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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Four generations, four days

If there is a singular human being who is responsible for priming me to become a gerontologist, it is my maternal Gramma—Jewell Cochran. My Gramma comes from poor, scrappy folk. No one knew who her father was and she grew up without much stability. After her teenage mother abandoned her she was fostered by various family members until in her late teens she left her people in the Yakima Valley to move to Southern Oregon, where she found a job as a waitress. She met my grandfather, Preston Gustav Hotz, a much older man who frequented the cafĂ© where she worked.

This grandpa is a pivotal character is my family history as he changed Jewell's lot in life in many ways, and thus, two generations later, mine. At the time he met my Gramma, he was training to become a geologist, and she yearned to become his assistant, as well as his partner. In fact, they spent much of their life, along with my mother and her two siblings, exploring in a little Airstream trailer the Western United States, surveying and mapping the Great Salt Lake, Mt. Shasta, the Klamath Basin.

My small, strong, stubborn Gramma spent most of her life dreaming on behalf of others – sometimes even living vicariously through others. Her life was never quite big enough for her, so she tried her hardest to create bigger lives for the rest of us. I was the first person on either side of my family to pursue college besides my grandpa the Geologist, and I owe this to my Gramma, as she planted the notion in me like a dormant seed for some new kind of plant, and she protected me the best she could from the harsh conditions of my immediate family so that strange seed in me might grow. (When I was in college and graduate school, I would send the materials for each of my courses to my Gramma—syllabi and reading lists, even books, and copies of the papers I was writing – so that she could follow my journey, think along with me, see how her work on my behalf was amounting to something.)

Recently I saw my Gramma Jewell—This past July, my thirteen-year-old daughter Isobel and I traveled to Spokane to fulfill a recently-made promise to reunite, at least one time per year, with the women on my mom’s side of the family. It was a short, intense trip—there are 4 generations of us now, and many of us have fraught, complicated relationships, we carry difficult family history around with us in our bodies; we are all so much the same, and so very different in so many ways. Finally after all of these years, the adult women among us are more realistic about how much time we can live under the same roof together—4 days is about right. 4 generations; 4 days! Our 4 generations includes my 87 year old Gramma Jewell, my 62 year old mother Susan, 59 year old aunt Martha, 42 year old me, 32 year old cousin Rachel, 13 year old Isobel, 3 year old 2nd cousin Samantha (who sometime demands to be called Sophie), and her 10 month old sister Emily.

My Gramma has lived with my aunt and her family ever since my grandfather died of Alzheimer’s a few years back; soon after he died, she started having a series of small strokes. Whereas she used to divide her awake time as an old woman between taking long walks, writing letters, helping with chores, and reading, now she spends most of her time sitting in her recliner reading large print books and observing the activities unfolding around her; her lucidity is ever-shifting, so it is of benefit to sit quietly beside her for long stretches of time so you don’t miss one of her insightful questions or statements.

The first night of our visit, I crawled into bed beside her. She asked me a series of questions to confirm that what she was remembering about me was in fact accurate—which of “her girls” I am, where I live, what I do. She got all the details correct. She was a little confused by my daughter, whom she hadn’t seen for a year and who has undergone a teenage-transformation. While I snuggled-down in bed with my Gramma, she on her back, I on my right side with my arms and legs embracing her and my body curled around her, eventually she cast her mind into the remote past, when she was a girl picking apples on an orchard; when she was a young married woman and mother, raising small children and helping my grandpa with his work. She was luminous there beside me, in her flannel pajamas, her teeth and face freshly washed, her hair cut exactly like mine but completely silver. The smell and feel of her skin – like a soft, almost over-ripe peach – started to unwind tight little tangled balls of my own memories. I had temporal distortion—Isobel had changed so much in the past year; I certainly felt time working on me; but my Gramma seemed suspended in time.

So, why do I tell you these stories from my life? What relevance do they have for our work as intentional-agers and radical gerontologists? These stories foreground relationships, specifically how who we become as we travel through the life course happens in the context of the web of relationships of which we are a part – together we dream, grow, fight, get stuck, care, misunderstand, and try again. These stories also speak to the tremendous capacity we humans have throughout the life-course for transformation, for thinking new thoughts alongside old thoughts, for trying out new ways of being alongside old ways of being.

We all have our own version of these stories.

