At a Philadelphia conference on aging issues eight years ago, I witnessed an extraordinary performance by an intergenerational improvisational comedy troupe called Second Circle. A dozen people ranging from teens to nonagenarians put on a dazzling, fast-paced, one-hour tour de force highlighting the challenges experienced by different generations as they interact in fictional workplace settings.
In addition to being impressed by the players’ wit and spontaneity, I was fascinated by the seamless way they worked together. Their mutual respect was clear. Little did I realize that I was reacting to a basic principle of improvisation known as “Yes And.”
In his insightful book on science-communication skills, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, actor Alan Alda –– himself highly trained in improv –– explains the principle:
For improvisers, Yes And means you accept what the other player presents you with, without blocking it or denying it, and then you react constructively to it. You add to it. As an example, [scientist] Uri [Alon] says, “If one player says, ‘Look at all that water down there,’ and the other player completely blocks it by saying, ‘That’s not water, that’s the stage,’ then the scene is over. But if the player follows the principle of Yes And, he can accept what’s been handed to him and add to it. ‘Wow, what a lot of water. Let’s jump in. Let’s grab onto that whale.’” And they’re off and swimming.
The Second Circle players said “Yes And” not only to the audience’s often hilarious scene suggestions, but also “Yes And” to one another’s instantaneous specific words and actions. The result was a marvelous example for us conference attendees of how all generations might cast aside stereotypical notions of age and accept the “Yes And” of any individual’s more complex personal reality.
Since that event, I’ve also come to appreciate the improv principle in a whole other way. “Yes And” requires the two-step approach of acceptance and addition: accepting an idea or belief and then further extending that idea or belief by elaborating on what it can mean. However, when it comes to ideas and beliefs about aging, people often take the first step without following it with the second one. Let me explain.
When older adults perceive aging as solely a process of deterioration and decline, they often freely acknowledge the negative aspects of growing older: “My eyesight is getting worse,” “I wish I wasn’t slowing down when I walk,” “I don’t want to end up in a nursing home.” These statements comprise the “Yes” of their later years. We older adults are all too aware of the many physical and social challenges that confront us with each passing year –– ageism being the biggest one of all.
But what if we adopted a more improvisational, pro-aging stance toward getting older? What if we move beyond our “Yes” beliefs by taking a “Yes And” approach? “My eyesight is getting worse,” a person might think, and then immediately follow it with “…AND I intend to find better ways to enjoy more books than ever before.” Or, “I wish I wasn’t slowing down when I walk…AND I really enjoy my daily stroll around the neighborhood.” Or, “I don’t want to end up in a nursing home…AND I’m doing all that I can to remain active and engaged in my home and community.”
There are so many vital ways to apply “Yes And” thinking as we age. We can –– and should –– acknowledge any limitations we may be experiencing as our bodies and personal circumstances change, because awareness leads to finding solutions. But to stop there and not take the next step does a disservice to our autonomy, dignity, and value as society’s elders. Each of us needs to be equally aware of our “And.” We are not a compendium of downsides. We all have valuable skills, experiences, and insights to share.
For example, I can say, “Yes, my eyesight and hearing are not as good as they used to be…AND I am a better writer AND more insightful editor AND more effective teacher than I’ve ever been in my life.” Whenever we share an “And” with as much conviction as we express a “Yes,” we are modeling a truly realistic and productive way of being in the world as old people. And our society desperately needs positive role models.
I invite you to join me in improvising our way through these later years. It’s easier than you think. All you have to do is answer this very simple question:
What’s your “And”?
Aging is a natural process and it should be accepted with dignity. Is there any point in yearning for lost time and age? An Yes And attitude is all we need to make our elderly years happier.
Rick Boardman says
Timely thoughts, Jeanette. As one can see from my comments to Pennie above, I am currently looking for efficient and effective ways to utilize my time. I “retired” about 15 months ago and have been improving my diet, my exercise choices and connecting back to my family and community. I just signed up , for essentially minimum wage, with a local public school district to be a part-time tutor to middle and high school students aspiring to enter, and complete, college or university work. I am finally getting up a head of steam to get past my thinking and dreaming stage. I also realize that I have more years behind me than I do ahead, so I have zero interest in re-inventing the wheel. Surely, there are already established blogs and websites devoted to more than Senior travel and information about the myriad of health issues many of us experience. Where do I find those “Seniors” wanting to be a part of the solution not just consumers of resources? When I hear all the negativity directed toward Boomers, my first impulse now is to look in the mirror and question whether I am doing all I can ( while I can!) about working inter-generationally to help solve community problems. Are there others like me??
