Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Honoring your Elders

I think that there are many ways in which modern life has lost things.  Community is definitely one of these areas.  I don't think we have as tight of a community as we used to, before people started moving and traveling and becoming so busy.  And while technology does help bridge some of those gaps, some things seem to get lost in the cracks.

One of these places is our relationship with our elders.  In days gone by, if almost everyone in your village was born, grew up, married and died there, you were in close contact, not only with your own familial elders (grandparents and what not), but also you knew the other elders in the village, because you grew up with them your whole life.

I have lived fairly far away from my own grandparents for most of my life.  I was lucky enough to see them pretty regularly though, typically once every other summer (we would visit one side of the family one year, and the other side the next year).  I was also expected to write letters as a thank you anytime I was gifted money, and they had to be more than just a thank you, I had to talk about what was going on in my life.  When I was little, I didn't appreciate writing the letters, but now that I am grown, I am glad that I did, because I have always felt like I knew my grandparents fairly well.

I was also expected to spend time with my elders (whether it was my grandparents or other older relatives).  I have spent many hours talking with my grandparents, and even with my great-grandparents (when they were alive).  I grew up talking with people and listening to their stories, so I never learned to think that older people weren't interesting.

I have had other opportunities, in my life, to talk with elders, both those related to me by blood and those who aren't.  And some of those experiences have been deeply moving.  I think there is a lot we can learn from people (of all ages), and that sometimes the elderly get overlooked.  Sometimes it is because they do things at a slower pace, or because they have trouble communicating, or even perhaps because they like different things.

What I find really telling though, is that connection with another person, and learning from them, bypasses all these barriers.  It doesn't matter if you personally enjoy the same things as they do, when you listen to them, if you open yourself, you can often learn things.  That thing might be "wow, I'm glad I didn't grow up having to do that....", but it lets you appreciate the other person more for what they have experienced.

Language may feel like a huge obstacle, but many things transcend the spoken word.  When one of my great-grandmothers was living in a nursing home, there was another old lady there, who bonded with my great-grandmother.  Her name was Mary, and her family didn't come visit her, so we always included her when we visited with my great-grandmother.  Mary didn't speak, and it wasn't always obvious if she fully understood what we were saying.  But she was always smiling, obviously liked my great-grandmother, and she would gesture if she wanted something (she collected can tabs) or wanted to give you something (she gave me some plastic beads, which I still have).

And though I am a big fan of actual face time, I know it's not always possible.  If you have elders in your life, it may mean you need to slow down and take a different path to connecting with them.  Facebook and texting might work for some of your elders, but others might prefer a phone call.  Or consider actually writing them a letter and mailing it.  There is something really elegant about mail (and you can include pictures or other things that might mean something special).

I also find it sad that sometimes elders have no family left to care for them.  Even if they are in a facility that sees to their needs, and even when the staff is wonderful and cares for them on an emotional level too, I think that when people choose to spend time with elders for no reason other than to spend time with them, that says something and it can be felt.

When I was in high school, we had to do community service.  Though technically I didn't have a choice, I really enjoyed my community service.  I worked with the humane society, and they had a special set of animals that volunteers took to different places (like the hospital and nursing homes) to visit with people in long term care.  The care facility I visited had several people who had been there for a long time (we were told that there was one bird that was a particular favorite, and if we didn't bring her, people would be disappointed).

Watching people interact with the animals was wonderful.  There was such a delight and fascination.  We brought two rats once, and many people wouldn't touch them, but they were interested in long as one of us was holding them!  And while the animals were there, people talked.  I got to hear all kinds of stories about their lives.  It didn't matter that I didn't know them, there was still sharing and connection going on.

There may also be elders who are not near us or who have already passed, but we can still learn from their wisdom.  I think that often we tend to look to vital, young people when we look at history's heroes, but there are lots of people who had huge contributions later in life.  Being able to read about these elders lets us partake in their wisdom and experiences, even if we didn't have the opportunity to meet them in life.

The one thing I don't agree with is the idea that all elders are worthy of respect JUST because they are old.  For me, respect is a thing that is earned, and you earn it by how you act.  I have known horrible, cranky, mean old people.  And while they may have their reasons and justifications (just like horrible, cranky, mean young people might), it doesn't mean they are automatically somehow better, just because they are old.

What I do think is that our elders can be powerful messages about how our own future might turn out.  If you see someone who has become someone you would never want to be, look to see how they got that way.  Sometimes they just start out mean, but sometimes they respond to the things life threw their way and their choices forged them into who they are.  If you don't want to become them, you can learn from their journey and make different choices.

I feel elders are a precious resource, and that we need to honor them in the way that they deserve to be honored.  I have lost some of my own elders and know that there are things that I missed having the opportunity to do.  Time with our elders is precious and we should treat it (and them) as such!

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