Coverspiritualityofaging

Conscious Aging

  By Mariamne Paulus

At the end of May, 2005, we completed a Teleos Institute class series entitled “Conscious Aging.” We used Faces of Aging* as our study and reference book as we examined our own attitudes, images, fears, convictions, values, and actions around the subject of aging. Perhaps you would like to share the fruits of our labor in the form of some of the insights we found valuable.

How Do You Define Old?

We began our exploration with a definition from each participant of when a person becomes old. Most of us agreed that there are at least two aspects to growing old. One is the mental/emotional component: namely, how old do I feel?

The other is the physical: how healthy and strong is the body?

We all agreed that we have known people younger than sixty who were “old” in their attitudes toward life. They have grown rigid in their preferences and opinions, they are not open to new experiences, they are stuck in their habitual patterns, and they have no appetite for life. We also agreed that if we remain youthful in our attitudes and outlooks and enjoy life, the age of the body does not define us so completely.

As for the age of the body, Beverly Archibald, one of the class members, offered what I thought was a most helpful perspective. She said she likes to think of the 70’s as early old age, the 80’s as middle old age, and the 90’s as old old age. Since I read in the newspaper every day about people who are in their 60’s who are called “elderly,” I appreciated having a more graduated way of defining the aging process. Both OSO and I found it sobering to think that we are within three (me) or four (OSO) years from “early old age,” but fortunately we still feel about 35 or 40.

We all agreed that there are some characteristics of the aging of the body that are almost universal. A slower pace of moving and thinking, and eventually of speaking. A falling away of ambition, desire for power and success, a need for approval, and the urge to prove ourselves in any way or to any one. And a diminishing of the acuteness of some of the sensory portals, like hearing and eyesight.

The Inner Elder

One of the main contributions of the book we used was to suggest that we develop the “inner elder” as we age. We spent a lot of time exploring things like our undeveloped potential, what we want to do with our time and energy as we age, what is most important to us at this stage of our lives, and how we want to be remembered by others.

Some of us have already had substantial experience with being considered an “elder” by others, namely someone to look to for wisdom and experience. Others had not yet thought of themselves as elders. All of us were aware that we felt we had much yet to contribute to the world around us, talents to share and develop, experience that has given us depth of understanding, and interests that we want to pursue.

We felt there was value in reflecting on what we can contribute as elders. Mary Ann McCarthy shared with us these guidelines she has adopted for herself:

  • Be useful
  • Be resilient
  • Be present to the now
  • Be open to new ideas
  • Be fluid
  • Keep it simple
  • Be clear of mind
  • Be approachable

They seem important to the development and expression of the inner elder.

Other qualities we felt would help us to function as elders are a youthful outlook that welcomes new experiences, delights in life as it presents itself, is eager to learn and discover the new, and stays current with the changing culture. Keeping up with the rapid changes in electronic gadgetry by learning to use DVD players, cellular phones, computers and attendant technologies will keep us in the flow. Movies and television can be avenues for exposure to the youth culture if we don’t have children and grandchildren.

These words from our study book speak to these issues:

At 92 years, Rebecca Latimer says: “The way I see it, the first rule is to be open to new ideas, to be non-judgmental. Don’t ask the younger generation to follow the rules you learned so many years ago. Any change is hard to accept as you grow older . . .

“It is much easier to cling to your past values, to judge everybody and everything by the standards you have always trusted, but if you do, you will be left on the sidelines. The future will pass you by, and you will be sitting in your rocking chair, grumbling and complaining with all the other old codgers.” (From her book You’re Not Old Until You’re Ninety.)

Body Images

We talked about our feelings about our bodies and their aging process. It seemed important not to become too identified with changes occurring in the body, but rather to view them as part of the natural order process that makes it possible for us to have new experiences in and through the body.

We examined our attitudes toward the body, noticing that it is easy to fall into feelings that the body is betraying us, or working against us, or failing us, rather than continuing to love and honor the body as the vehicle through which we have our life experiences. We talked about holding positive images of our bodies instead of letting our culture’s total focus on youth condition us to lose touch with the beauty of the aging body. The book Faces of Aging helped us with this process by presenting many untouched photos of aging faces and offering poems about their beauty.

We talked about new expressions for our sensuality and sexuality in our later years, emphasizing the importance of touching and being touched, holding and being held, experiencing pleasure through our bodies, expressing love and being loved.

