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.
Hello there I am an AGING 320 student at the Erickson School of aging. I really enjoyed this post due to the tone of the blog post. In my life, I always listen to my elders in order to gain knowledge for the mistakes they have gone through, and to hear their suggestions. Being the youngest in my family, this has always been the case. When talking to elders, I feel as if I take their opinions seriously because of this. When the writer said they are selfish because they are learning “which mistakes are to be avoided” that people went through I understand what they mean. A concept that this reminded me on from class, is that people sometimes do not take elder adults seriously and can use baby language with them. This has never been the case for me, and after learning this information, I will go out of my way to make sure I am not doing that and making them feel that I do not think they are as cognitively aware as others. Although I relate to the article, I dont think the author or I are selfish for this. We are just smart and take the advice from people who have gained wisdom.
Franco Luque says
Your post is just WOW! Whether or not you say it being selfish, it is the right thing. You need to understand what others experience so you can be able to feel the same thing in order to be prepared for the future. You really have a positive viewpoint on life. Thanks for sharing your story, really inspiring.
As human beings we value the experience that comes with age. We are reminded over and over again with statements like older and wiser and respect your elders, promoting age as something to be cherished and respected.
Fred Lunau says
Wow. Your drive seems to mirror mine in an uncanny way. The only difference is that, while I also have the inner desire to “help” the elderly, I have a computer science degree, not a masters or doctorate in psychology. Is there an approach that non-degreed / non-certified people like me can practice for the elderly, without needing 8 more years of formal education (I’m 60)? The scope is more one of helping locals in my community (neighbors, etc), not as a vocation, since I still work a full-time job. How should I communicate with my elderly neighbors? What should I say or not say? How can I be supportive without being detrimental. Great article, great passion. Thanks!
Kyrie Carpenter says
Thanks, Fred! Great question. You certainly do not need any formal education to connect with local elders in your community all you need is the heart you so clearly have. I would look to see what volunteer opportunities are in your area. Check with your local AAA. Dementia Friends are a great org I would see if they are active in your area.
Rachel McAlpine says
Visiting a retirement village I was told by one of the residents, “You know, nobody here ever uses the word ‘old.'” To deny old age was the norm.