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* Ho Hum
Vermont 's Long
Trail? Can people my age learn to
kayak or scuba dive? I already know
I won't ever run the Boston Marathon…When I used to think about what qualified
old age I followed the saying, "old" is ten years older than your parents. This saying works well enough for a few
decades, until you hit the point that you realize that your own parents are old, or maybe only one is left...or
neither, and then you realize that being old yourself is much nearer at
* Why Bring That
Part of our fear and resistance to aging comes from norms
promoted in our society. Everywhere
we look we see people pressured to maintain a youthful appearance. It's one thing to exercise regularly,
eat sensibly, and keep our minds active.
It's another to have our appearance surgically altered to minimize
wrinkles and the natural sagging that occurs over the decades. Do we color our hair for fun and
creative expression, or to mask graying which is natural? Why does anyone think telling someone
she doesn't look her age is a compliment?
Why would we lie about our age?
What's so scary about aging? If aging is part of the human
condition, perhaps there is a way we could move in the direction of cherishing,
even relishing, our twilight years.
Can we look to our UU principles for insight to help us push back against
the pervasive ageism in our society-so that we might not end up trying to run
away from our very selves?
On Christmas every year my husband's family gets together on
Christmas Eve and my side of the family gathers on the day after Christmas. This gives us an open day on Christmas
itself. For the past few years my
spouse has been serving as an active volunteer at an agency that among other
things does Christmas visits to shut-in elders in the Boston area. These are folks who live independently
and below the poverty line.
Volunteers go to a central location and pick up a contact sheet with
directions to an elder's home, which is usually an apartment, along with a hot
turkey dinner in a Styrofoam sectioned tray, a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling
cider, a small gift, perhaps a card made by some child in art class or at a
scout meeting, and a couple of carnations with a fern leaf wrapped in a curl of
clear plastic. Our son and daughter
are grown now but haven't started families of their own, which is why we are
free on Christmas morning-and sometimes they have been able to join us. We split up in pairs, and then we set
out on our mission. We are expected
to arrive sometime between eleven and noon. The idea
is that we will sit and talk with the elder while he or she eats the dinner, and
have a visit. Actually they have
always said that they'll eat it later, and make some excuse. I wonder whether it is just too
undignified to eat Christmas dinner out of a Styrofoam tray in front of a
stranger…. So we usually just sit
sharing the bottle of sparkling cider, and meet each other. These are amazing visits - people are so
forthcoming about how they came to be here in Boston, in their mid-80's perhaps, and living
alone. They reminisce. They talk about the past, sometimes the
very distant past growing up in Mississippi or somewhere. And they usually don't complain about
anything-although as you look around at their surroundings you might wonder how
they can keep from being quite depressed.
Actually, sometimes they do cry a little bit. You wonder why, if they have relatives
like the ones they mention, why isn't someone isn't coming to get this old aunt
or uncle for Christmas dinner? Or
if they are truly shut-in and can't make it through such a gathering, why
doesn't some friend or relative at least bring them some of the more familiar
family dinner, with the special ‘family favorite' dish made every year by a
particular niece or nephew? But
some of these old folks don't even have anyone like that. I remember in one apartment boxes and
boxes were stacked four or five high and three or four deep-making a maze
through which you walked to get to the porch furniture that was all there was
for furnishings. I wondered what
could possibly be in all the boxes-a lifetime of papers, dishes, photographs and
whatnot. It's probably just too
much for this old woman to sort through… a job to be left to an heir or a social
worker…. In the days after these
visits I wonder whether I will ever be in such circumstances where all I can
hope for on Christmas is a visit from strangers with a turkey dinner in a
Styrofoam tray. If that is the
reality for a significant number of elderly, then I don't want to get old
either. No wonder many people
recoil from the idea of aging, as we all hurtle forward through the calendar at
the same rate. But there is no way
to escape growing old, except to die young.
The news a couple of years ago about the struggle the family
of Terry Schiavo went through in the final weeks of her life prompted a lot of
folks to start talking about what they preferred for care in their own final
days, even if it were not an
extreme situation like the one experienced by the Schiavo family. We don't talk much about the final
years, sometimes decades, of our lives.
Many people don't get directly involved in quality of life issues for
their parents until failures demand intervention-problems with driving, keeping
on top of financial affairs, and personal and home hygiene. Other developments are less visible but
ought to be addressed, such as depression arising from decreased social
involvement as friends and relatives die or move away. Could we be more open about sharing our
concerns with each other, whichever side of the generational relationship we
Cultures exist where a vastly higher value is placed on older
members. North American natives
speak with reverence of their elders.
