Gero-Punk Adventures: Aging in Place (part 3)

Well into his later years, Happy was mistook for a puppy. Maybe it was the bounce in his step, his obvious enthusiasm for the blooming, buzzing world, or perhaps because he still pulled on the leash as if he were brand new to being “obedient.” (Not that these are the exclusive attributes of the young!) Often, it wouldn’t be until someone who didn’t know Happy would come up more closely to him and see his grey beard and hunched over shoulders that they’d realize he wasn’t a puppy, but a creature who had lived a long life. (There’s a visible and energetic difference between how a puppy moves through the world and how an old dog moves through the world.  You know what I mean?)

Happy and I used to run together.  Three times around our park was just about as many miles.  Then, as he started slowing down a bit and suffering from post-run hip pain, we began alternating running and walking (what I like to call “doggie intervals”).  Now, we take stunningly slow, meandering ambles.  We spend the same amount of time as we used to, but we cover so much less ground. Happy can’t sustain a straight line or forward momentum for very long. Smells possess him even more strongly than before.   As Simeon jotted on a bit of scratch paper after one of these ambles, “He’ll spend twenty minutes smelling everything in a half block and know things about which I don’t have images or feelings to even dream.”

(It has occurred to me not only once that Happy’s travels through the life-course offer an other-than-human example of adaptation, compensation, and optimization as his capacities change: His vision and hearing aren’t as good as they used to be, so his olfactory sensitivity seems to have become even more acute and a greater source of pleasure. As well, because I am in a close relationship with Happy, I, too, am engaging in a process of adaptation, compensation, and optimization so that I can greet and meet his changing needs…and my own!)

There are also some more worrisome patterns that have emerged. We’ll be walking along and Happy will suddenly and jarringly stop, plant his feet stubbornly, pull in a direction other than the one in which we were heading, and then – here’s the worrisome part – stare off into space and wobble back-and-forth. (There’s a nighttime corollary: Intermittent periods of wakefulness, pacing back and forth, and barking at his bed.) I wonder if Happy is experiencing some confusion…cognitive impairment…a series of small strokes…an altered state of consciousness?  We’ve taken him to the veterinarian for countless “Senior Canine” check-ups and while it is becoming clearer over time to all of us that something serious is going on with him, the results of his various lab work-ups are unremarkable.  He’s doing great for his age, we’re told.

I periodically attempt to mind-meld with Happy, hoping to suss something about his inside experience. Through the swirl of our mutual confusion, the message he transmits to me is: Love.

jenny and happy 2018

+++

As Happy and I are ambling together in our meandering way along the barkdust path on the west side of the park, making our slow way home, I notice what looks to be a man – a father? – teaching another person – a child? – to ride a bike. The person learning to ride the bike (a small mountain bike) is wearing a heavy coat and a bike helmet; by their size they appear to be at least in their teenage years.  As Happy and I get closer to them, I see more detail. The teacher is an older Asian man, and the learner is…an older Asian woman!

The woman is giggling so hard she’s almost sliding off the side of the bike. The man is giving her rapid-fire but jovial instructions in a dialect I suspect is Mandarin (but what do I know?).

Because I’ve taught people to ride bikes and because I used to be a serious cyclist (did you know that about me?), and because I’m bossy (did you know that about me?), I feel an overwhelming urge to intervene in this situation. The balls of her feet, not her heels, should be on the peddles! The seat is adjusted much too high! Barkdust isn’t the proper surface upon which to learn to ride a bike! Also, her helmet is too far back on her head when it should be covering her forehead! I’m saved from meddling by the fact that I don’t speak Mandarin.  And I am just self-aware enough to not bust into such a scene without invitation.

Once Happy and I are a bit past the pair, I turn around, smile, and give the thumbs up, which I’m hoping has enough universal positive meaning that they get the message I am trying to transmit.

I am pretty certain they receive my message, as they both smile back at me – huge, happy smiles! —and giggle with joy.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Gero-Punk Dharma

Toward the end of my most recent post, Gero-Punk Public Service Announcement, I plunked down a couple of provocative bits without offering any easy answers or resolutions.  This was intentional on my part, not offering any easy (or hard) answers or resolutions!  As a Gero-Punk, I’m committed to freedom of thought; far be it from me to be the Gero-Punk Thought Police!

