Since the beginning of the last century, we humans have added 30 years to our lifespan. There hasn’t been time to figure out much about the developmental stages of elderhood. Few scientists and clinicians have focused on it. Aging still appears to be locked in a vault of culturally induced ageism. With the advent of the “Silver Tsunami,” it’s time we look at what it is possible to accomplish with these additional years. The Age of Actualization, by Dr. David “Lucky” Goff, is a magnificent addition to the literature on both aging and positive psychology. More importantly in these dire times, it may be a critical source of wisdom we humans need to right our ship.
The book reflects the intellectual integrity, grit and open heartedness necessary to burnish experience into wisdom. Dr. Goff is a developmental psychologist who endured a life-threatening stroke several years ago that left him profoundly disabled. As he struggled to find a new way to function, it occurred to him that many older people were confronted with similar issues around isolation associated with radically changed capacities. A contributor to The Age Actualization, Alexandra Hart is an artist, author and community activist. She was inspired to start an elder community to help her finish what she had begun through her art and community activism in the 1970s. Together, they began the Elder Salon through Transitions Sebastopol. Over the past five years, they’ve grown a community of elders who gather in various group settings to discover their best, most authentic selves. Their book shows how magnificently they have succeeded.
The Age of Actualization offers a blueprint for the group processes Alexandra and Lucky use, a succinct, well-written summary of the theoretical and historical underpinnings of their quest and a glimpse of the inner workings of their ripening relationship. Dr. Goff hypothesizes that we elders have the potential for actualizing ourselves in the context of communities designed to support us to engage our authentic selves. Once we have retreated from the economic-gain period of our lives with a number of losses under our belts, most of us have the attention to devote to discovering who we truly are.
This book inspired me to let go of what I thought I knew, so I might better withstand the winds of change inherent to moving from one developmental stage into the next. With no road map and few living examples of actualizing elders to draw on, I was flummoxed. As a psychotherapist, I wanted to shift gears in my practice to work with elders. I was eager to network with other professionals to discover what models of best practices were available. When I searched for likely stores of information and the folks who generated it, I was disappointed. With a few notable exceptions, most of it looked like teaching life skills to folks who either already had them, or had so many deficits, it seemed impossible to make a dent in their needs. I was discouraged until I met the Elder Salon groups.
Dr. Goff, or “Lucky”, and Alexandra have different perspectives on their five-year journey into creating a life-affirming community of elders. The juxtaposition of their words offers well-timed reminders that, though we each have our path to traverse, our journeys can be immeasurably enriched through the development of authentic connections. Of course, the first job we each have is to get real about who we are and what we wish to complete. The wisdom contained in the chalice that is this book is designed to inspire and then guide the reader toward the co-creation of her or his own elder community.
Throughout the book and the groups, the drawing of a clear distinction between growing older and becoming an elder is underscored. This distinction invites the development of resilience, humor, mindfulness and trust. These are essential to creating the spaciousness of consciousness necessary to enjoy the ripening of our bodies, minds and spirits. It opens the possibility that we elders might be here to develop critical wisdom necessary for us humans to get right with our life-support system. This is an endeavor best done in community, as it is the context we humans are both called to and confused by. The calling is because Life designed us as pack animals. Our confusion appears to be a result of our cultural overemphasis on independence, which appears to be responsible for the collective decisions that have resulted in the degradation of our planetary and social ecosystems. We, like all creatures, are endowed with drives to both affiliate and maintain our autonomy. Our balancing these two critical drives appears to be essential to the continued evolution of Life as we know it. Toward this end, it’s critical that our spiritual evolution be tended as carefully as that of our bodies and minds. David and Alexandra meet this challenge by referring to the Big Picture as “Life” instead of appellations attributed to any religious orthodoxy. This effectively bypasses potential power struggles that have so often diminished attempts to incorporate spirituality in rational discussions.
May The Age of Actualization inspire you to become the best elder you can be in a community of others on similar quests. This appears to be a prerequisite to actualizing our potential during our elder years. The earth and our aging bodies, minds and spirits are calling us to clean up our act. Alexandra and David give us a menu designed in small, easily digestible bites to nourish this journey.
Age of Actualization: A Handbook for Growing Elder Culture is available through Amazon.com as are Alexandra and Lucky’s other books.
Their radio show, Growing an Elder Culture can be accessed at www.elderculture.com. David’s blog is available at www.eldersalon.blogspot.com