Fijians admonish one another to "listen to the wisdom of the toothless
ones." In France elders are more revered than here in the
States, with much more extensive social service
safety nets. But the basis for this
must run deeper than any entitlement based on their economic productive history,
which seems to be the standard criteria here in the United
States. At a UN assembly on aging three years
ago, the French secretary of state for senior citizens said that "Each
civilization, each culture, builds specific bonds between different generations.
But humanity requires that these bonds be marked by the recognition of the place
occupied by each generation. The social contract that links human beings
commands them to respect those who preceded them and to whom they owe so
much. It is more necessary than
ever to reaffirm the essential solidarity between generations, the basis for all
just and equitable societies."[i] This issue of solidarity and justice is
a reflection of the value of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, no
matter where they are along their lifespan.
What can we do to reinforce this intergenerational solidarity
and change the very negative way that so many people view others in the later
years of their lives? Some of the
keys lie in looking through the lens of our UU principles, beyond the blatantly
obvious first one. In fact, I would
start with the last one-the one that for me addresses much more than ecological
issues-the one that says that we affirm and promote respect for the
interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This web holds within it the sum total
of all human experience, and we limit ourselves by discounting the experience of
people unlike us, including those who lived in an earlier time. How often do we "throw the baby out with
the bathwater" when we avoid receiving advice that is grounded in an era with
different values and resources, the advice of our elders? What a great opportunity such a time
could be to weave and strengthen links between generations, brainstorming
solutions combining ideas of the past with those of the present!
Another area we could attend to better in maintaining our web
is ensuring that our older members continue to be included in our congregational
communities. If we truly affirm and
promote the use of democratic process in our congregations and our communities
we should be sure that our elders are included….Can they get to where the
community is gathered? Can they get
in? Are facilities accessible and
is speaking always amplified so that those with declining hearing can understand
and participate not only in every element of worship but also in meetings? Do we break up the important work of the
parish to include some chunks that can be done by retirees during the
daytime? We need to act as if we
really do value the usefulness and perspectives of those who are no longer at
the height of their professional careers and community visibility.
As we choose the focus point our various congregations'
social justice projects, let's also remember to include the elderly as both
recipients and as participants in this work. For some it seems easier to relate to
investing our time in the very important work of mentoring children and youth,
since this seems an investment in the future, theirs and society's, and work
with elders is certainly not an
investment in the distant future-it is instead a compassionate connection that
brings us closer to one another and helps us learn to know ourselves. Negligence, neglect and isolation of our
elders has a cumulative negative effect on our society, and somewhat normalizes
that experience for the elderly population. In this way we fuel the ageist
perspective of our culture. If we
are affirming and promoting justice, equity, and compassion in human relations
though our service projects, let's include the full spectrum of human
relations. I'd like to have the
chance to get to know older folks so that besides all the reminiscing stories
and the wisdom they wish to share, they can tell us, plain and simple, what it
is like to grow old. The sharing
may lighten and normalize their burden, and may make for fewer disappointing
surprises for us. Some of it might
even be funny or ridiculous and we can laugh together. We expect to learn what we need to from
our doctors and all the health literature that is disseminated in the mail and
newspapers and on television and everywhere. But we don't find everything there.
Protecting and supporting our elders also moves us toward
another of our principles, promoting a goal of world peace with peace, liberty
and justice for all. It is an investment toward a world we
perhaps wouldn't mind being an elder in!
* So What?
So let's think about changing what we do, both as individuals as well as
working within the church or community.
We can start to have a higher consciousness about how we relate
intergenerationally, and can more intentionally set up opportunities for
generations to interact. Generally our Sunday morning format at church actually
segregates young from old, even if for sensible reasons. We do have the occasional
intergenerational event, but perhaps we need more of them, and perhaps we need
to think about who is not able to participate in those events and find another
way to build solidarity with them.
We can look for groups that foster these values to get engaged with in
our political and social justice work outside the church. Once we find ourselves in the "silver" category,
let's ask for whatever we need in order to be able to stay engaged with our
community, serving as trailblazers for others who will eventually come to this
We are all on the journey of life, going at the same speed,
toward the same final destination-although some of us are closer to that
endpoint. How much richer our
experience and how much better prepared we might be if we could tap the insight
of those who are passing the milestones up ahead of us! Let's find ways to increase that
transmission of wisdom. What would you like the world to be like for your own
family elders? What would you like
the world to be like for the elders in our church community and our
neighborhoods? What would you like
your world to be like if you are
lucky enough to grow old? Can we
build that world by then? Let's get
http://www.un.org/ageing/coverage/franceE.htm Statement by H.E. Mme. Paulette Guinchard-Kunstler
, French Secretary of State for Senior Citizens at the U.N. Second World Assembly on Ageing, Madrid,
Spain, 8th-12th April
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association
member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship.
Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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