I was hoping that some of you dear readers would be reading closely enough that you’d realize that I’d left a couple of tantalizing, possibly unanswerable questions just dangling there. I wrote, “At the end of the Understanding and Addressing Ageism workshop I facilitated last week, one of the participants asked me if it was wrong that they appreciate being told that they look good for their age.”  One of you dear readers responded keenly: “…what was the answer to be pleased to be told you look younger? At 63 I love it when folks think I’m younger! Of course, my immaturity lends to that as well! Hahah.”

age is just a number

+++

I have a recurring memory of meeting for an interview with one of my spiritual teachers.  How many years ago did this meeting take place? I think several, perhaps even a decade has passed.  I was struggling with memories around personal and family wounds over-taking me during my contemplation and meditation practices.  My teacher responded by asking me not about the memories that were intruding upon my practice – not about the content—but, rather, about the contours of my practice.  I don’t remember what I described about my practice. But I do remember the dharma she offered to me; it was advice in the form of an aspiration.  She said: I wish for you more opportunities to encounter the empty and groundless nature of reality, as you spend a lot of time in the realm of relative experience and self-cherishing.

+++

I’ve been pondering my ongoing misgivings regarding the anti-ageism activism I’ve been engaging in for the past quarter-decade (at least). My misgivings feel fierce but hard to pin down. I often feel possessed by the conviction that much of the work on ageism isn’t quite getting it right, that there’s something problematic about the framing of the issue, there’s something problematic about the impulse to privilege ageism above all other forms of bias and discrimination. I’m sympathetic yet grumpy with the idea that because aging is a universal human experience, something that we are all doing across the life-course regardless of the many ways in which we are diverse, that this is the idea around which we can organize and engage in anti-ageism education and activism.  The assertion that when we engage in ageism toward older persons we are discriminating against our future older selves is a potent idea, one that connects to the work I’ve been doing for at least twenty years around imagining and befriending our “future older selves” as a practice for more deeply engaging in one’s own life-long aging journey, as well for opening up space for curiosity about (and perhaps greater empathy for) others’ aging journeys.

I’ve seen many people experience profound transformations in their consciousness about aging and old age as a result of engaging in an intentional relationship with their future older selves (as well as their previous younger selves). I’ve never tested whether this practice leads to a reduction in internalized or externalized ageism – this has never been an explicit purpose of the practice; rather, my fundamental aim in inviting others to engage in deep reflection (and sometimes discussion and writing, too) about their imagined future older selves is because it offers a creative way into experiencing ourselves as emerging, always-developing beings and aging as a dynamic, multi-faceted life-long process.

The universality of aging is a potent truth – it is dharma. But I think in the context of anti-ageism education and activism we may hold some confusion about how best to harness this truth. (I myself share this confusion.) What is the texture of this truth and how might we embody and enact it? Touching the universality of aging feels to me to be connected to the “empty and groundless nature of reality” that my spiritual teacher entreated me to become more intimate with.

Aging is also a deeply personal experience which is embedded in the context(s) – times, places and spaces – in which one is situated and shaped by (often over-determined by) one’s positionalities such as gender, class, race/ethnicity, ability, nationality, generation, and more. Contexts and positionalities contribute to the tremendous diversity of how aging unfolds and is experienced over the life-course. The diversity of aging experiences – the exquisite particularity of how we travel through the life-course — feels to me to be connected to the “realm of relative experience and self-cherishing.”

We often get mired in the “realm of relative experience and self-cherishing,” possessed by and obsessed with the particularity of our experiences traveling through the life-course and confronting (and being confronted by) our aging.  We feel betrayed by aging – how our bodies and minds change in ways that feel out of our control. We feel wounded by aging…or perhaps it would be more accurate to say wounded by ageism, those reductive and damaging messages which are projected and internalized. Our aging wounds can become totalizing forces, unconscious and under-theorized and thus potentially huge blind-spots.  Aging wounds…. wounded by each other, by the culture, self-inflicted wounds. Oh, I’m barely scratching the surface, there’s so much more to be explored here!

My strong and abiding take-away, which has been confirmed multiple times now in the context of the many informal and formal conversations I’ve facilitated about age, aging and ageism, is that our suffering around ageism has to do with the relative realm, not the universal realm. Our suffering has to do with feeling stuck, misunderstood, hemmed in, reduced, out-of- control, confused, disappointed, bereft of hope…. fundamentally aggrieved that the aging journey, which is the human journey, is a journey toward ultimate destruction of the self. The stronger our “self-cherishing,” the deeper and more intense our wound.

Aging unfolds over the potentially long life-course and involves a balance between gains, losses and stability of abilities and functioning across multiple domains: body, mind, spirit, social roles and relationships. This is another important bit of dharma.

When we foreground our aging wounds, when we focus on ageism, we tend to activate our fears of the many losses that inevitably visit us as we travel through the life-course (As Kunitz pleads in his poem “The Layers,” How shall our hearts be reconciled to its feast of losses?).  Being human is to be vulnerable and at risk of losses no matter our age or life-course stage. But it is when we enter the land of later life – old age – that these losses and vulnerabilities become unavoidable and most intense.

