“When Old Monk reaches for her pen,
a moment of shock.
Whose hands are these, she asks?
Deep blue veins rise to the surface, prominent
against rice paper skin, cracked like desert clay.
Only one thing left to do.
Old Monk puts pen to paper and waits.
Maybe today words will flow.
Maybe not…. Tomorrow she will begin again.”
~Han-shan, a 9th century Chinese poet and recluse
Recently, I was approached by members of our church to facilitate a Conscious Aging Group. I am happy to do so. I certainly have worked with a number of older (than me) people in my psychotherapy practice and in the congregations that I have served. I have lots of ideas, but I feel that before I begin this journey with members of our congregation, it wouldn’t hurt to do a little work on my own feelings about aging.
So, I got online and started looking for resources to help me in my own personal work about aging. The website http://www.noetic.org/education/conscious-aging/ provides training for Conscious Aging Facilitators. The Center for Conscious Eldering, http://www.centerforconsciouseldering.com/content/conscious-aging-resources provides “a 6-8 day retreat [on how to be a person who chooses Conscious Elderhood] at Centers set amid stunning natural beauty” (sounds expensive). I do not think I am an elder yet, and I’m not interested in learning to be a trained facilitator, at least until I sorted out my own feelings about aging first.
So I visited http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/. There are a number of options there as well. The one I chose was The Blessings of Aging, with Benedictine nun, author, and speaker, Sister Joan Chittister. As I began this journey, I had to face my own fear of growing old. And Sister Chittister’s second session jumps right into that issue. She presents both the research that might help with the irrational fears many of us have about aging and explores some of the inner processes that we all go through as we age.
I have to admit that I am afraid of how I will die. I don’t want to be in a great deal of pain, which I think is reasonable and fairly common fear. What I hadn’t really addressed internally is the fear of diminishing, deteriorating, becoming dependent, and perhaps even becoming socially invisible. Now in my mid-50’s I have experienced some of the physical and psychological changes of aging. I can’t run 6 miles a day four or five times a week without pain in my feet, my knee, my back, etc. I can’t move large heavy boxes, like I recently did when I moved, without something twinging in my back or shoulders. I wake up needing to intentionally stretch my body before exerting myself physically, and by “exerting” I mean getting out of bed. What happens when I am in my 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s? I know that people in my demographic are living longer and longer, and looking pretty good and getting around pretty well. I wonder what I will be like.
This fear of diminishing acumen and abilities is normal and natural for people in the later stages of life. Sister Chittister suggests that we all have fears as we go through life. Young people fear being left alone to deal with the world. People in the middle stages of life fear failure, despite their resources and experiences. Acknowledging one’s fears is the best way to cope with them for then we can decide what we are going to do. Will we allow fear to paralyze us, so that we don’t get out of bed for fear of aches or pains, or limitations? Or will we change to embrace each new day with eager anticipation, with curiosity and wonder. Current research suggests that right now only 25% of people over 85 need personal care; we are probably not going to be bed ridden for the many years leading up to our eventual death.
So what do you do when you discover you are a little older than you might have realized? Can you say to yourself that life doesn’t end until it ends? At 60, 70, 80, or 90 are you ready for new beginnings? How will you enrich your life now? I have come to realize that at least a couple “young-hearted” people (who are older than me) in my church family have taken up roller skating—and not just hanging on to the rail as they go around a rink, but freestyling and doing spins. Treasure your time. Use it wisely. Do new things, learn new things, attend to your inner self. You have the potential to be a great Elder. Consider how you can enrich your life and the lives of others as you age. Sister Chittister says, “The world needs spiritual models of later life for the sake of those to come.”
I am beginning my journey now. Will I finally learn how to play a musical instrument? I have procrastinated doing this all my life up to now. What else will I plan for as I age? And how will I enrich others as I keep getting older? Good questions. Whatever I end up doing, I plan to “adventure boldly and explore.” In the immortal words of Timbuk3, “the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades.”