Aged To Perfection

Saturday May. 1st, 2010

Robert Worobec

Most of us spend little time wondering how old we’ll get to be someday. It’s enough just keeping up with our daily routines. Yet aging is a very real part of our lives and one that deserves some attention if we expect the most from it.

Aging is not a very popular topic in America these days. Our fixation on a culture of youth, nourished by media and advertising, devalues wisdom and hard-won maturity. The so-called Baby Boomers are partly to blame, with our “not me” denials when faced with our changing bodies and altered internal rhythms.

But a movement is emerging to reclaim the concept of aging. Think not “elderly” but rather “elders.” Many world cultures have always revered the longest living members of their tribes as those who have garnered the maximum leadership abilities. It’s primarily our Western culture of immediate gratification that’s thrown the elder out with the bath water.  Hawaii with its diverse population that includes many Pacific Rim cultures is one of the few places in the U.S. that celebrates and reveres their elders as still having value and includes them as part of daily life.

Back here on the mainland we tend to hide our seniors away in “assisted care facilities.” I notice they’ve finally stopped calling them “rest homes,” an oxymoron if there ever was one. A few years back, our musical quartet performed at one of these homes in Wyoming. One of the audience members was a captivating woman in her 90’s named Ginger. She was enthusiastic, upbeat and positive. We were invited to her room afterwards to view her creations, wonderfully intricate bouquets of miniature flowers, entirely formed from the smallest glass beads of every imaginable color. They were the perfect reflection of this interested and interesting woman.

Yet no matter how lovely her environment and varied her activities, Ginger was still lonely. She desired us to see her as the whole person she had become by showing us pictures of her early years on the East coast, including her love of music and theatre. The human spirit craves connection and recognition. Her story becomes our story as it is expressed and shared.

It’s the great continuing story of life, isn’t it? Think “Circle of Life” from The Lion King or the Joni Mitchell song “The Circle Game.” Or how about those gigantic wall tapestries from the Renaissance that showed epic tales of bravery? As soon as we see life as just a series of separate, immediate moments, we lose the connecting thread that is weaving the great big picture of the complete story of our life.

Lots of fear surrounds the aging process. Much of it has to do with altered bodily functions, including mental faculties like memory. Loss of control is a big issue. Having someone else help us with our physical needs is a very humbling process. We grit our teeth and say, “not me.” But much wisdom can be gained by both givers and receivers when we share those moments.

I believe there’s a way to prepare for our own advancing years. It involves embracing those already in this inevitable process. And really, aren’t we all in this process from the moment we’re born? I’ve worked with produce (fruits and veggies) since I was a teenager, and I always remember a funny slogan my first boss taught me about produce that applies to aging. He said, “This stuff is dying from the moment it is first harvested. Our job is to sell it before it completely dies.”

So instead of shutting our elders out of sight in the care of underpaid, oftentimes unsympathetic strangers, we need to extend our reach and discover each person’s “through line.” That’s a theatrical term that answers questions about the character an actor is portraying. Where has he been and where is he going? This is the true gold of a person’s life, each one’s unique story. Only by knowing a person’s complete history do you receive the full value of the gift each has to impart: the wisdom of our elders.

But how do we overcome our own fear of aging? I think the solution begins simply and naturally. Keep and make friends of all ages.  Just as you often hear how important it is to have some kind of interaction with children in your life to remind you of what it is to be young, I think having a friend, and not just a relative, who is an elder in your life is equally important.

It’s actually pretty easy. Listen to their stories with attentiveness and interest. Have patience with their memory loss or changing bodily functions.  A little humor can help here!  My older brother who is confined to a wheelchair due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease got quite a kick out of me saying to him, “Please, don’t get up.” Humor goes a long way to dispel feelings of inadequacy or being somehow different from the rest of society. Our goal is remembering we are all one and the same, part of the same cloth, no matter the chronological age or physical condition.

Probably the most natural thing to do, which somehow we’ve come to believe is difficult, is to simply give of yourself and your time. Little things can mean a lot. A note or cartoon popped in the mail. A regular phone call. Just hanging out together listening to music. I’m always pleasantly gratified by the opportunity for deeper reflection that spending time this way provides. Some profound revelations of the human spirit can emerge from crossword puzzles worked side by side, something I love to do with my 90 year old mom.

So choose two role models. The first is someone older than yourself who is the kind of elder you would someday like to be. The second is the kind of listening, patient, funny and caring friend to elders that you would like to be right now. The eventual merging of these two ideals within you will create the proverbial new wine in old bottles. And perfectly aged, of course!