Last week I blogged about the connections between aging in place (as part of a community), person centered care and. . . . love, and so here’s the next installment. Aging in place is probably the most desirable “lifestyle choice” for elders because it holds people, even as they age and may become less capable on living without assistance, in their identities. What I mean by this is that as a person ages and may become less “capable” of managing themselves and things on their own, there is a continuity of personhood that is allowed to remain intact by means of remaining in their community of choice (as opposed to a community of necessity).
What’s love got to do with it? Yep, here’s the Tina Turner video to go with that question. But seriously, I think love has a lot to do with our identity, aging and how we maintain our connections with others and cultivate new ones as we age. I have done a blog post about love before, and my “love agenda” as it were was made public in a five-minute Ignite! program I presented back in June 2011 at a Denver Bar Association event (it was called “Letting Love Out of the Closet). So following on the previous post, where I referred to Joan Erickson’s elderhood as the ninth stage of human development and “gerotranscendance,” I wanted to take a look at how love and connections to others between the generations benefits us all.
So here’s the big question: What is the value of old age; or phrased differently – is getting old worth an entire lifetime to attain? Where I part ways with Joan Erickson’s ninth developmental stage is with her focus on doing at the expense of being. Is the focus of our elderhood on continuing on as before, as we have always done, or is there some other wisdom or consciousness element that can be embraced – one that is distinctly part of “being” that is apart from “doing” and “doingness.” If we reach elderhood and we are still stuck in the socio-cultural context of personhood that is focused on the physical aspects of life, capacity to act independently as a rights-bearing individual, and our psychological approach is still focused on the individuality or unconnected autonomy, aging and elderhood is seen as one long series of losses. What is there to be gained from it? If we look at the higher levels of perceptions, the social connections people have in communities and transcendent meaning (moral understanding, meaning in suffering, spiritual beliefs). There are several studies (some of them a bit controversial) about links between religion – especially being part of a religious community and longevity. I am more concerned with the “successful” aging aspect, so I am thinking about Paul Wong’s chapter “Spirituality, Meaning and Successful Aging,” in the 1998 book “The Human Quest for Meaning: A Handbook of Psychological Research and Clinical Applications” at 366.
So what about the tension between the doing and being aspects? I liked what I read in ”Living Your Unlived Life,” by Robert Johnson, a noted author and Jungian analyst, and Jerry Ruhl (Tarcher: 2007). In the fourth chapter of this book, “Learning the Timeless Art of Being,” Johnson examines the art of slowing down as a continuation of answering midlife’s call to “greater wholeness.” Focusing on being means saying no to some of the old ways, which are based on the fear that if we slow down – we’ll just get “run over” (read: rat race continued). Some of the adages that illustrate this come to mind – “don’t just do something, stand there!” (the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland) and “by standing still we overtake those who are running” (from the Upanishads). Johnson describes an exercise in his book (at 75-77) he calls “the doing/being shuffle,” designed to bring focused awareness of being (as opposed to mindless doing) into daily activities. It doesn’t matter how late we come to the practice or art of mindful living, it is always available to us! An important precursor to successful elderhood then is that “middle passage” of midlife between youth and old age. This is where we are met with the choice: will old age be viewed as a series of declines in productivity, usefulness and personal relevance or will it be seen as an opportunity to focus on consciousness, spirituality and social connectedness and relevance to other generations? The latter view places on the shoulders of older persons the assumption of responsibility for preparing the next generation and nurturing them in ways that only elders can. This difficulties of growing up as we grow older and taking responsibility are described by Robert Bly in his 1996 book “The Sibling Society.”
As our culture faces the largest number of elders in history, I think it is worth taking a longer look at what it means to be old, to be an elder, with an eye to restoring and maintain the dignity of life and the mystery of it, including the mystery of love. Why are elders important to younger people? I told someone the other day that I hope to be an old person some day. What are the different meanings of that?!What does it mean to become and elder? Is there any “initiation” for elderhood? What is the nature of today’s intergenerational social contract? I know, that is just too many rhetorical questions! So, I’ll end with a quote – actually “a blessing for old age” by the late John O’Donohue, from his 2008 book “To Bless the Space Between Us” :
May the light of your soul mind you,
May all your worry and anxiousness about becoming old be transfigured,
May you be given a wisdom with the eye of your soul,
to see this beautiful time of harvesting.
May you have the commitment to harvest your life,
to heal what has hurt you, to allow it to come closer to you and become one with you.
May you have great dignity, may you have a sense of how free you are,
And above all may you be given the wonderful gift of meeting the eternal light
and beauty that is within you.
May you be blessed, and may you find a wonderful love in yourself for yourself.
©Barbara Cashman www.DenverElderLaw.org