An old paradigm, in which the elderly lived with their extended families and participated in the lives of their loved ones, is long gone. Somehow, the elderly in America are now often forgotten, in the way, warehoused in assembly-line nursing homes, and perceived as drains on the economy. This is the state of affairs at a time when 80 percent of Americans can now expect to live beyond the age of 65, when 75 million baby boomers will reach retirement age in the next 20 years, and when a woman who now reaches the age of 50 without cancer or heart disease can expect to live to an average age of 94.
Yet a significant number of our elderly live out their years filled with fear, helplessness, hopelessness and despair.
Viewing these circumstances as an opportunity to experience “the anticipated fulfillment of life, not its inevitable decline,” Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who holds the “World Wisdom” chair at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Cob., works with a process he calls Spiritual Eldering.
Founder of the non-denominational Spiritual Eldering Project and co-author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older (Warner Books, 1995), he demonstrates how older men and women can continue to expand their potential and enjoy productive, rewarding lives.
In his seventies, Schachter-Shalomi, through his book and through The Spiritual Eldering Project, reaches out to tens of thousands of older Americans across the country each year, in a combination of workshops, seminars, presentations, and classes. He unfolds the keys to harvesting life and passing on a legacy of knowledge and experience.
At what point In a person’s life should they start thinking about â€œeldering?â€
Rabbi Zalmon Schachter-Shalomi: First of all, Larry Dossey and others have made it clear it isn’t just a function of physical biological age. It’s also a function of mind. So when older people were going back into the nostalgia, clothes and music of the ’50s, their bodies responded in a way so they were youthful, with more spring in their step.
So if we look at the question from a holistic perspective, we must look at physiological, chronological, and affect issues. How do they feel about life? Have they got something to look forward to, or is the rest of it walking toward the door of death? Where are they in their mind? Are they still reading and absorbing new stuff and building more synaptic connections, or have they given up and said “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?”
And finally, a very decisive element is, where is their spirit? If the spirit is alive in them, than those things that go with youth continue longer. It is almost as if the “puppy dog-ness” in me is alive. If! still have the devil in my eyes and so on, then the likelihood is people will speak of me as “a youthful 70.”
Do you think there’s a new or different way In which spirit and the spiritual practices is manifesting In this current older group of people?
Schachter-Shalomi: Yes, but you can’t make too great a generalization. It depends in what kind of social mode they live. There are some to whom “spirit” has connotations of religion, and others to whom “spirit” has a connotation of being freed from religion and being now free to follow spirit.
Among the people who feel there’s a divergence between spiritual and religious, I find a greater amount of spirituality, the question that is much harder to define. It is a sense of greater oneness with the planet, with other people, a greater tolerance for divergent points of view. We don’t have to be on the same page of our reality maps, because spirit allows there to be more space there.
My sense is there is a natural development of spirit that city life and business undercuts. That model says you have to somehow sit in the saddle until you die, or else you are a failure and not productive. I think that’s spoiling what normal natural spiritual development would take place in advanced age.
So what can we do about it? We have to create civilizational tools like Spiritual Eldering to help people live the harvest years of their life in such a way that it overcomes the natural tendency to depression over the gradual failure of the body.
We must become wisdom keepers looking out for the seven generations to come after us. As Jung pointed out, “If evolution didn’t have any purpose, why do we stay alive so long after reproduction?” So there must be some reason, that has to do with civilization and the transmission of values, why we stay around.
I feel if you look at earth as a whole being, and us as cells of that being then the ever increasing number of aged people will have to be the wisdom brain cells for the global brain, to be able to bring about the healing the planet needs.
How will you get these Ideas and this Informatlon to that big segment of the elderly population that already Is no longer curious, already Immovable?
Schachter-Shalomi: What I am about to say is really painful. For some people we can’t do anything. The people who are the clients of what we’re doing largely have been involved in growth work, so when someone says to them “what script do you need for your life and what models do you need to develop and what shifts do you have to make in your template so that you are not just ‘old’ but also an ‘elder’,” they can hear it.
