One thing about people my age is that we usually like each other. We like to get together because we understand what that other person is going through. We understand stiffness in the morning, digestive problems in the late evening, adjustments to new medications, struggles with old ones, sleepiness in the early afternoon, insomnia at night, inability to run fast yet the need to hurry, especially to the bathroom.
In 1992 I attended a conference on aging (yes, there were such strange events then) at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. People talked about what it meant to grow old in this century. I had been sent there by a Mennonite church agency to get some basic understanding of this group of people that I was contracted to write a study guide about. I was just about into this age category myself.
What I remember most distinctly about that conference is that when presenters talked about the elderly, it was always “they,” rarely “we” even when it was obvious they had been on Social Security for many years. No one dared identify with this declining group. To be old was to be over the hill, finished, on the downward journey. At the time the word “old” was a four-letter word.
There are many situations in which an older adult is just tolerated, not welcomed. I have heard of congregations bemoaning the fact that the majority of its membership is old – therefore the church can’t grow-- as if older people are a stagnant body harboring strange life forms that prevent forward movement.
Such thinking leads to the kinds of Christmas letters in which parents extoll what their children did during the year – and not how they themselves grew.
When I returned from that conference I started looking for an organization that viewed this age group not as a finished work but as people with possibilities for intellectual and personal growth, for developing new relationships and learning new skills. I found it in what is now known as LifeVentures, formerly Shepherd’s Center.
It is an inter-faith, non-profit organization. By inter-faith I mean that no one religion gets top billing. No one denomination is top dog. It’s a volunteer-based organization with a few great part-time employees to keep the ship afloat. Check out our website at www.LifeVenturesKS.com
For nearly twenty years I have attended classes sponsored by this group each Tuesday for eight weeks in fall, winter and spring. I have heard lectures in just about every subject often taught by retired professionals. I have gone to classes in history, religion, health, travel, and much more. There are classes in art, poetry writing and creative writing. A woman at age 94 teaches piano. At lunch one day a man age 75 played the accompaniment to “Happy Birthday.” It had been his lifelong dream. Before this session he had never played a note. Ezma taught him. On the program are also tai chi and yoga. At lunch I keep meeting new people and connecting with old friends. I love these people.
I have taught poetry writing, journaling, and especially writing personal or family history. I’ve pushed the importance of telling our stories, for if we lose them, we lose our connection to ourselves and our families. I've told my own story. Through the years I’ve learned many intimate details about members’ lives as they read last week’s assignment
When I first started attending I didn’t know that this association would lead to lasting friendships. What I learned in the classes was the side benefit, not the main one. Older people look for closeness in organizations such as this one but a prerequisite to making friends is the willingness to reach out to new people.
My age group doesn't want to be abandoned in our declining years. We long for and need friendship. In the movie Cool-hand Luke, the main character, is in prison at the mercy of abusive guards. He is sickly, weak, and knows he can’t hang on much longer. To taunt him the guards place a heaping plate of food in front of him and threaten more punishment if he doesn’t finish it, every last spoonful. As his fellow prisoners walk around the yard each one furtively grabs a spoonful of food from his plate as they pass his corner to share his burden.
I see that as a wonderful portrait of what happens in organizations like LifeVentures-- people sharing the burden of life while enriching their minds and spirits.