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Embracing Our Aging

* 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 hand.

* Why Bring That Up?

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?

* For Instance!

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 stand on?

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 United 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 same stage.

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 started.  Amen.

[i]  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 2002

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