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looking inside, changing mindsets, and creating a new future together

looking inside, changing mindsets, and creating a new future together

by Andrea
May 21, 2015

This past weekend I went to the birthday party of my friend, Joe, who just turned 95. Joe lives in the historic Beacon Hill area of Boston. He still drives, travels, teaches, writes (currently working on a book) and goes often to the theater, symphony and opera. Joe has lots of interesting friends from many different circles. Rare in his capacity to retain his memories and engage in thoughtful conversation, Joe breaks the spell of what most of us would believe possible as we march on toward our elderly years. At the celebration of his ninetieth birthday—5 years ago—many of us referred to Joe as an expression of “the new ninety.” Today I would bump that up to “the new ninety-five.” Yes, many of us are living longer and better, but Joe really is an expression of a new paradigm.

While at the party a friend of mine asked how my mother was doing. I had just come from visiting my mother, and felt full of my mother’s warmth and sweetness. I told her that—all things considered (meaning that my mother is now 97)—she is doing great. And as I reflected a little further, I told her that my mother has the same effect on me as my little dog, Teddy. She is always happy to see me. Always welcoming. Always ready to get up and go out. Every day when I call, her first question is, “When are you coming?” Or if I call to ask if she's up for a visit, consistently her answer is, “I’d love it. I’ll open the door.” This is her response no matter how tired she may be. She is eager and ready, despite her age or any other apparent obstacles. I love this. To me, this is also an expression of another “new”—that is, a “new ninety-seven!”

My friend responded, “You know you and Judy write in such a positive and real way about your mothers, about how they softened and changed as they become elderly. I don’t know if you realize how lucky you are because not all elderly people do change in the way your moms have. Many do not transform as they age.” My friend is right, but I do realize this. In fact, I wrote about this in “not all old people are nice.” Getting old can be really tough, and not everyone responds to the challenge of it with grace and dignity. Not only that, not all elderly people have advocates and loved ones who help to keep their spirit alive and well—advocates and loved ones who continually provide circumstances and conditions to enable the spirit, if not the body, to keep growing. And to make matters worse, we live in a culture where our elderly are not appreciated for their gifts, gifts which may be waiting just under the surface for someone to discover. Too often our elderly are ignored, pushed away, left alone and not taken seriously. This is one thing about our culture that troubles me deeply—which of course is why I write about this. While it’s true that not all old people are nice, happy, dignified or fun to be around, the other side of the coin is that somewhere buried in our cultural mindset, we have given up on them. And if we have given up on our elderly, guess what? We have also given up on ourselves. As far away as it may always seem, one day each of us will be facing some of the same challenges as our elderly parents and friends. 

While it may seem daunting to change any deeply embedded cultural mindset, we have to start somewhere. We have to start with, well, you-know-who. You. Me. Each one of us. We have to look a little deeply inside and ask the tough questions. Do we take our elderly seriously? Have we, somewhere inside, given up on them? Are we unknowingly contributing to a future that we ourselves don’t want to live in? Or are we caring for our elderly in a way that we will want to be cared for ourselves one day? Are we spending quality time? Are we fostering and treasuring those moments where the light shines through their eyes? Are we living in a way that is an expression of, and contribution to, a future that we do want to live in?

What I found with my mother as she became elderly is that I was forced from deep within to look at these questions in myself. It wasn’t easy, because even though I've always been a caring daughter, I saw some of these cultural mindsets in the driver seat of my own life, and I felt a healthy shame. Healthy shame, I have come to realize, is a great motivator of deep and sustaining change. So from that moment on I truly wanted to be different. Not just sometimes, but always. 

Yes, my mother is lucky. Judy’s mother is lucky. Joe is lucky. They all have advocates and loved ones caring for their minds, hearts and spirits. Hopefully your elderly parents, friends and loved ones are lucky too. Lucky because of you. Lucky because of your advocacy and your care of their fragile bodies, buried gifts and enduring spirits.

looking inside, changing mindsets, and creating a new future together My oldest sister with my mom on mother's day. Showering her with flowers, sweets and heartfelt love!

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