Wise Aging Workshop: Living with Joy, Resilience, and Spirit

The women in my family have always lied about their age.  My bubby lied, my mother lied and, in keeping with that tradition, I too have lied.

Somehow it seemed fitting that I should be asked to speak to a group of senior citizens about aging. I immediately thought that this would be a perfect opportunity to use Wise Agingby Rabbi Rachel Cowan and Dr. Linda Thal, as my resource. Wise Aging is organized in a way that works for facilitated or self-created book groups, with enough material and questions for a year's worth of group discussions.

This workshop reminded me of the importance of providing people of all ages with opportunities to learn and study together, and to share their own life experiences in discussion groups.

I began by sharing a personal story: Every year on Mother’s Day, I go to the cemetery in Toronto where my mother and bubby are buried. I share some private thoughts with them and then, out of habit, I read the words on their gravestones.  It is my way of honoring them and remembering them. But last Mother’s Day,  as I stood at my bubby’s grave, I read the words on her headstone out loud:

Rose Alpert Brown
Loving wife, sister, mother and grandmother
Born January 1, 1870
Died April 27, 1963

And at the bottom of the headstone, in large letters, it said: Died at 89 years of age.

I did a quick calculation and realized that the numbers added up to 93! I burst out laughing. “Bubby”, I shouted, “You lied!!”

In my mind, I imagined my Bubby before she passed away, lying in bed, issuing orders to my mother. “Ida, don’t put on mine gravestone that I am in mine nineties! I don’t vant the whole vorld should know how old I am!”  And so, my mother followed those instructions.

Aging all too often feels like a drift downhill to a place we don’t want to go. But each year new doors open with opportunities, even while others close with loss.  We have the power to prepare, to become stronger, more resilient, and to navigate these challenges.  Will we turn toward the opportunities, and find new joy and meaning life?  How can we make the most of this time, and develop into deeper, wiser people?

Imagine that a big birthday comes along. Maybe it’s seventy. Or perhaps eighty – or more. We’re supposed to be happy – we’ve made it this far, with blessings we can count. Yet we feel a nagging bit of dread. “It’s not so bad,” we tell ourselves. “Seventy is the new fifty, after all.”

Or we may say, "OMG – I am getting old! I can see the horizon. Now what? Help!" But we're curious too about what’s next.

You are not alone in having concerns about growing older, and yet it's a chance to get to know yourself more profoundly and unlock new opportunities for this next stage in your life

These years are a gift. Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who is best known for extending Freud’s theory of human development into mature adulthood, was particularly interested in the developmental challenges and opportunities that life presents to us at different stages of the lifecycle. At this stage of our lives, according to Erikson, we will turn inward and gather up the life we have lived, make sense of its ups and down, wrestle with existential questions, and strive to integrate all that we have learned and experienced. This, according to Erikson, is what he considers wisdom.

Ours is the first generation in human history to move into elderhood with twenty years or more of vitality and good health ahead. Once our lives are no longer driven primarily by nurturing family and building careers, we have the chance to make wise choices about how we spend our time, energy, and money. We have the opportunity to prepare for the times that will be difficult and savor the times that are good.

Often the most profound learning comes from sharing questions and musings with others, listening to their stories and queries, and immersing ourselves together in the wisdom texts of traditional and contemporary thinkers. 

Stumbling Blocks

  • — The attitude toward aging that pervades our society informs both the way we think of ourselves and the way others behave toward us.
  • — It is reflected in social policies that leave millions of seniors without the resources they need for their health and well-being.
  • — Our culture values youth, strength, and beauty.
  • — Some say that the elderly are in danger of becoming invisible. The feeling of irrelevance can darken the mind and dampen the spirit.
  • — When we age, we often find that we too have absorbed society’s views: we see our wrinkles as unattractive, our skills as limited. 

In my workshop, we discussed topics related to aging such as:

  • — The Attitude Toward Aging in Our Society
  • — Shifting the Negative Paradigm of Decline to Opportunity
  • — Challenging Transitions in our Lives
  • — Time for the Next Transition
  • — Rediscovering the Authentic Self

The response was incredible!  Everyone felt excited and empowered by the idea that this next stage of their lives had the potential to be rich with opportunities for growth, discovery and new meaning. I was delighted to discover that each and every senior in the audience was anxious to contribute their personal experiences and thoughts about aging, life’s challenges, and their hopes and dreams about the next stage in their lives.

Our discussions can be summarized as follows:

The book of Ecclesiastes tells us “there is a time for everything under the sun.”  This life stage is a time for strengthening our inner spiritual life, so we will be more resilient, more open to possibility, more creative and loving as our journey takes us farther into our years.  This is a time to accept and learn to live with uncertainty as we find new balance.

This new stage of life gives us:

  • — The opportunity to let go of some of the pressures we faced earlier in our lives. 
  • — More time for reflection, relationships, and enjoyment of activities. Choose activities for the sheer pleasure or satisfaction of doing them, rather than as a means to achieve a goal, or for status or recognition. 
  • — Time to explore our creative side, learn new things, or deepen our knowledge of things we love.  We can teach from the stories of our lives, from our examples.  We can be less motivated by “should” and “have tos” and more by “want tos.” 

I shared with my group a poem that I wrote several years ago. 

A Prayer for Growing Old

God, help me to grow old gracefully
With my body and my mind intact.
Let me be physically active and mentally alert.
Give me the wisdom to choose from among life’s opportunities
That which will be most gratifying.

Enable me to love my children without judging
And give me the gift of their love in return.
Grant me independence to do the things I choose
And the friends to enjoy them with.

Above all, dear God, give me the courage to embrace each day
As a mountain to be climbed,
A challenge to be conquered.
And, in the end, let me make a difference in my world.

©Marlene Myerson