When I became Director of the Senior Center at age 66, I had not yet much kept company with older people. My parents and grandparents died when I was young, and my work as an educator kept me mostly in the company of 15 to 30-year-olds. Working at the Senior Center immersed me in a community of 60 to 100-year-olds at the same time I was entering my first decade of eldering. I love that I am eldering. Notice that word is a verb. I’m not an old person, or an older American, or a senior citizen. I am engaged in a dynamic and transformative process. I encounter personal and environmental changes in an intentional and dynamic way. I have not become something, and I have not arrived somewhere. I’m engaged in a dynamic, challenging and exciting activity called eldering. Let me tell you some ways I’ve learned to love this activity called eldering, while regularly keeping company with several hundred companions here at the senior center who are also engaged in the activity of eldering with me.
I love our discovery of a continuing need for socialization, and the necessity of inventing new ways to go about it, as work and family moves from the center of our lives. It’s exciting watching us developing new interests and activities, or reinvigorating old ones. I love watching people use the Senior Center as a place to start some new social or creative activity with others, getting it organized and making it a regular part of peoples’ lives. New stuff emerges all the time. Creative activities like painting, quilting, knitting, gardening, building, cooking, public speaking, political action, spiritual investigation, and of course just plain visiting – go on and on and on. While I am challenged by the inevitable decline in flexibility, strength, replacement rate, and stamina in my body, I love how eldering invites such a wide range of physical engagement. We go to exercise class, bike around town, dance like a mad, do yoga and tai chi, work in the garden, swim, lift weights, split wood, clean and build and repair things. We just keep on going, learning continuously how to adjust the pace and range of our activity to the transformations of our body and intentions. I also love some of the side effects of eldering, losing some of my vanity, surrendering to the inevitability of wrinkles, so that I am more interested in how I move and what I do rather than how I look.
Isn’t it great to discover that eldering does not produce a homogeneous pile of old people, who look and act alike. We stay different, unique people who continue to move in many different directions, with many different styles, maintaining a wide range of values. You can’t predict what eldering will produce in a person, so eldering together offers us a wide range of challenges, ecstasies, dilemmas, and delights. And yet because we are engaged in this wondrous activity called eldering we also share a profound secret.We are actually encountering the truth of our mortality. While that is startling and initially uncomfortable, it can also become the back-drop against which the possibilities of each day actually become more precious.
I’ve been a bit disappointed to discover that eldering does not necessarily make us less impatient, less narcissistic, less stubborn, less whiny, or less thinking we are so entitled to things. It turns out eldering is not like taking a bath, and it doesn’t automatically wash away all the grungy parts. If all these things did not remain challenges it would get boring. Then eldering might turn us into limp and pointless people. I love it that there there is a continuing invitation for us to become better humans, more charming companions, more tolerant participants and more generous, empathetic community members. The activity of eldering lends itself well to personal improvement – we’ve got more time, we really need successful social relationships, and there isn’t as much to lose by giving up our nasty habits.
Finally, there’s the matter of spirituality. I’ve been engaged in a lifelong fascination with an exploration of “whatever lies beyond” our every day ordinary physical and social existence. I figured that once I got old I would also be rewarded by becoming “holy,” “fulfilled” and kind of “enlightened.” Whoops! I must not have tried hard enough, or done the right things. I still am not sure exactly what’s going on, what the meaning of life might be, and if I get out of here where I’ll end up.
But as my eldering proceeds, I am experiencing both time and passion for deepening my exploration into the meaning and purpose of life. What a great time this is for that endeavor. I have access to the best of writings and direct teachings of all of the world’s wisdom traditions. For me everything about the activity of eldering is an invitation to utilize nearly a century of experiencing and knowing, in order to support the emergence of wisdom. To me that involves deeply seeking to understand why and how I came here, how well I’ve done, and where I’m heading. As I discovered that I am not “becoming an old person,” but am “dynamically engaged in the action and practice of eldering” – that I am a process rather than a thing – I am gradually finding refuge in continuing action and transformation. I am not becoming old, I’m cultivating the practice of eldering. I am a mystery continuing to emerge.