The Worthiness of Our Elders

I’ve been away from writing for too long.   But it was for a good reason.  I was attending the wedding of my son, a happy time which made me think once more, “There is something basically good about being a human being.”  And yet according to Pope Francis at a recent conference for World Youth Day and lamenting the poor employment opportunities for youth, we live in a “culture of rejection.”  He added, “We are used to this culture of rejection with old people; we do it often, despite the life wisdom they give us. They are left on one side as if they have nothing to offer.”[1]  And it does seem, according to Sakyong Mipham[2], the leader of the enlightened society movement, that we have to shift our view to include all of society as worthy.  If we take on  negative views, we forget our worthiness.

We all share the desire to be happy.  We all share being born and aging and dying.  And whether happy or sad or sick or well, we can all wake up to the present moment.   In fact, the well-known gerontologist Dr. Robert Atchley says that, “while the world has always extolled the value of wise men and women, there are everyday people from all walks of life who have matured spiritually and gradually developed the qualities and skills we associate with the wise sage.”[3]  He calls them “ordinary sages.” He listed many qualities of the sage; one skill that struck me is that “sages are skilled at discernment, seeing the essence of things.”

I saw it recently at Caritas, the memory unit of Mary’s Woods, a retirement center in Portland, Oregon.  After lunch, Reverend John, a chaplain, gathered the residents for singing.  Sixteen elders, who suffer from some form of dementia making them vulnerable and needing complete care, live in this special care area.  Each person at Caritas is toward the end of life, frail and lonely and some might say sick. But I saw basic healthiness, that even though a person might be well, or might be sick, it is still possible to be awake in the present moment.

The room at Caritas is nice, with tall windows and lots of light.  Reverend John[4] has a guitar and leads the singing. We all sing together songs about animals being at peace, particularly the Pete Seeger song, “Wimoweh”.   Singing with that deeply evocative rhythm, I am reminded of hearing about traditional societies where the elders who once lived in family compounds, instead of being labeled demented, could wander at will, “communing with the gods.”  The residents of Caritas also wander freely in their world.

After the singing, Reverend John asked a question of B.  It was her birthday.  “What wisdom can you share with us from having lived so long?”  After a long silence, B told us.   “Take care of yourself and others.”  Then Reverend John asked another elder to say a prayer.  J said, “May we be better than before and keep our eyes on the future.  Amen.”

 For a moment, I glimpsed what my teachers have taught.   Even with all of our foibles and hurts, or aggression or dumbness, there is something soft and open and feeling within. It might be covered over but can’t be taken away. In spite of all of the details of each individual illness, these lovely beings are old and frail because they have been born human.  They will die (with wisdom intact) because they were born, as I have been, as human beings.


[1] Pope Francis in Brazil, speaking on behalf of World Youth Day, on July 22, 2013.

[2] Sakyong Mipham from his book, The Shambhala Principle, Harmony Books, 2013.

[3] Dr. Robert Achtley, in a phone conversation on July 19, 2013.

[4] The Reverend John Aamodt of Pastoral Services at Mary’s Woods, Portland, OR.

 

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Ann Cason

Ann Cason,
Geriatric Consultant

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