"Gettin' old ain't for sissies."
So said a frail, but feisty, 76-year-old woman I met several years ago in my role as community mental health worker.
Her words, which offered more of a challenge than a complaint, would signal the beginning of a significant change in my views about old age.
Like most of my youth-obsessed, baby- boomer contemporaries, I had always regarded growing old with dread and disdain.
The gradual and, sometimes, not-so-gradual corruption of the body that attends the aging process was never something I wanted to contemplate, much less ever face.
My apprehensions about becoming an older adult did not pertain only to the inevitable decline in physical prowess. I also stressed over the prospective slowing, if not total arrest, of my mental abilities.
Three of my grandparents and two of my aunts suffered from dementia. So, somewhere in my psyche simmered the question: Will this happen to me?
Besides my fears about what would happen to my body and what could happen to my mind, something else disturbed me about getting old.
I shuddered to think that one day I, too, would be treated in the same condescending way the elderly in our society are often treated. I worried that once my so-called productive years were behind me, I would be regarded as obsolete and relegated to the sidelines of life. I imagined feeling lonely, isolated and depressed, no longer finding any meaning or pleasure in being alive.
Given the many pejorative stereotypes that permeate our collective thinking about older people, combined with the unsettling possibilities raised by my family history, it's hardly surprising that I felt about aging the way I did.
However, since the encounter with my spirited client, and subsequent experiences with similarly inspiring older persons -- including my wise, vibrant 82-year-old mother -- my ageist attitude has undergone a metamorphosis.
This is a good thing since I am now well past the half-century mark, and my "golden years" are on the horizon.
I have finally begun to grasp that how we imagine what lies ahead very much influences our actual experience. If, either consciously or unconsciously, we expect to feel useless and miserable in old age, it is highly likely that just such a prophecy will come to pass.
If, on the other hand, we roust ourselves from our fear and negativity and create a new blueprint for how to live out our final years, we may not escape pain and loss, but we open ourselves to a sense of contentment and gratitude, despite the disappointments and defeats endured along the way.
Another thing I have learned that has dramatically altered my perceptions of growing old is the distinction between being elderly and being an elder.
In his book From Age-ing to Sageing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older, Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi argues that an elderly person merely acquiesces to life's final passage, whereas an elder chooses to meet it with intention, determination and purpose.
The purposefulness of the elder, though, differs from that of the young and the middle-aged in that it is no longer about ambition, acquisition or status.
It is about acceptance. Acceptance of the past, present and what is yet to come. It is about facing one's mortality and learning the art of letting go. It is about surrendering the protective armour of one's adopted persona and moving inward towards one's less visible self.
The "eldering" process that Schachter-Shalomi proposes is a contemplative one. It involves a psycho-spiritual model of development that allows elders "to complete their life journey, harvest the wisdom of their years, and transmit a legacy to future generations."
To do this they would turn to different spiritualities like yoga, Zen Buddhism, contemplative Christianity or Kabbalah, and explore disciplines like journal writing, meditation, tai-chi and other body-mind technologies now accessible in the West.
Our mainstream culture can also learn much from aboriginal traditions. Notwithstanding the myriad challenges facing native peoples today, they still honour and respect their elders, who respond by sharing the fruits of their life experience and hard-earned wisdom. The community receives guidance and grounding, while the elders retain a sense of involvement and dignity.
It has been said that when a culture forgets its elders, its elders begin to forget who they are. It is crucial, then, that the young and middle-aged know and remember their elders. It is equally critical that elders know themselves and recognize the unique, precious gifts they have to share.
One gerontologist summarized the essence of this reciprocal relationship this way: "We do not have elders because we have a human gift ... to keep the weak alive, we are human because we have elders."
By Gary Westover , Canada
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