

We’re careful not to insult young people by assuming their pronouns, but we regularly assume that old people aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

A certain amount of decline is obviously inevitable with age. But it’s not the whole story. Medicine is enabling people to live not only longer but healthier. And according to brain researchers, the longer the brain stays actively engaged in work, family, and social life, the more it continues to grow. “Just being old doesn’t make you wise,” said Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, a leading neurologist at New York University’s School of Medicine. “But if you’re intelligent and life has dealt you a wide array of experiences, good and bad, then you stand a good chance of developing some degree of wisdom—a peace with yourself, the capacity to integrate many thoughts, the ability to keep a distance from events of the moment and take a longer view.”

We’re careful not to insult young people by assuming their pronouns, but we regularly assume that old people aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

Though Biden’s personal losses have been more severe than most people’s, no one reaches the age of 70 or 80 without some share of suffering. The fact that older people aren’t in bed with the covers pulled over their head speaks to their resilience. Plus, they’ve put in time. Only time can heal a broken bone, and only time—decades of time—can build the track record, reputation, and credibility of a Biden, Pelosi, or Fauci. Young people might complain about there being too many old people on the scene, but they’re the first to call for a diversity of perspectives (and seem to respect their Bernie all the more for fighting the same fight since 1971).

We need the crystalline vision of Greta Thunberg but also the experience (not to mention grace in the wake of election defeat) of 72-year-old Al Gore, who has spent decades working with government and business leaders to reduce global carbon emissions. We need the indefatigable energy of young E.R. doctors but also the perspective of Craig Smith, 72, the head of surgery at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, whose blog during the coronavirus outbreak has inspired medical workers across the country to keep going through their darkest days. Only Yitzhak Rabin, who at 45 led Israel to its victory in the Six-Day War, had the credibility with his countrymen to get as far as he did with Yasser Arafat during peace negotiations. And Queen Elizabeth’s widely viewed message at the start of the pandemic reassuring her subjects and the world that “better days will return” had all the more power because she lived through the Blitz.

I’m falling apart too quickly myself to propose anything like a cheery ode to the glories of aging. So much of it is painful. Many heartbreaking illnesses can’t be avoided. And plenty of people do become more firmly and dangerously entrenched in their ways. Maybe, to paraphrase Michelle Obama’s comment on power, aging doesn’t change who a person is but reveals more of who they really are. Valuable gains can come alongside the losses of hearing, vision, short-term memory recall, muscle tone, you name it. We should stop being so surprised. If we come to expect and seek out wisdom, humility, and enriched perspective from our elders, we might be more likely to find it at a time when we can use all the help we can get.

Lisa Wolfe is a New Yorkbased writer