For the past couple of months, post-family reunion, I’ve been reflecting upon how I’ve had some movement in my ways of being in the world and relating to the women in my family – it feels like a miracle, especially as I wasn’t expecting it, worried I didn’t have the capacity, though I have hoped. Since the trip, I’ve been asking questions such as: From where do these glimmers of new patterns of thought come? Are they the inevitable fruits of being worked on by life for a few decades? My provisional answers are: Perhaps, probably, in part, but something else needs to happen – we know this from our own experiences and it is supported by scholarship on development and learning in adulthood, psychotherapeutic perspectives, as well as centuries of insights on spiritual practice– to experience deep development and change, we must in some way accept what life gives us and, like alchemists, take it through some sustained, ongoing process of intentional reflection that causes it to transform into the source of new thoughts and actions.

This is quite powerful, yes? You see--We have the capacity to take our own selves as the objects of our inquiry; we can ask questions, we can refine our questions about ourselves as we accumulate more experiences. If we are fortunate, we have people in our lives who love us, who figuratively or for real crawl into bed next to us or sit beside us waiting until we say something meaningful; they reflect our best selves back to us.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Aging and Materialism

As we all know, thanks to technology and medical advances, the average life expectancy continues to increase at a very high rate. If we believe we are only our body, then keeping it alive is the ultimate goal and we become obsessed with “looking and being young”. Isn’t this the ultimate definition of materialism? Keeping our body away from deaths’ door?

Part of our mythology is how long we can expect to live. But it seems that mythology changes slower than reality. We are adding years to our life-span and have no mythology about what that means. No mythology to support us to find a sense of place and where we fit in our culture as we get older. This can be emotionally painful. I know that there are times when I feel this way. And this usually causes me to become fixated on acquiring “more”. More time, more health, more youthfulness, more experiences and more possessions.

This is not to say that getting happiness and joy from what we have is not a good things as we age. I know that I get a lot of satisfaction and joy from my possessions. But I really don't need to acquire another TV set or a bigger house or another car or even newer golf clubs because I am learning that true fulfillment, at this time of life, comes from other sources.

So when do we have enough? And just maybe our culture is failing us by promising that we would all be happier and more fulfilled in the second half of life if only we would continue to accrue more comfort and material things?

If we can move beyond simply identifying with our bodies and possessions how much suffering could be eliminated? How much comfort and joy would there be in the world?

Here are a few ideas for living more intentionally:

• Find peace in every day
• Practice humility
• Search for a sense of spiritual well-being
• Increase our awareness with less control from the ego
• Find ways to be in-service to others
• Live authentically by being true to our deeper values
• Share our lives with others, intimately.
• Be purposeful in every moment

And here is a really hard one....Remember that the ego is what experiences aging (and mortality). As Ram Dass says ‘When the Ego thinks it is dying, it mistakes itself for the whole --- body, soul, awareness- and often people who are ripening into God run around to different doctors because they develop an even more intense dread of death.” Hmmm! There is a lot to chew on!!

Please share your wisdom on this topic.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Where Are The Elders?

Where are our functional Elders?

If they are around they are certainly hard to find.  I’m not talking about the demographic of everyone over a certain age.  I’m looking for those men and women, of any age, who make it their calling to continue their own spiritual, psychological and emotional development at the same time they are being in-service to the following generations.  Are they culturally hidden or really not there?  Are they even relevant in this day and age? Hmmmm!

I did a quick search, recently, for elders in my neighborhood on the internet and it illustrated part my point.  To be an elder in our society, it seems, you have to have a physical ailment, in need of a place to live, in need of a price discount, need legal advice for dealing with abusive families,  or have any number of other problems that need to be solved. If we were to believe this as the total representation of an elder then it would seem that elders can’t take care of themselves and are, indeed, are nothing but a ball of problems and a burden to society. I don't believe this to be true.

Ancient societies had a place and purpose for the elders. They were often honored for their wisdom and contemplative skills. I love the story that American spiritual teacher Ram Dass tells. I think it goes something like this: While traveling in the Himalayas he was approached by a friend who upon greeting him said “You’re looking so old!”  Ram Dass, being a typical Westerner, reacted with some horror to being called “old”.  Then he realized that his friend was actually congratulating him for becoming an elder, white hair, wrinkles and all.  In some places in the world elders are still cherished and even celebrated.  Why not here?

