Though sometimes referred to as reaching the “golden years,” growing into elderhood and living as an older person can be a challenging part of life. As Bette Davis remarked, “aging is no place for sissies.” There has been loss and sacrifice on all levels.
In the American culture, this aging process is often devalued and seen in negative terms – the older body regarded as being unattractive. In addition, these days older people often live at a distance from their families; they might have lost spouses and friends and may easily find themselves with new struggles of isolation and loneliness.
While sometimes elders are overlooked and discounted, I have seen invariably that they have a vital role within family and culture. Their many years of life experience, along with an air of acceptance and availability can offer younger people a sweet, rich presence that is seldom found elsewhere. There is a unique humor that can come with old age.
Age makes life very precious. The later years of life can be a fertile stage of transformation and refinement – a time that is ripe for opportunities of insight, relaxation, new perspectives, deeper self knowledge and genuine maturity. With the gradual failing of physical strength, another strength can be allowed to come through, that of who one is. This can be a precious experience – there is less putting on a performance in order to connect with others and valuing simply being present. The inner world takes higher priority and often kindness and compassion deepens.
I was close to my own parents when they moved through the phases of later life. Through that experience, I found that I have a lot of empathy and appreciation for elders and for their children and care givers. It was probably this process that most strongly inspired me to pursue professional eldercare.
In working with elders I provide a relationship that is warm, friendly and consistent. Rather that imposing myself and my view on my clients, I attempt to empower and enable them to assume as much agency and authority in their world as they effectively can. I use close listening and conversation to convey respect and positive regard. My conversations with older people are often about the most ordinary aspects of life. I use conversation to assess and learn about the person’s world and life.
These discussions are not only very enjoyable for them; they also support healthy cognitive functioning and the regulation of feelings. Most of my elder care includes collaborative work with the families of the aging person, which may include their spouse. Working together with my clients support system is often critical to his or her overall effective care. It often happens, for example, that an elder’s spouse (who is usually an older person also) suddenly finds him or herself in the role of caretaker rather than partner. These caregivers may be without the necessary support for the demands of the new role. By providing one or more of the services I offer, I can often relieve some of the weight that comes with the responsibility of caring for frailer people. Where a family is becoming over burdened with caretaking duties, my services can help the return to greater emphasis on natural family relationship and leisure, while I assume more of the “working” tasks.
I believe that life, even at its most difficult times, offers opportunities for a sense of meaning, purpose and esteem. These experiences are derived not only from surviving difficulties and appreciating achievements, but also in finding strength through surrender. In all my activities with elders I attempt to develop a relationship that enables them to better engage in life so that it is meaningful, rewarding and enjoyable. I affirm the person’s accomplishments, and support them in maintaining independence and passion for daily activities. I encourage and assist with the maintenance of accessible social networks with friends and family that help elders stay connected with their community. I see our relationship as a collaborative and personal partnership.
I first began training and practicing in Mindfulness/Awareness in the form of meditation in 1977. Since graduating from Naropa Institute in 1990, where the roots of my study were based in the same contemplative practices, this orientation has informed the way I work with people and their families.
Contemplation begins at the very start of the invitation to work together. The process of inquiring about what is happening with the client requires some thoughtful consideration. Details can be overlooked if one’s mind is too distracted and speedy in the moment. Entering with an open curious mind is the ground for gathering information and accessing feelings.
From here, the process unfolds on several levels. A keen awareness of one’s own feelings is an essential part of understanding another’s emotional state. In order to learn as much as I can about the practicalities and logic of a situation, I need to hear as much as possible about its themes and facts. As the relationship continues to develop, rather than proceeding as though everything has been revealed, I continually maintain a friendly, alert attention to the changes that come with time. The benefits of this process can’t be overstated – joining together in this engaging way provides strength, empowerment and relief.