Elderhood as a Life Stage: The Power of Naming (part I)

 

My Mom, the Nurse Cadet

My Mom, the Nurse Cadet

 

In this first post I look at the power of naming and how we often use and misuse it in the context of challenges presented by aging.  In the second post I will explore a collective means of naming in the context of elder abuse and reporting of it as a kind of naming and identity.

Ageism, like all forms of discrimination, limits the respect and dignity afforded to a group of people and likewise, reflectively, diminishes the same qualities on those persons who are projecting those judgments and limitations onto others.

With great power comes great responsibility.

Voltaire (1694-1778), Spiderman (2002)

Each of us has the power to understand, see, respond to, have compassion for, and be with another person.  The problem is many of us don’t often see it as a “power.”  Sometimes we view compassion as a weakness!  If we think of it – that power – as a way of acting, we often see it in the context of “power over” in the social hierarchical and “currency” context of our interaction, like when someone asks themselves before responding to a person before them “how important is this person to me, to my agenda?”  Another kind of power is the power with others, which can be as simple as a small family unit or a work group agreeing on the desirability of getting a common problem solved or a challenge effectively managed in a way that will work for everyone.   This is where the naming comes in (I know you were starting to wonder)….

Dacher Keltner of UC Berkeley lists one definition of compassion as

the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

We often focus on compassion as including only suffering, but I would submit that compassion also properly includes compassionate joy, the ability to feel and share another’s happiness and joy.  The Buddhists call this “sympathetic joy.”

The power of naming, which contains the secret of our relationship to our world, is not something most of us take the time to ponder.  One of the advantages of conscious Elderhood or second-half-of-life thinking, is that we can take a bigger picture view which doesn’t threaten our position in life.  Still, elderhood presents many challenges for all of us, and it is not always an easy transition from the earliest part of our lives, even if we derive meaning from those three sources identified by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty.  I have referred to Richard Rohr’s book in previous posts, but Falling Upward is worth mentioning again in his approach that the loss of certain things as a gain of others.

Old age –  how we look at these things, who is the problem, what is the problem, whose problem is it, how will the problem be solved or remain unsolved, whether we consider ourselves part of the problem or part of the solution. . .   I think it is safe to say that people aren’t fond of thinking more than is necessary, and that we prefer simple words that are easy to pronounce and understand.

Often we find that as soon as a concept is labeled, it changes how people perceive it.  This is consistent with the linguistic version of the Heisenberg effect of the perceiver on the perceived and vice versa.  This is the outward-looking part of the naming.

Naming and unnaming in the context of Elderhood is in part concerned with the losses sustained as one ages, and invariably many of us focus on those exclusively, ignoring the positive and liberating effects of entering into the second half of life (for those of us embracing that stage), a time of meaning, when we realize that all of our life is our life’s path.  In using our power to name – both ourselves and others, we can often misname and unnamed.  Let’s have a look at a couple examples.

How do we name the losses of aging?  Where do these losses take us?  Is it to a place of grief and mourning or is it to a place of understanding oneself as a person who will die one day, or more likely, a mix of the two.  There are many losses in old age, and many opportunities for grieving.  Do we take the opportunity to grieve and move on, to open to new life or do we hold on to what was and will never be again?

How do we misname the challenging aspects?  Where many people suffer from a chronic disease – such as Parkinson’s or diabetes, the answer to “who am I?” can often change so that a person becomes an embodiment of a disease.  I think nearly all of us bristle at such a prospect or practice.

Stay tuned, in my next installment I’ll explore how we often unname an elder or some other person with dementia.

 ©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org

A Sense of Place and Aging in Place

 

 

 

Isn’t this an amazing Saguaro cactus? A few weeks back I visited Scottsdale Arizona’s McDowell Sonoran Desert Preserve with a friend.  There were many types of cactus and other vegetation, along with plenty of birds.  The saguaro, especially one that gets “giant” status like this one – is truly a survivor of almost impossible odds.  It is nature’s way.  I also saw a couple smaller and younger saguaro cacti which benefitted from a “nurse plant” to a baby saguaro.  These plants or trees shelter the vulnerable saguaro during critical stages of development, and after making the ultimate sacrifice for the saguaro (the nurse plant takes less and less water and nutrients as the saguaro grows bigger and stronger), it stands for years as a tribute to its sacrifice.  Even in a harsh environment such as the desert, there is much cooperation and biological community.

 

On my drive down to Scottsdale, I travelled through the Monument Valley.  Here’s one of my pictures from the Navajo tribal park there.

Monument Valley

The Sentinel

I love this part of the country.  Along the way, I listened to Richard Rohr’s book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.” Watch a YouTube with him here.     It is a wonderful book about aging growing and what we can do with the second half of our lives on a spiritual level.  This is a book about what we can come to understand with our aging, maturity and wisdom – as well as how we can come to terms with mortality and the meaning of our life.  The unprecedented number of people in their 80’s and 90’s has opportunities for meaningful elderhood that few of their forebears enjoyed.  The number will be even bigger as the huge wave of baby boomers gets older.  What will we do with this time in our later years?  Will we continue to enjoy retirement as a long vacation or as a chance to reconnect and engage with our community in meaningful ways?  Each of us has a choice to make about this to the extent we are given this opportunity of what to do with our longevity.

While I was listening to Father Richard (he is a Franciscan priest), I thought about the popular notion of “the bucket list” or some to-do list of things that many people agree they ought to see or visit before they die – as if life experiences, unique and personal – are somehow easily boiled down into some generic list of what a worthwhile human experience is. . . .  . !  Rohr’s chapter on the first half of life is about learning and practicing the rules, being a productive member of society and that sort of thing.  Sadly, many people get stuck there and seeing that there are many others in their company – may think that this place is the only destination.  Hence the “bucket list.”  Who writes their own bucket list – or is it a bucket list because it is agreed upon by a group that it is meaningful?  His reference to falling into the second half of life is a place where a person can be freed from the constraints – internal, external, community.  A journey of free fall that is like a remembering of who we are, what we came here to be and to do.

This reminds me of the lyrics of a favorite Enya song – “Pilgrim” (watch a beautiful video of the Hubbell Deep Field photos with the song as audio here ):

one way leads to diamonds,

one way leads to gold,

another leads you only to everything you’re told….

oh pilgrim it’s a long way to find out who you are.

It is a long journey, but as Father Richard explains and reiterates, the second half  is a beautiful journey of freedom which each of us must discover for ourselves.  I would say it is a pilgrimage of the heart, to remember.  So – where is that physical or emotional or spiritual place for “aging in place”?  Is it in a multigenerational home, is it with the support of or under the care of others, or is it with the “independence” we fancy that we have enjoyed throughout our lives?  That is up to each of us to decide – or not, depending on our own inclination.

 

Perhaps the whole journey of life is as a return from exile, the experience of exile – moving away from the known and its sense of belonging.  Redemption is possible when the way toward home is found, through some place of light, through the illuminated darkness.

Could this aging in place provide the opportunity to move beyond one’s constructed self, the identity of who we have become in our accomplishing phase of the the first half of life?  Might this resulting freedom allow one to consider the wholeness of or our sense of place in the world, to reassess our place in the community?  What about your place in the universe, and in the struggle to wake up?  More on this topic later……

 

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org