As it often happens in life, clues come in sequence. At our last AWGO Salon Dr. Guy Micco, Clinical Professor in the UCB/UCSF Joint Medical Program and Director of the UC Berkeley Academic Geriatric Resource Center, talked about what people associate with “old” and “aging,” and how finding a new language has the potential to change attitudes and affect solutions. Then, poet David Whyte (in a recent conversation at the Brower Center) talked about how we all live under temporary names/roles that have to be reinterpreted throughout our lives in order for us to stay at “home,” and that we often place names on people that are too solid and do not allow them to be at home in the different stages of life. Lastly, in a recent article in the NYT, Dr. Linda P. Fried, Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, an epidemiologist and geriatrician, talked about how “reframing the views of aging” is necessary to solve problems, such as financial limitations and the cost of health care, that are associated with one of the great achievements of our time: the increase of the average human life span.
Can a different language, or reframing the “view of aging,” or being open to “renaming” a person bring a shift about that would allow us to take advantage of a long life?
There is schism between the old and the not old. The moment when one crosses over from one side to the other is a moving target. Even people who indisputably show signs of old age, such as diminishing abilities, do not think of themselves as old. To most people, the visible signs of aging signal weakness and loss of abilities, but rarely bring up the often lauded virtues of old age such as wisdom, experience, forgiveness, gratitude and acceptance. When asked what it means to be old, medical students see wrinkles and frailties while doctors frame their answers more in terms of a disease.
“Old” versus “Elder”?
The word “old” focuses on the loss of the qualities of youth. Becoming an elder on the other hand is an achievement. Being an elder also carries the notion of responsibility and mentorship.
Which names do we hold in our lives?
What is our name when we need help with everyday life? Who are we when we have retired? What is our name when our children move out? What are the names we hold for ourselves and what are the names others hold for us?
What are the ‘houses of belonging’ throughout our lives?
What hospitality do we experience, what shelters are we offered ? David Whyte talked about the ‘houses of belonging’, from endless horizons to a nook, a view. What does it take to belong when we are elders?
What if we explore old age in such terms? Senior Centers would become Community Centers where younger people would come to get advice from older people. Nursing homes would be beautiful civic buildings that are part of neighborhood centers. Housing would be designed to adapt to different life stages. Elders would live in communities that take many forms acknowledging that we are as different in old age as we are in youth. Elders would typically take on mentorship roles. We would look at caregiving as an act of hospitality. Professional caregivers would not only be nurses and social workers, but also musicians, chefs and other “nourishers”. Caregivers would be highly regarded and well paid. While we are alive we would be able to enjoy “the privilege of simply being here” (David Whyte).