Over a decade ago I left the beach towns of Florida I had always called home. I packed up a station wagon and headed to the millennial’s promised land, Brooklyn. Before I left, a friend and mentor recommended that I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This quote by the main character struck me, changed my perspective and my course in life:
“I don’t intend to build in order to have clients; I intend to have clients in order to build.”
I wanted to live my life in this way although I had not yet defined my passion. In Brooklyn, I worked in film and learned about life. At 25 I made another move across the country, this time to the west coast. I suffered a loss of a dear loved one, which turned me inward and searching again for my calling. My passion was finding and curating the thread of people’s life stories. This led me to pursue a certification in Life Coaching and a graduate degree in Psychology.
In my studies, I was intrigued by my geropsychology class. I thought, “What better way to learn about life than in hindsight?” and assumed working with elders would offer me a perspective which my 26 years had not yet granted me. I found an elder care community, AgeSong, to do my clinical training at. As I began my practice, I learned that many of the elders I was working with had a diagnosis of dementia. 75% of the elders living in this community were there as a last resort. Other facilities had told them their ‘needs‘ were too great. Usually, these ‘needs’ were communication, in whatever means available, of basic human necessities such as belonging, intimacy, and engagement in life.
Naive, I thought I would sit with elders hear their stories and learn about ways to get by in this world. I wanted to know which mistakes are to be avoided, which opportunities to be taken. I planned to be a sponge soaking up stories, tallying the details and using them to help myself and future clients. I had always been good at figuring things out. I was excited about the possibility of a life hack through being with elders.
My clients were not what I expected. Very few remembered my name, conversations were often hard to start and even harder to follow. My clients did not come and sit across from me. Instead, I joined them in their world and their life. Elders were not the founts of knowledge on a perfect life as I had imagined. Many were mad, frustrated, sad and bored. These common human conditions exacerbated by years and circumstance.
I spent more and more time with this community, my pretense started to fall away. With a curiosity that has been my constant companion, I looked for what was present. I began to see how relationships developed without remembering names or the details of interactions. As one elder put it, “I do not remember you here [pointing at their head], but I know you here [pointing at their heart].”
I began to notice elders who seemed to be more at peace with their lives and those who were more fraught with suffering. I started to see patterns of those who were aging joyfully. I noticed those who, spurred by the rampant ageism in our culture, rejected the process of aging were suffering more than those that embraced it. I continue to work, usually now in a coaching capacity, with people who hope to become elders, elders living with dementia and their families.
The life hack I got was not the one I expected. There is no shortcut or easy answer, but there is a perspective shift that can help us as we age. Throughout our life, we can listen to our inner wisdom and our calling and follow it. It is in our own rational self-interest to prepare for old age rather than try to avoid it. We can learn to know things not only with our minds but with our hearts and bodies as well. I work with elders because I am selfish: I want to limit my own suffering in old age, and others’ along the way. I am open and learning from elders and the aging process. I encourage everyone to be around elders.
Try this perspective on. Learn from elders who age joyously. When we let go of trying to stop aging, that energy can go into being in the moment and appreciating the process.