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Getting Elder All the Time

Author: Chris Roth
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #149

Ouch!

I’m loading sorghum cane onto a wagon here at Sandhill Farm. With each armload lifted, I’m reminded of yesterday’s Ultimate frisbee game, when I received a sharp elbow to my ribs. My knee is also aching, the result of years of wear and tear and a past injury. I remember when I could work in the field or garden, spending hours on my feet or knees, without discomfort. But my body’s not as young as it once was, and, at age 48, I’m inching toward…well, 50, then 60, then full-fledged senior citizenship (assuming both I and a livable planet last that long). Hopefully I’ve gained some wisdom with age, to compensate for the gradual decline in my physical youth and abilities. I do appreciate the fact that I can still run around the Ultimate field, often ending up with the frisbee in the end zone. At those moments, I don’t feel old or even close to it. But I can no longer stay in quite such airtight denial that I am aging, and, barring unforeseen circumstances (like premature death, a radical change in the physical and biological laws of the known universe, or the end of time) will eventually be “old.”

What will it be like to be an elder? If it is simply an accumulation of physical complaints, I expect it will be no fun. In addition to finding ways to take care of and adapt to a changing body, the redeeming factors will need to be a better understanding of life and a new social role, one in which the lessons I’ve learned through experience are more helpful to others than how many loads of sorghum cane I can lift. (Realistically, I believe that is already the case.) Whereas physical activity and single-focus goal-accomplishment may make it possible to ignore some of one’s own needs for deeper social connection and relevance as a youth, aging seems to force a rebalancing and realignment of priorities, as our vulnerabilities and weaknesses become more obvious. A social web that recognizes this process and fully values people as they age seems a prerequisite for having happy elders.

In our highly mobile, ever-changing, fast-paced society, ways of life and work seem to become outdated almost as soon as they’re introduced, and images (often fabricated mirages) of youth often form the standard against which we consumers are encouraged to judge ourselves inadequate and therefore in need of buying something. A throwaway culture makes it all too easy to “throw away” those who don’t fit the latest model of efficiency, production, or entertainment. The number of seniors who end up in large-scale nursing homes, and the numbers of farmers, artisans, storytellers, and other wisdomkeepers who end up with no one with whom to share their skills, experiences, and insights, attest to how tenuous the place of elders in our society can be.

Cooperative groups have a chance to change this formula—and many of them do. So do some traditional cultures and subcultures, small towns, and longstanding neighborhoods. But this seems not to be the norm. How can we improve the lot of elders, and thereby all of us?

Despite the rich benefits offered by elders and their capacity for compassion, wisdom, emotional maturity, and practical savvy, intentional communities may encounter many challenges in retaining and integrating them. For starters, in high-turnover or new communities, members often become “elders” long before physical age would suggest that description. And accompanying elderhood of any kind come power dynamics, which if not handled skillfully by both elders and newcomers or youth, can result in the flight or expulsion of the elders, the youth, or both. When membership turnover is high enough, elders can find themselves awash in a constantly-reinvented world in which others don’t know them or value them for who they are and what they’ve done—in which abiding interpersonal connections and appreciation have not had a chance to grow. And new members of a mostly-new community have no particular reason to believe they should defer to a previous generation who represent a world that no longer is.

I’ve felt most at home in multigenerational, sustainability-oriented communities that find roles for their elders. I don’t want to confront my own elderhood as mostly a catalog of physical complaints—or a constant struggle to maintain my place, my feeling of community, and some semblance of continuity. I want the remainder of my life to be rich in connection and relevance, shared with others in settings in which all generations benefit from one another’s gifts. The articles in this issue suggest ways in which this hopeful future can manifest.

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Sadly, the communities movement lost several elders since we assembled our last issue. We profile four of them in this issue: Al Andersen, Margo Adair, Fred Lanphear, and Jane Blaffer Owen. Other recent passings include communal scholar Jim Kopp, author of Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage (reviewed in Communities #146), and Tamar Friedner, whose 10 years at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage had earned her the position of “elder” despite her physical youth. This has been a time of both mourning for these losses, and celebration of these individuals, who touched the lives of so many.

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