I would say about 8/10ths of the aging population can’t hear it yet. On the other hand, I think in five or ten years the percentage will have shifted.
The “Hundredth Monkey?”
Schachter-Shalomi: Yes, the morphogenic field will have done its work and a new look will be on this time of the elder years. There is also the question of “What does social security mean?” I don’t mean money. I think the elders today are socially insecure. They have a sense of “If we could vacate, everybody would be happy, we wouldn’t be a burden on social security, entitlement, people wouldn’t be complaining about ‘geezer power’.”
These are the words people use. So in order for us elders to be worth our keep, we have to make some returns to the planet. Look at Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. It is not only ageism we are fighting. We must also examine what do we produce for the world, what do we give back.
For instance, the notion of the extended family could be brought back to allow for a way of intergenerational connectivity. Because grandparents often don’t live near their families, there are often enough elderly in the neighborhood, and one could create a “rent-a-grandpa” situation. The elderly could be excited over the fact they would have some kind of connection, whether it is baby sitting, playing with, keeping company.
I am interested in your Ideas about the notion of volunteering.
Schachter-Shalomi: It is to lift the center of gravity out of the concern for self as a sick person, “This is who I am, this is how I present myself.” That kind of presentation of self as sickly and needy isolates and insulates people, because who wants to hang out with somebody who’s constantly sucking in energy.
When somebody becomes a volunteer, the focus is shifted from preoccupation with self and symptoms and complaints.
The elderly have to have a rosary of joyful mysteries in what were the high points of your life, what were the peak experiences you had and would you have them so you could number them and say, “Now I want to think about this one and I want to think about the other one.”
What are some of the ways housing could be changed to Include elders in community?
Schachter-Shalomi: Co-housing is a wonderful way to do this. It’s like a condominium, which you buy as part of a community that includes a kind of neighborhood cul-de-sac with a community house. There, the neighborhood children would not have to be latch-key kids. They could come to the community center and there would be an elder mentoring them.
The people who set up these communities make sure they have an intake policy that looks for compatibility. Some of them have at least one common meal per day, so the people mix and know each other and don’t feel isolated and are somehow family. The notion is that in such a setting you don’t need to get to a nursing home so soon because there would be enough caring to go around.
Do you work with the idea of conscious dying?
Schachter-Shalomi: What I call the October work is what you have to do to clean up your ad, get reconciled with past lovers, spouses, children, parents, business partners, etc. And then do life review with an eye to re-experience even the difficult periods.
Many people shy away from that because they don’t want to focus on bad stuff, but that means they never discovered the pearls there because they closed it off. I keep repeating that my successes are the result of my failures, the fall out of my failures.
So one of the exercises is called inviting the difficult teachers to a banquet God prepares a table for me in the presence of mine enemy, you know, and then say thank you very much for having opposed me and giving me that trouble. As a result I got to such and such a place in my life that I would never have gotten to if you had been nice to me.
Also one has to do their philosophical homework. Why am I here, what is the purpose of my life? What is the purpose of existence? Where do I stand as a soul, as a person? Do I believe in an after life? We can’t program that for people, they have to make their own, woven together from their life experience.
When done, there is a distillate of life that becomes wisdom, and people then are able to serve the planet in their November years.
My vision is that we will have councils of elders in every community. That was the origin of Synod, and I would like to see elders deployed as these keepers. That’s the work of November.
Then comes the work of December. When my time comes, I get into my December space, so my children and grandchildren can see how I prepare for that. My affairs are in order, the papers are accessible, here is the cemetery plot, here is this, here is that. Whatever I have to sort out with people, I sort out and now I spend some time furnishing my solitude with God. I go into deep insight of myself and then, when the time comes to die, I can meet that with serenity.
The December work is very healing and, when done right, removes some of the dread people have about death.