Personally, I want to believe that there is a growing group of individuals who seek peacefulness and emotional stability; contemplative yet authentic lives; life-long self-discovery and growth; and show a commitment to emotional, intellectual, and personal integrity. Individuals who are wise, spiritual, generative, and humorous.  Furthermore, I want to believe that our culture is smart enough to create special places where such individuals would thrive and have a recognizable positive impact on our communities and society.   I'm fascinated by this issue and will be writing more about functional elders in the weeks to come. 

I wonder what such civic structures would look like?  Maybe we need an Elder assigned to every school yard as a soothing presence over emotional or physical nicks and scrapes?  Maybe it is an organized group of Elders tasked with testifying at every city council meeting to advocate for future generations?  How different would our lives be if we knew that we could have access to someone with these qualities to provide council and console us at any age?  Imagine! Now that would be radical!

Please give us your Elder story!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

week-end reflections

Happy Saturday. Whew, what a week! (I see there are now three followers of this blog--a dog, a cat, and David, who is playing a dual-role as contributor and follower...interesting! Well, all are welcome, including non-human creatures or the human creatures behind them.)

So, I did this presentation at Summerplace Assisted Living this past Wednesday. Since I wasn't sure who would attend, I decided to put together a hybrid presentation, a combo of interaction and conversation with whomever showed up, distilled and translated notions from my work as an academic gerontologist, and some family history stuff, sort of a synthesized story to illustrate some of the ideas at the heart of intergenerational inquiry.

I began by asking participants who they were, why they came to the presentation, and what they thought "intergenerational inquiry" might mean. There was quite a mix of attendees: David came (thanks, my friend), as did a lovely woman who is a journalist, covering the senior issues beat for a local newspaper. There were also several elders who live at Summerplace, some of whom came on their own volition (there was a retired psychiatrist who made some cool observations during the presentation), and some who were wheel-chair bound and parked in the audience by their nurses. Some of the staff of Summerplace took part, and there was a handful of community members who attended (including the adult daughter of one of Summerplace's residents).

(I'd like to discuss in a future blog entry the opportunities and challenges involved in presenting to an audience that is so diverse in terms of intent, agency and capacity. For example, some participants didn't have a choice about whether or not to attend and, in fact, demonstrated confusion about where they were and what they were doing. I don't think we talk about such things -- the shadow-side of Gerontological work -- as much as we should.)

After my introduction, weclome, and initial interaction with the participants, I talked a bit about what I might mean by intergenerational inquiry...well, actually, I said less about what I mean and more about why being committed to doing intergenerational inquiry is so important:

--Aging is a lived experience, a life-long journey that we are all embarked upon, though we are at different stages in the process depending on our chronological age and life-course stage.

--We have much to learn by embarking on this journey together; we can develop deeper understanding by intentionally creating opportunities to interact and know each other, to discover our shared interests as well as all the ways we are unique creatures.

--More specifically, we can think together about difficult issues, we can solve problems and create new ways of thinking and being in the world in order to make life better for all creatures. We are experts on our own lives, and we are teachers for each other.

--And coming to know each other, being present before each other, thinking together, is about telling each other our stories, as well as creating new stories together.

I spent the rest of my time with the folks assembled before me telling some past and current stories about my family, specifically my relationships with the four generations of women on my mother's side of the family, and how through these relationships we are collaborating in each others' development as humans (sometimes unwillingly!). Telling stories from my life turned out to be a good decision because doing so served as an invitation to the participants to reflect upon their own relationships, to tell stories from their own lives. We spent the last 20 minutes of our time together exchanging stories, asking each other questions, as well as giving each other glimpses into our vulnerabilities, the ways in which our hearts are broken open by life (by being the daughter of a mother with advanced dementia; by being the wife of a husband with Parkinson’s Disease who will no longer leave the house; by being the nurse in charge of the dementia unit at the assisted living facility; by being an elder journalist who sees the disconnect between what is important to elders and how aging is portrayed in mainstream media).

