A Forbes 30-under-30, a structural engineer, a designer and a VP of sales are collaborating on their latest project.
Ideas come from all. Excitement mounts as the scope of the project grows and grows. ‘Just a few more minutes’ is their mantra as the hours pass. They are all in flow. They can do this. Failed attempt after failed attempt do not deter and finally they do it, they light a piece of wood on fire using a cantaloupe. The “rube goldberg” is created.
Surprised? Were you expecting their project to be different? More purposeful by mainstream patriarchal standards? Me too. I watched this group in awe. Here were, by any measure, a group of highly successful, respected, driven people in the throes of adulthood spending the day on a completely ephemeral project. They knew the whole time it would not last. Many would say it served no purpose. Despite or maybe because of this bonds were formed, connections were made, fun was had and boredom was nowhere to be found. I saw life happening, beautiful meaningful connection to a place and an idea and each other.
I have sat in retirement community activity rooms where equally amazing and more experienced people than the ones in the story above were relegated to bingo and mindless coloring. I have seen elders participating in meaningless activities devoid of purpose. I have with the best of intention hosted these activities at times. Watching the “rube goldberg” in the above video get built it hit me: purpose isn’t in the activity it is the genesis of it. How we create the activity is more important than the activity itself.
Imagine if I had called the elders above over to a table, sat them down and told them they would now be building a rube goldberg from the materials they could find in the yard. Maybe they would begrudgingly go along and maybe they would even have some fun, but it would not have been the spontaneous meaningful bonding experience I was so honored to witness.
Purpose will never come from finding better and better activities. Opportunities for purpose arise from how those activities are started. It is time for us to throw away the activity schedule. For too long it has robbed our elders and those of us that work with them of purpose. I am not saying these activities are meaningless (even bingo!). It is the genesis of them that removes the soul.
Elderhood, like the rest of life, is about personal growth. Those of us who work with elders are tasked with supporting this development, not with prescribing time-filling activities and distractions. At every age and stage we need materials and opportunities to tap into what the soul is calling for. This is a small change and a paradigm shifting one. Throw away the schedule, provide the means. I am not going to give you ten materials to make sure you have or any specific instructions on how to do this because doing so would reduce this new way of being back into the realm of creative but ultimately meaningless activity. I will offer some guidelines to help foster this experience for yourself and your community.
Think of the story above and take those conditions into your world and work:
- The space was created for this to happen. By space I mean not physical space but the feeling of knowing one is welcome to do and be as they choose.
- Amazing humans were in the same space with time that was their’s to do with what they chose.
- There was access to materials that could have provided a variety of activities.
- There was freedom to do what one chose even when there was questionable utility and safety involved (note the water dousing the electric fan and flying flaming piece of wood).
We can easily foster these conditions within the home, adult day center, CCRC etc. This infusion of purpose abolishes institutionalism from within.
Go forth, throw away the schedule, provide the means.