Years ago, in many cultures, the elders were considered to be those carrying the wisdom of the tribe, the village and the community. They were sought out as sages, carried and passed on the stories of their people, and revered for their years of experience. As their capacity to serve physically diminished, they were still at the center of the tribe. Today this is not so.
We look at our seniors with compassion and fear. We feel sorry for their diminished capacity and are afraid of getting there ourselves. We try to protect them from injury and sickness, our expectations of their ability and involvement are low, we curtail what they do, and we squeeze in time for them between our many appointments.
We listen halfheartedly to their advise thinking they just don’t get today’s world. We share with them the mundane and inconsequential rather than what is really in our hearts, in order to spare them the worry. Oh, I know we love them. That is not in question. But we do them and ourselves a great injustice when through our need to protect and care for them, we diminish their influence and disregard their desires.
Remember that caring for an aging loved one is as new to us experientially as parenting was when we had our first child. Most people will agree they had no idea what they were doing when they became parents. The journey was one of adventure, joy, doubt and uncertainty, yet we were fully engaged, spent time with our kids, and marveled at the words they uttered even when they made no sense. We offered protection and guidance but it came from a place of knowing that they were growing into their own capacities. We listened to their imaginary stories because we knew their knowledge would grow as they did. We did for them whatever was needed knowing they would soon be on their own and need us less and less. Our experience during that time of need was full of hope and potential of who these little people would become, even when they fought us trying to find their independence. The giving, in that time, was like putting money in the bank and watching your savings grow. There was a payoff.
As we care for an aging parent, find ourselves listening to repetitive stories, see ourselves doing more and more as their capacities decrease, dealing with resistance from them when offer advise, and trying so keep them safe from harm, we feel very little joy. Our own feelings of loss affect the relationship, our fears and doubts restrict our capacity to allow them the freedoms they’ve earned through a lifetime. We see them diminish and we know it will get worse not better. We are again experiencing another adventure that neither we nor our parents have been through before. We are afraid, uncertain, and sad. Our assistance and care will not get them better or help them grow up. We are now withdrawing the money in the bank and we know there soon will be nothing left.
It is that sadness, deep inside, that loss, that we must become aware of. As our parents age we all feel the coming on of grief. All of us know our time together is measured. The feeling is real and we must honor it. But it is not a reason to take control, avoid, or become less connected to them. No matter what their condition, they still have something to offer us if we will give them the time to do so. Their story, their legacy, the meaning of their lives, is important to share and they can only do it if you give them the time and freedom to decide their own fate. You can offer assistance, protection, advise, just as you did with your children. But just as you also knew you had to let your kids learn some things on their own, that you couldn’t always protect and oversee, and that in letting go they would discover who they are, you must give your parents the same opportunity to realize who they were.
This period of life, this senior-hood, is about reflection and legacy. A time to look back and discover what our lives were about, to share with those we love the true meaning of who we are. To impart the wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experience, knowledge and knowing. Yes, it might take a little while to get the stories out, to listen for the “saging” that our parents offer as they move slower through time. Yes, it might make them sad to hear you share your personal issues and worries but it will also be a blessing to both of you as your relationship continues to deepen. There is a tenderness that comes when time slows down, when we know that the party will be ending soon. In the quiet moments as the music dies down, we can touch each others’ soul and know each other and our love for each other, in its purest form.
Aging is inevitable just as is growing up. Neither adventure is better than the other. Both offer opportunity to journey into the unknown and find out what we are made of. Today, more than ever, we need to look back in history and remember the sages of old. We need to revere our seniors and accept their limitations and not be one of them. If you choose to, you can experience this time of sweet surrender, as the blessing it is. The greatest gift we can give to our loved ones as they age is the freedom to continue to make their own choices, listen to their stories, realize the offering of their wisdom, and approach this time with tenderness as together you travel to new understanding and a new way of being with each other.
As our world continues to change, we need the wisdom of those who came before us. Today, we all are questioning our values, feeling defeat at the things we can not control, busy doing so much that we take little time to reflect before we react. Our seniors have seen it all, been there done that, and have words of healing and wisdom to offer us if we’d just listen. We all need to slow down enough to seek that wisdom, cherish it as it once was, and learn from it. It is time for our elders to once again be the center of our tribe, our village, our community.