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Friday, July 27, 2012

Growing Pains


Mother and daughter both have some important things going for them. Their love for each other is deep and abiding (though not unproblematic). They are both committed to authentic – though different – spiritual practices. They share some good genes for health and longevity on the maternal side of the family tree (though the daughter has a father, of course, and the genes from that side of the family tree aren’t much in her favor.). Mother and daughter both eat beautiful food, they exercise, they engage in preventive healthcare, they volunteer, they read voraciously. They are curious about and engaged in the layers of the world in which they live. They are hitting many of the important marks for “Successful Aging,” and although they don’t have many material resources (and no back-up plan or rescue strategy), they do have just enough resources to get by, they have sweet little places to live in the same part of a fantastic city, and they know how to spin gold from straw – they are scrappy and they are survivors. And, for better or for worse, together they make a strange little family.

But mother is exhausted. When she wakes up in the morning she feels like she has barely slept a wink. And when her part-time work is over in the late afternoon, she’s completely wiped out, sometimes close to tears because the stress of her work exceeds not only her physical capacity, but her energetic and emotional capacities as well. She’s confused by how her life has turned out. How can it be that she’s already in the second half of her seventh decade? How can it be that she feels simultaneously “young” for her age (She is strong, fit, and giggles like a girl) and so “old,” a state she associates with being worn out, without resources, sometimes even without hope?  How can it be that she’s toiled so hard her whole life only to find herself in her later years working as a paid caregiver, taking care of people who are even older than she is, people who need more care than she can actually give them? How can it be that she’s alone, without a partner (she’s gone through two messy divorces and one messy break-up), with dreams for her “retirement” years that are incompatible with the material reality of her daily life?

She asks her “mid-life” daughter, whom she wishes she could talk to and see everyday, how it is that her life turned out this way, how it is that she has to work so hard, for so little, and spend the last part of her time on earth feeling lonely, anxious, exhausted, and worried. Her daughter struggles to know what to say (Her daughter rehearses different things she might say but the risk of unintentionally hurting her mother serves to censor her, restrains her speech.). Her daughter wishes she could do more to help her mother -- supplement her income; encourage her to expand her social network; entreat her to work with a therapist. Her daughter has her own set of life-course challenges with which to contend; her daughter is attempting to do better at her own self-care; her daughter must negotiate her own material conditions and a finite amount of energy with which to create a life for herself and her young daughter.  In not knowing what to do, or feeling bad about not being able to do more, or feeling resentful about being expected to do things she can’t possibly do, sometimes her daughter feels frozen and unable to do anything at all.

Most of the time, her daughter does what her daughter can do—pray in her own way that her mother’s broken heart can heal, that her mother’s loneliness can be assuaged, and that her mother’s disappointments can be counterbalanced by the great good fortune of being alive, now, here.

 *****
If my framing of “intentional aging” as “...a radical concept that has at its core the notion that there are always opportunities for deep development and new ways of thinking and being throughout the human life-course,” has any meaning at all, it must be meaningful not only to me, but to others, as well. What do these opportunities for deep development and new ways of thinking look like in the context of economic struggles, physical exhaustion, spiritual disillusionment, loneliness, serious illness and emotional suffering?  In other words, is intentionality a luxury, a practice to be engaged in only by those who are meeting the “successful aging” baseline, only when all conditions are optimal and we are feeling good, feeling positive about our lives?  If by intentional, “I mean to convey that as individuals and communities we can create together ways of thinking about and experiencing the challenges and opportunities of adult development and aging. Wherever we are in our travels through the life course, whatever our lives look like at any given time, we can choose to be present as fully as possible to our experiences,” how do I, how do we, bring this potential to fruition? How does this principle inform how I relate to and serve others, do my work as a gerontologist, and live my own precious unfolding life with as much agency and awareness as I can?

I’m still sussing what I mean by “intentional” when connected to “aging,” but I can say this for certain right now: Intentional aging must be a potential for all human beings, no matter what any individual’s life looks like or how they are experiencing their aging journey, or else it is a too precious, empty concept that while inspiring for some folk, is unobtainable for others.


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