There are plenty of others like you, Rick. Check out the websites I posted.
Also see Next Avenue (https://www.nextavenue.org/), the National Center for Creative Aging (https://creativeaging.org/), AgeWave (http://agewave.com/), and Booming Encore (http://www.boomingencore.com/).
Just start searching. One resource will lead you to another.
Rick Boardman says
You have given me even more information to pursue! As you suggested, I have found it true that interacting with one source often leads to some doors and avenues I didn’t even know existed. Should be interesting!
Pennie Vance says
I believe we need to allow ourselves a stint on the pity pot when a challenge hits us over the head, whether child, teen or adult, so we can express then expunge dispair or disappointment. But stopping there is dangerous. We can become enslaved to a pity pot…a wholly miserable place.
We all know someone who spent a lifetime bemoaning misfortune experienced in youth. Or an elder who bemoans almost everything. Trapped in a web of self imposed misery, cut off from others who can only endure so much of another’s self pity before they cut and run.
Pain and challenge are inevitable. To stay sane we need to moan and groan when something bad happens to us. But to have a life that is better and more fulfilling, we must slip off the pity pot and ask, “What now?” Or as this article suggests, simply add, AND.
“What now?” implies we can erase troubles when truth is, every crisis becomes an imbeded part of us. AND implies we accept a troublesome thread in the tapestry of our being AND weave in new threads that add enough purpose and soul to overpower threads of old troubles, and render them nearly invisible.
I’m 70 with the inherent challenges of living seven decades Asking AND gives me a way to embrace and incorporate new challenges then grow from them and become a better member of my family and community.
I love the sense of opportunity and fullness that that one simple word, AND, adds to facing life’s ups and downs. Thank you.
What a touching and eloquent response, Pennie. I thank you for it, and especially for sharing it in such a way that others can be inspired by your insight, incorporating it as an “AND” in their lives.
Paul Francis says
What a great comment. You are so very eloquent with the way you express your thoughts. Thank you Pennie. I am about the same age but become tongue tied with such a gift as you have displayed.
Rick Boardman says
Great comments, Pennie. At age 67, my “What Now” is a quest to discover similarly minded individuals that want to be part of chipping away at some local community problems. As one individual, the likelihood of me significantly impacting any of our country’s massive societal issues is virtually nil. However, at a local level, I can make a difference. I interact with Millenials and Xers all the time and am searching for effective ways to engage them as well in some local problem solving efforts. Surely there are some blogs already set up that address the most effective means to mobilize our considerable experience and talents for focused and worthy purposes?
Jeanette Leardi says
I appreciate your passion for intergenerational activism. For resources to address your needs, consider these initiatives’ websites:
Generations United: https://www.gu.org/
Encore.org Gen2Gen: https://generationtogeneration.org/; https://encore.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Intergenerational-Activism-Final_11.15.17.pdf
Old School: https://www.oldschool.info/
Best wishes on your continued success!
Rick Boardman says
Thank you, Jeanette. I will start looking into those resources! I appreciate your sharing the information.
Rachel McAlpine says
My “and”: Certain body parts are showing signs of wear and tear because I’m getting old … and how exciting that I’m not dead, I’m still alive to perform routine maintenance.
Paul Francis says
This article couldn’t be more appropriate. Too often all we hear about aging is negativity and downsides. I really like your suggestion to pivot and turn. Thank you.
Katherine Foldes says
This post was so very apt! Aging is not a matter of “either/or” but “both and”. I had thought of this in so many other realms but not about my own and others’ aging. And society’s bias is on the down side of aging, for sure. Young people take me for younger than my years because I am active and purposeful and they don’t realize that I am active in spite of a chronic disease. I want to be an example of the message of this post–both and!