As for me, at its roots the work to which I have committed myself is about what it means to travel through the life-course together as human beings. For me, the promise of gerontology and the kind of work I get to do with colleagues and students at my university and elders in the community is essentially radical, as it is about holding on to hope, to the expectation that we can keep growing, that we can make a profound difference in each others' lives.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

upcoming event

Several of my current and former gerontology students at Marylhurst University are committed to the profoundly important work involved in end-of-life issues. Of interest to them, and perhaps some of you reading this blog, is an upcoming event sponsored by the Oregon Gerontological Association. Mary Ballantyne, RN CHPN will be speaking on the cultural aspects of end-of-life care.

Mary began her hospice career over 13 years ago. When she did her preceptorship at Hopewell House (many years ago), she knew this was the area of nursing she wanted to be a part of and contribute in some small way to the Dignity of Life. She is a certified Hospice and Palliative Care nurse, and had received her certificate in Training and Development from Marylhurst University. Mary is active in the community, she is the Chair of the Speaker’s Bureau for Senior Providers Information Network and is involved in various committees within the Providence System. Mary’s primary role with Providence Hospice is clinical educator for both East and West Providence Hospices. Her primary audiences are staff in nursing homes, Senior Centers, Colleges Adult Foster Homes as well as for the community. She hopes through her education she can help the care-givers and nurses continue the excellent work they do in caring for end of life patients.

Mary's presentation takes place Friday, September 18th, 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. (yeah, I know, that's a bit early! But you can start the day with an inspired heart and mind!) in the Old Library @ Marylhurst University (

For more information and to register for the workshop, visist the Oregon Gerontological Association web-site:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Letting Go

“We come in to the world naked and alone, “ as the saying goes, “and we leave it the same way.”  It’s what we do in the middle that is telling. 
Most of us accumulate possessions and perhaps wealth. “What I have is what I am!”, we shout. We believe that we are “graded” on the address of our home, the nameplate on our car, the church we belong to, the school our children attend, and our bank account.  Then, for some of us, we come to a magical moment when we realize that perhaps we have enough and that we could stop stockpiling the material goods.  Or we don’t have an option because we have lost our job or ability or desire to acquire more.  What do we do?  How do we respond?
When we realize that none of the things we were being “graded” on in our earlier life really matters the door is opened and we are on the precipice of our journey in to aging intentionally.  Our life is about to change!
If we are courageous enough to step in to this opening we start to review our accumulated lives and seek other answers about what is meaningful.  We loosen our grip on material possessions and spend time finding our own answers to questions like, “Who am I?”;  “Where am I going?”; and “Who do I want to accompany me?”
Harry Moody says that this is the moment when we recognize the importance of developing the “Soul”.  Where shaping the soul occupies our interest and becomes life’s priority. What did I learn along the way? How did I serve others? Am I open to life? These are the dominant questions of this time of life and the ones we really want to be “graded” on...but graded by our own knowing not others.
Sister Joan Chittister says it better than I, “We have a chance to become what all the living has enabled us to be.  Now we can make sense of it. But only if we can let go of the past. Only if we can let go of all the old ideas of success, all the old marks of humanity and finally, now, allow ourselves to become simply human instead.” (The Gift of Years)

intergenerational inquiry

One of the persistent preoccupations I've had for the past several years has to do with fostering opportunities for collaborative human development. I'm provoked by the strong idea that we can come together for mutual learning, support, and praxis as whole human beings traveling through the life-course. Aging is a profoundly intense lived experience we are all having, no matter where we happen to be in our travels in terms of chronological age and life-course stage. How can we share our experiences related to the aging journey? What connections can we make, those of us who are working in the field of gerontology, between our personal and professional experiences related to aging? And what are ways into understanding the aging experiences of others--whether those "others" are our family members, friends, clients, or our own "inner elders"? These are just a few of the questions I've been asking myself, my students, my colleagues, my gramma, random people I meet...there are certainly many more questions to be asked. I wonder what your questions are?

I'll have an opportunity to explore some of these questions tomorrow, Wednesday September 16th, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at Summerplace Assisted Living (15727 NE Russell, PDX, Oregon) as part of their Education and Empowerment Series.

I will kick off the series by presenting a seminar entitled "Intergenerational Inquiry—Thinking Together." I can't wait! Maybe I'll see you there?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Blog Under Construction!

So, my friend David Rozell and I have decided to start a blog. We've been working together for a few years on various projects related to life-transitions, deep human development, and creative aging. We are committed to collaborative work -- we want to engage in fruitful conversations with others about provocative ideas related the the human journey of aging. So, stay tuned!