As I turned the calendar this morning onto a whole new year of my life, I reflected on my birthday. At the end of the day I cannot say it was fun or happy, although a lot of people on Facebook wished me a “Happy Birthday!” I was thinking about age, aging in society, and my profession of counseling, and a number of thoughts occurred to me.
– I am 62 today, which puts me in the third trimester of life, and while everyone knows “old” is always 15 years older than you are any given year, I know a lot of young people who refer to me out of deference because I am “old, dude.” They call me “sir”. Snort! People in my cohort, the baby boom, extend nine years older and younger than me. The good thing about this is that, as a therapist, I may be able to be of benefit to a lot of them, because this is the first group that is really acclimated to therapy. Many of my generation have been to therapy before, while most older-than-boomers still go to their minister or doctor if they are not doing well. That’s why I got a “certificate” in working with older adults during my doctoral program at University of North Texas.
– Older people tend to isolate. As noted, I received a lot of Facebook hailings today, but only one telephone call, from my younger sister (a young old person). That would be depressing if I had not years ago learned the difference between being alone (which is to some degree a self-created state of affairs) and being lonely (which one can be while in the middle of a crowd). And it does not help that our society is in itself getting less personable. Today I had nothing to do and no one to do it with, although I did have a remarkably good burger for lunch! Simple pleasures are, indeed, pleasures!
– Another truism about older adults that is largely misunderstood is that they do not grow to be more like one another as they age. This is referred to as the “fan effect” (thank you Dr. Hayslip at UNT in Denton!). Draw on a piece of paper a graph with a vertical y-axis and a horizontal x-axis at a right angle, and from its origin point draw a number of lines that, as they are extended, grow farther and farther apart, looking like one of those little dainty handheld fans. People with different life experiences and “baggage” grow to be very different from one another. Unless they get together intentionally, this feeds the isolation effect.
– Seventeen percent of single people in America are 65 years old or older. That amounts to 16 million people. These people tend to live alone and many want to keep their homes. I have heard a few experts on the matter say that retirement communities or apartment complexes adapted for anything from independent to assisted living and featuring events and food service is NOT necessarily the wave of the future. They say that something like co-ops of older adults living in their own homes (sharing services? Sharing costs somehow?) is a more likely scenario – how this will work out exactly I don’t know and it is really beyond the scope of this blog, but developments will bear watching in the next couple of decades.
– Older people also are, by necessity, becoming conversant with sadness and grief because their friends are graying and dying. They are neglected in our society as the toss-off generation because it is the younger adults who are, at least initially, productive, generative, and more active. This does not necessarily mean wiser and gentler and better at making weighty decisions. In Asian lands where the older are venerated due to their accumulated wisdom, it is very interesting that it is very difficult to get counseling practices established – perhaps the counselors just are not needed as much! And it seems to me that there a number of general reasons older people might want to avail themselves of some counseling nowadays.
– It is also true that trying to get older people together as a group takes some special effort. If you intend to do this, you may have to go where they are, provide food and drink, and probably transportation if you want a good sized group. I have considered getting a therapy group started for older adults. The only therapeutic offerings I really hear of are called “reminiscence groups” which are fine in their own regard, but are we not still vital of mind, able to learn, able to teach one another, able to make a difference, able to grow? Is looking back at our lives our only avenue to feeling better?
Some Ideas for Action
– If you have a neighbor getting to be over 60 or so, get to know them.
– Volunteer for Meals on Wheels or a Shepherd Center.
– My church has a twice-a-week program for adults with Alzheimer’s – they use many volunteers and really help a lot of caretakers with some respite. And the volunteers love the experience. Another church had a fund-raiser that anyone over 55 was invited to for a $5.00 lunch hosted by the middle-schoolers. After lunch the youth taught their older friends how to use their cell phones. Brilliant, and fun!
– If you are older, think about ways to fight the isolation, even if means going to the park or the coffee house to read your book, taking yourself out to the movie theater, taking a continuing ed class at the junior college, and calling a friend you have not seen for a while out of the blue (even if you fear they “might not want to be bothered” – it’s a nice kind of bother).
– Find a good book by an older author bearing on this subject like Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward.
– I would love to brainstorm about some of these kinds of things with some other boomers. Over coffee and pastries? No tomato aspic or casseroles, please – we are after a new paradigm, at least eventually. Let us not go gentle into the good night. There was a movie in which a Native American elder knew it was his time to move on to the happy hunting ground and has his pyre erected and laid down on it, wrapped for flowered for death, but he just would not die. He kept coming back into town, nonplussed, and less sure of himself. Let us not, friends, go gentle into the good night. Let us use our time “as if we were young.” It’s just a matter of perspective!
Allen DeSalme, LPC-S now practices in New Mexico