Her hand trembles, but not enough to spill water from the cup as she raises it to her lips. You can see each vein, through the translucent skin from her fingers to forearm. She sips, the folds of skin around her throat moving as she swallows. She puts the cup down, sighing audibly with a smile.
“Well, let’s get started,” she says. “Give me your hands.” She takes your hands in both of hers. Immediately you feel peace. Subtle pressures from her fingers coax the day’s stresses out of your palms, fingers, and thumbs. Warmth moves up your arms and into your shoulders. Your heart suddenly aches, in a good way; your eyes feel prickly, and there’s a tickle in your throat, making you gulp.
Without looking up from your hands, she tells you, “let your tongue rest against the roof of your mouth.” You do as she says, and your throat tickle calms down. Warmth and calm settle into your body. Your breathing slows; your mind settles. Time becomes fluid. Eyes closed, you are aware of movement around you, the slight squeaking of wheels on linoleum, as hands move to your shoulders, back, chest and head. You feel her hands in two places at once. Your mind says, this is strange, while your body simply accepts it.
Your eyes open, to see her beaming face, haloed by white hair, smiling broadly, her false teeth perfect amid wrinkles.
“Already?” you ask. It seemed like a moment ago, and at the same time an eternity, that this old woman started holding your hands.
“Yes, already,” she smiles. She glows with inner light. “Now go and be well.” She turns and wheels her chair to the next one waiting for treatment. You sit for a while, feeling both light and settled within yourself, at peace.
Old age. Inevitable decline. Uselessness. Boredom. Loneliness. Unable to even use the bathroom by yourself. Out of touch, out of the loop, unaware of the latest Internet fad, celebrity scandal or political outrage. This is what awaits you if you don’t keep active, right? Worst of all is the loss of your mind, with Alzheimer’s or other dementia.
The fear says you must stop that at all costs. Keep working in retirement, because you couldn’t save enough in your working years, always be up on the latest skin treatment, surgeries, and in the future, gene therapy, to keep you young. Yes, keep running faster, to stay in the same place.
But, what if you were meant to slow down? A review of information on aging suggests that the decline of old age is not necessarily as we fear it to be, from our youthful perspective, and that the decline tends to be accompanied by increasing emotional maturity and physical adaptability.
There are many opportunities, on the Internet and in books, to correct our misperception of what aging means, and to give us hope for a blossoming elderhood. Here is a brief survey, barely scratching the surface of the huge ferment now brewing, of creative approaches to aging:
What are Old People For – How Elders Will Save the World, by William H. Thomas, M.D. Dr. Thomas lucidly demonstrates how powerful forces in our society have gotten it wrong about aging. Aging is a natural journey that brings great benefits. Elders who can follow the path, their freedom unhindered by ageist assumptions, can find great treasures. He has followed up his thesis by starting a program, the Eden Alternative, to humanize elder care facilities (see www.edenalt.org).
Thomas’ ideas were one of the inspirations behind EldersBloom, this author’s project to bring Reiki to elder communities. The story that begins this article is a future vision of EldersBloom.
On the Internet, you can find a succinct debunking of myths about aging, at the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute’s website. See: www.ithaca.edu/aging/schools/pdf/myths%20and%20facts.pdf. Far fewer elders end up as permanent residents of nursing homes than we think; sexuality survives much longer in life than we assume; and ability to work, meaningfully, continues long past statutory retirement ages.
The Live Oak Project (www.liveoakinstitute.org) seeks to promote a positive culture of aging. Their definition of an elder: “An Elder is a person who is still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for and connection to the future. An Elder is still in pursuit of happiness, joy and pleasure, and her or his birthright to these remains intact. Moreover, an elder is a person who deserves respect and honor and whose work it is to synthesize wisdom from long life experience and formulate this into a legacy for future generations.”
Encore, a book by Marc Freedman, challenges baby boomers to find meaningful work in the second half of life. The website at www.encore.org invites visitors to tell their own stories of elderhood.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, co-author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing, blessed the project based on that book, at
www.sage-ingguild.org, writing “The wisdom of elders is needed to steer us all to a place of greater health and peace.”
Another website, www.theelders.org, identifies world-famous elders and tries to organize our thinking around solving global problems with their wisdom.
And, www.wisdomoftheelders.org is a site dedicated to providing radio programs from the wisdom of American Indian elders. I am listening to it now, a program honoring the Sacred Earth.
And this brings us to a core meaning of elderhood. Dr. Thomas writes that elderhood became important the first time a hominid grandmother shared food with a grandchild. We spring from the Earth: our mother’s food, that gave us nourishment to grow in her womb, came from the Earth. Food, water and energy from the Earth sustain us while we live. Elders, as they physically age, visibly settle back into the Earth and, in death, return to the Great Mother.
The slowing and settling of aging shows the way to a more expansive contemplation of who we are, where we come from, and where we are headed. Everyone has this “sage-ing” opportunity, and the right to explore it. The greatest elder wisdom I have heard in my work, comes from those who have lived, suffered and loved deeply, and now have the time to contemplate it, without needing any degrees, certificates or mystical disciplines.
Conscious of it or not, our elders hold in trust the thread of connection to Earth. When we deny that thread, when we hide our eyes from aging, wrinkles, white hair and frailty, we deny the Earth under our feet. When we affirm the thread, when we practice to truly see the beauty of our elders’ bodies and spirits, we reaffirm our love for the Earth they came from, all the way back to our ancient ancestors whose bones and spirits still live in the rock, so that we may stand on their shoulders, and see the stars.
Jeffrey Hotchkiss is a Reiki Master and Emergency Medical Technician, who works with elders in both roles. He is the founder of EldersBloom, creating ways for Reiki people to connect with elders for the benefit of whole communities.