There are also many gifts – gains – that may come with traveling through the life-course. Every life-course stage and age is characterized by its special gifts.  Part of the work of understanding and ending ageism and expanding aging awareness is to discover and celebrate the gifts of different ages and stages, to create the causes and conditions for these gifts to be appreciated and shared within and between generations.  But what are the gifts of different ages and stages? Can we say that there are shared universal gifts, or are gifts made manifest in diverse ways at the individual and communal level and, thus, in the “eye of the beholder”?  I’d suspect that there are gifts which are both shared and particular.

One of the challenges in talking about “the gifts of aging,” which is often the antidote offered by anti-ageism workers addressing the “losses of aging,” is to do so without perpetuating a positive aging stereotype such as older people are wise in place of damaging negative aging stereotypes such as older people are senile. My friends, a stereotype is a stereotype, even if it is positive. How do we imagine the gifts of old age — or any age — without doing so in a totalizing, reductive way?

+++

This is all so complex, isn’t it? And we humans seem to not prefer to dwell with complexity. And yet, I suspect that dwelling in complexity is the secret to muddling through all of this.  It surely feels like the answer to the question of how to reconcile my heart to its feast of losses.

Dwelling in complexity – in this case the complexity of the aging journey – requires me to explore the ways in which aging is simultaneously an empty and groundless phenomenon, and a deeply personal experience of self-hood.

Complexity is the dharma of aging.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Gero-Punk Public Service Announcement

I just realized that it’s that time again. Actually, it is well past that time again. But as I always like to sing: Better late than never; no time like the present; sooner rather than later; life is short, act now!

What time is it? It is time for a Gero-Punk public service announcement!

A Gero-Punk’s gotta eat

Whatcha doing this spring? Wanna hang out?

If you live in or near Portland, Oregon, USA (or happen to be passing through), why not join me some Wednesday for lunch?

Beginning Wednesday, April 3rd, from noon to 2:00 p.m. PST, I’ll be hosting a weekly informal brown-bag-lunch conversation.

Here’s where you’ll find me:

Oregon State University Portland Center

Room PCMF 2006. Just drop-in, no need to RSVP.

And you don’t need to be affiliated with OSU to attend – all are welcome! Bring yourself, a green smoothie or awesome food cart sandwich, and whatever happens to be on your mind.

We can eat and chat and laugh and commiserate and scheme and dream.

For more information: jenny.sasser@oregonstate.edu

The Critical Gerontology “Thought Space”

I think I may have forgotten to mention that my long-time collaborator – Harry R. Moody – and I have a chapter in Critical Gerontology Comes of Age: Advances in Research and Theory in a New Century, edited by our colleague Chris Wellin, Ph.D. and published last year by Routledge.

Cover art

If you are curious about what it means to do Critical Gerontology (C.G.), you might dig reading this collection of essays.  We explore the different areas in which the C.G. perspective has been enacted as we quest to understand the complexities of contemporary aging and construct gerontological knowledge. We authors represent diverse backgrounds, interests, and – so cool – generations, so what results is a kaleidoscopic view of where we’ve been and where we might be heading as gerontologists working in this radical “thought space,” as Stephen Katz, Ph.D. describes C.G.

Speaking of Stephen Katz – a C.G. luminary – he’s written a hot-off-the-presses review of our book for the March issue of The Gerontologist. Check it.

Better with age

And speaking of my comrade Harry R. Moody, we’ve commenced work on the 10th (!!!!) edition of Aging: Concepts and Controversies, published by Sage. You’ll see the new edition hit the ground sometime later this year, hopefully, with – per usual – updated data and sources, as well as some new juicy supplemental readings and focus areas.

In the meanwhile, if you are a user of our text, whether as a teacher or a student, we’d love to think together with you about what works well and what could work better, not to mention any ideas you have for new things we might want to consider including.

Sound good?

Send your ideas to me at littlecoracle@gmail.com

Gero-Punk Ponderings and Provocations

At the end of the Understanding and Addressing Ageism workshop I facilitated last week, one of the participants asked me if it was wrong that they appreciate being told that they look good for their age.

Yesterday, I had a delightful and illuminating phone conversation with a soon-to-be 76-year-old on the topic of political candidates who are chronologically endowed. They began our conversation by describing the down-shift in energy they themselves have experienced as they’ve grown older, and the necessity and pleasure of taking a daily nap.  They wondered if it is possible to take a daily nap when you are POTUS.

As I was jumping on my mini-trampoline this morning, I was singing a little song of praise to gravity, who is my life-long friend.

And you? What’s on your mind? What’s up-and-down with you?

Thanks for tuning in.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments