Thursday, April 19, 2007

What Elders Are For: A Life-Affirming Vision of Aging

I never thought much about "aging" until I worked for an in-home care agency a few years ago. The job brought me into contact with hundreds of seniors in our community. Before that experience, I hadn't seriously considered the implications of growing old while living in our youth-obsessed, death-denying culture.

As I learned more about the lives, living situations, and health concerns of seniors (and aging into my seventh decade on the planet), I "woke up" to begin looking at possible futures for myself and the boomers coming along slightly behind me in age. That boomer "age wave" will double the number of seniors in the U.S. population to over 71.5 million by the year 2030 (no wonder politicians are afraid to deal with making changes to Social Security and Medicare programs!).

Over the past three years, I've had many conversations with people older than I am (the oldest was a delightful 98-year old woman), read several books on aging, created and delivered many talks on elder concerns, and taught life legacy classes. What I've learned from others and from my own experience of aging (so far) is distilled in this brief look at what is means to be an elder ... to live as an elder today and in the years ahead.

In my reading about elderhood, I came across a vision that Barry Barkan of the Live Oak Institute composed over a quarter century ago as "The Live Oak Definition of an Elder":

An elder is a person
Who is still growing,
Still a learner
Still with potential and
Whose life continues to have within it
Promise for and connection to the future.

An elder is still in pursuit of happiness,
Joy and pleasure
And her or his birthright to these
Remains intact.

Moreover, an elder is a person
Who deserves respect
And honor
And whose work it is
To synthesize wisdom from long life experience
And formulate this into
A legacy for future generations.

It seems to me that this definition of elderhood offers a positive, life-affirming vision for everyone to hold while growing older. For my own life and life legacy work with elders, it serves as a inspiring guide (and a blessing) for our years of living as elders in our society.

In his book, "What Are Old People For? How Elders Will Save the World", Dr. William Thomas talks about elderhood as a time of life that comes after adulthood. He says "elders begin to look at the world and live their lives with a much greater emphasis on being rather than doing. They're much more concerned about relationship, emotion, intrinsic satisfaction. They're no longer obsessed with doing and getting and having. Therefore, they can be a voice in our culture and our society that can help us find our way."

So what are the most important functions -- the most important responsibilities -- of an elder? From my discussions with seniors and my reading on the subject, to serve as an elder you need to relax into being the person you came into the world to be and make a contribution in one or more ways by:

Being fully present with people of all ages who you come into contact with each day (listening with care and responding with respect).

Being a steward of community values and the environment (serving and supporting organizations that contribute to the well-being of people and the planet).

Being a sharer of the wisdom "harvested" from your life experience (telling stories about what really matters, rather than filling the air with advice or more "expert" information).

Being a mentor who listens to the genuine concerns of young people, shares authentically from the heart, and helps awaken to their own inner wisdom.

Being a peacemaker -- first with yourself, with your family, your circle of friends, and in the world.

Being a legacy creator who shares your life experience with others and documents your life legacy to hand down to future generations (sharing life lessons, telling family stories, and speaking with authenticity about "life as you've known it").

The elders I know best have chosen to focus their lives on one or more of these "functions" of elderhood. By the way they live their lives, they demonstrate how living with awareness of being in the world-- listening to the voice of your heart -- can make elderhood a wonderfully creative and meaningful time of life, wrinkles and all!

Dr. Thomas concludes that "as our understanding of elderhood and its rightful place in our society grows, the creation and sharing of legacy will come to be seen as an essential part of late life. This is more than an idle wish. Our society needs these legacies, and day by day, grows less and less able to gain access to them."

We can begin to change the current situation by encouraging elders we know to document their life experiences, family stories, and wisdom gained from their many years of living. In whatever form works best for each individual-- written, audio or video -- ask them to share their life story, what has mattered most in their lives, and what their hopes are for future generations.

Honoring our elders means truly being with them, listening to them with care, and taking their wisdom to heart. And, as each of us ages into our elder years, it means taking time to document and share our own life legacy with our loved ones. When we do, we not only make a difference in their lives, we contribute "the message wherefore I am sent into the world" to the future of society.
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