We explored our attitudes toward illness and our habitual ways of dealing with ill health, recognizing that the body needs more and more attention and care as it ages. We talked about humor as one way to keep the energy light around physical challenges, without ignoring or diminishing what we are dealing with. Kindness toward self, and compassion for the body and what it goes through, seem attitudes that are essential to cultivate.

Adapting to the Aging Process

We talked about getting all our papers in order – wills, living wills, living trusts, powers of attorney for health care and general powers of attorney – and of updating those papers on a regular basis as we move through these aging years.

We talked about making decisions and plans before we actually get there for where to live in our middle and old old age so that we can prepare for that transition.

We all recognized the importance of beginning now to simplify our lives by giving material things away that we no longer use, either offering them as gifts to family and friends who might like to enjoy them or by donating them to charitable organizations.

We examined to see if there are activities, relationships, attitudes or values that we need to let go of. We also looked to see if there were things that have already fallen away without our conscious choice-making.

We talked about gracefully providing more and more people with opportunities to give to us as we have less strength and energy for doing strenuous activities.

Deepening The Spiritual Life

We acknowledged that the diminishment of physical energies can be an invitation to go within and develop more fully our spiritual life through study, meditation and prayer as well as through our service through community organizations.

Most of us felt the need to develop our awareness of and appreciation for energetic ways of participating in community life, recognizing that we may not always be able to be as active in the outer life as we have been. The awareness that prayer makes a difference, for example, can forestall the feeling that we are withdrawing from life or that we are useless if we can’t physically participate or help.

The Love Principles will continue to serve us as important guidelines for staying alive and keeping unconditional love flowing through our fields. We will need to concentrate on applying them to ourselves as well as to others.

*Faces of Aging, by Nader Robert Shabahangi, Ph.D., is published by the Elders Academy Press in Warsaw, Poland. To order copies go to www.pacificinstitute.org, write Leslie Lewis at Leslie@pacificinstitute.org, or call Leslie at 415-861-3455.

Coverspiritualityofaging

Becoming Your Best Self As You Age

Why one woman has made ‘conscious aging’ her goal at 61


Have you ever been driving down the road and suddenly become aware that you don’t know how you got there? It’s scary when you recognize you haven’t been paying attention for something as serious as maneuvering a car for the last five miles. Well, that’s the way I felt when I turned 61 this year and realized I had barely acknowledged 60.

It made me think how quickly and easily I could miss out on the next 15 to 20 years — if I’m lucky enough to get them. And since life doesn’t let us have do-overs, I wanted to figure this out. Except I wasn’t sure where to start.

Then fate stepped in, as it sometimes does, and I came across an article about conscious aging. The concept isn’t new, except to me, and it will be a different experience for each individual, which is also the point. Yet I loved the idea of not only being aware, but actively participating in growing older.

Is Everyone Wrong About Aging?

Like many, I’ve been exposed to the belief that the one true thing about getting old is that no one in their right mind would want to do it. But I started asking myself: What if everyone had been wrong? What if this really was a time that could open up possibilities for a life I hadn’t even taken the time to imagine?

I recently came across the website of Ashton Applewhite, activist and author of the book and blog This Chair Rocks, as well as her Q&A blog Yo, Is This Ageist? (Editors Note: Next Avenue named Applewhite our Influencer of the Year among the 2016 Influencers in Aging.)

If I consciously acknowledged, planned and lived my older age, what would that look like?

I started reading Applewhite’s blog and found she was talking about the questions in my head. If aging is nothing more than decline, then what about the research that shows people are generally happier at the beginning and end of life? Or what about our fear of having to be taken care of when most Americans over the age of 65 live independently? Or that the older people get, the less afraid they are of dying?

Where was all the misery I’d been planning on?

Telling the Whole Story

“There are a lot of challenges to aging, but there are a lot of wonderful things, too, that get way less attention,” Applewhite said, when I interviewed her a few days later. “We need to make sure that both sides of the story get told.”

I’ve always loved old people — which is good because I’m in the process of becoming one myself — but I’m not sure I’ve ever truly considered the other side of the growing-old story. I’ve seen the happy and the sad up close, but I’ve never thought through all the possibilities.

I was beginning to see where being conscious could come in handy.

It’s eye-opening once you start challenging your assumptions about aging, which I have to admit, in my case, weren’t negative as much as they were fatalistic. I thought there was nothing I could do about getting older, but I never backed that up with facts.

Fears ‘Way out of Proportion’

Applewhite points to dementia as an example of our disproportionate fears about aging. “Yes, it’s a horrible disease, but getting dementia isn’t typical of aging. And the rates and odds of getting it are diminishing,” she said.

It’s the same thing when we think about ending up in a nursing home. “Lots of people cycle in and out, but the odds of you having to live in a nursing home are low,” Applewhite said. “Our fears are way out of proportion to the threat.”

So I wondered what would happen if I deliberately shifted my perception of aging, right there and on the spot. What if I stopped rushing through life long enough to ask and answer just one question: If I consciously acknowledged, planned and lived my older age, what would that look like?

Letting Go of Old Attitudes

And that’s when I came across Carol Orsborn, editor-in-chief of Fierce With Age and co-author of The Spirituality of Age.

Our perception of aging is so internalized for most of us, that the first thing I knew I had to do was let it go. Orsborn says we often deny, romanticize or see aging as nothing more than a sad decline. But what we need to understand is that the longer our life, the more we grow not just old, but whole. We can’t overcome everything and there is a shadow side, but it also opens up potential in other areas.

I wondered if it was too late to challenge my old attitudes. Could I honestly view growing older as a serious opportunity for meaning and mindfulness? Could I really change my mindset?

Applewhite says: Yes. “Fifty years ago, we didn’t think a woman could run a company. Twenty years ago, we didn’t think gays could get married,” she says. “This is another profound cultural shift.”

It’s Up to Us

And then she reminded me of something that made total sense. “We’re the ones making up these ideas, so we’re also the ones that can change them. It’s a tall order, but we can do this,” Applewhite says.

There are two things about aging that we can’t avoid, however: physical decline and the death of people you love. And that’s just a fact. But nothing else is inevitable, says Applewhite.

This honest face-to-face with what’s ahead and understanding how many choices I still have seems to make it possible to embrace the whole of life and not see it only as a fading away.

We need to be honest, and Orsborn says there’s nothing wrong with grieving our losses. In fact, it’s the first step. “Mourn your lost youth, illnesses or other losses,” she says. “Acknowledge that it’s happening and is a passage you have to go through.”

But remember, even with declines, there can be benefits.

“We may have spent a long life trying to keep our ego from having so much sway, but when we get older, we seek fewer strokes for who we are and that leaves us with more energy,” Orsborn says. “We find the freedom to care less about what others’ opinions of us are.”

Be Deliberate

Many of us have found things to keep us busy our entire lives, sometimes to the point of distraction. But how we’re going to live our next years is too important to shrug off.

So I think we should ask ourselves how we want to age, because we’re not finished yet. And maybe the luckiest discovery I’ve made was finding that out. But Orsborn says conscious aging takes time.

“Be patient as you learn how to ride this shiny new bicycle of old age,” she says. “It takes quiet time and some disengagement, but it’s a gift to grow into your own self.”

By Debbie Reslock

Debbie Reslock is a freelance writer who specializes in aging issues and the 55+ market. As a former caregiver, she’s also an advocate for aging-in-place whenever possible and person-centered long term care when it isn’t. She’s on the board of directors for the Colorado Culture Change Coalition and lives in Evergreen, Colo.
Coverspiritualityofaging

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Coverspiritualityofaging

The Spiritual Dimensions of Conscious Aging Book, Video, and Audio Resources A sampling of new views of aging.

Book Feature by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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A “senior boom” is happening in American life, and it’s getting bigger by the day. Until very recently, most of the attention paid to this phenomenon has focused on retirement options, pension plans, health care challenges, medical ethics, and research on the biology of aging and the prolongation of life. Surveying recent books, films, and spoken-word audios about later life, we have noticed a number of hopeful signs that signal a broadening and deepening of the way we see the senior years. The added element is an interest in their spiritual dimensions. Here’s a sampling of these new views of aging. (Click on the link to read the full review.)

BOOKS

Age Power: How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled by the New Old by Ken Dychtwald (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999)
Here is a wakeup call intended to offer preventative solutions to the age-related questions we face as individuals and as a society. “How we decide to behave as elders will,” writes Dychtwald, “in all likelihood, become the most important challenge we will face in our lives.”

Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders by Mary Pipher (Riverhead, 1999)
This informative and salutary work is designed to help forge ties between the baby boom generation and their parents, who are now residing in the country of old age.

The Force of Character and the Lasting Life by James Hillman (Random House, 1999)
This imaginative, compelling, and always thought-provoking volume turns conventional ideas about aging upside down. In three bold sections, the best-selling author of The Soul’s Code shows how our characters are enriched, deepened, and made meaningful by long life.

From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald Miller (Warner, 1997)
The Jewish elder who coined the term “spiritual eldering” presents his thoughts on the last stage of life. This is a time to for men and women to “contemplate their life journey, harvest the wisdom of their years, and transmit a legacy to future generations.”

Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World by Jane Yolen, editor (Penguin Books, 1999)
The editor has gathered a fascinating batch of stories from different cultures about “elders who wear their years well.” The tales are divided into four sections: wisdom, trickery, adventure, and a little bit of love.

On Women Turning 70: Honoring the Voices of Wisdom by Cathleen Rountree (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999)
Sixteen extraordinary women tell their stories and share their feelings on turning 70.

Passion for Life: Lifelong Psychological and Spiritual Growth by Anne Brennan and Janice Brewi (Continuum, 1999)
With the doubling of life expectancy since the beginning of the twentieth century, men and woman are challenged to become “architects of their own aging.” The second half of life has become an arena for continued growth and development, i.e. soul-making.

Spiritual Passages: Embracing Life’s Sacred Journey by Drew Leder (Tarcher/Putnam, 1997)
The author taps into all the world’s religions for insights into qualities which can be unfurled by elders. He presents a substantive and sacred model for aging that celebrates self-exploration, change, service, suffering, transformation, and facing death.

A Time to Live: Seven Steps of Creative Aging by Robert Raines (Plume, 1998)
The former director of Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center has written a bright and buoyant volume about the art of creative aging. He masterfully sets anecdotes from his own life alongside poignant illustrative material from contemporary novels, films, and political events.

Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life by Margaret Guenther (Cowley, 1995)
The author uses St. Anne as a model and wisdom figure for later life when ambiguity, service of others, and wonder are given free play.

Understanding Men’s Passages: Discovering the New Map of Men’s Lives by Gail Sheehy (Ballantine, 1999)
The bestselling author presents a rounded portrait of the different stages of “second adulthood” for men including “the fearless fifties” and “the influential sixties.”

VIDEOS

I’m Not Rappaport (MCA/Universal, 1996)
This feisty drama revolves around an 81-year-old Jewish radical who is a modern-day Don Quixote fighting injustice. He and his best friend have to stand up for themselves in a society that seems determined to treat elders as if they were invisible.

Men With Guns (Columbia TriStar, 1998)
A common task in old age is to secure one’s legacy. A wealthy physician in an unnamed Latin American country who is nearing retirement decides to visit the medical students he trained to serve poor villagers in the countryside. His quest opens and softens his heart.

Nobody’s Fool (Paramount, 1995)
This movie shows that the last stage of life can be one of personal renewal. A crusty and cantankerous handyman in a small town discovers that it is never too late to stir the ashes and light up your life with the glow that comes from love of family and friends.

The Shell Seekers (Republic Pictures, 1994)
A 63-year-old Englishwoman suffers a heart attack and is compelled to review her life and her view of happiness.

The Straight Story (Walt Disney Home Video, 1999)
Alvin Straight is a stubborn and highly principled 73-year-old Iowan who sets out on his John Deere lawnmower to visit his estranged brother who has suffered a heart attack in Wisconsin. His deep yearning for reconciliation gives him the energy and strength he needs to fulfill his mission.

Strangers in Good Company (Touchstone, 1991)
A group of long-lived women take shelter in an abandoned farmhouse when their tour bus breaks down. While they wait for other transportation, they share the stories of their lives with each other.

Waking Ned Devine (Fox, 1999)
In this comedy set in a small village in Ireland, two of the town’s elders creatively expand the possibilities for community life.

SPOKEN-WORD AUDIO

Conscious Aging: A Creative and Spiritual Journey by Various Speakers (Sounds True, 1992)
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Marion Woodman, Maggie Kuhn, Ram Dass, and Bernie Siegel present their ideas on elders as bearers of wisdom, healing, creativity, and vision. This audio program was taped during a conference at the Omega Institute.

The Second Half of Life: The Blossoming of Your Creative Self by Angeles Arrien (Sounds True, 1998)
This teacher and cultural anthropologist explores the three major themes of elderhood: generativity, intimacy, and creativity. This six-cassette package is filled with soul-stirring stories and spiritual practices from indigenous peoples and Greek mythology.

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