Sandi Peters, Age 71
For much of my professional life, I have worked with older people. At 71, I think I should know what the 70ies are about. In fact, I frequently surprise myself. Looking back, I realize that many of the oldsters I’ve worked with had various physical and/or mental challenges. Those who were vibrant had no need for my services. Therefore, I have not had a great deal of exposure to healthy aging.
This is not to say that I have not experienced compromised elders who were alive inside. Despite infirmity, older adults have taught me much of what I know about dealing with old age, sickness and death. Without their wisdom and resilience, it is unlikely I would have written my recent book. Their lived experiences and C.G. Jung’s psychology have mapped the terrain for those times when life demands a reckoning.
So, here I am at 71, finding an enthusiasm and adventurousness that I would normally associate with young adulthood. Yes, there are some physical limitations…I have compromised lungs and a bad knee, yet these are merely conditions I have to find ways of working around.
Last November I traveled to Morocco. I used a volunteer site called WorkAway – mostly for young people – that offers opportunities to work in exchange for room and board. I am not a good traveler; in fact, I dislike traveling, and traveling so far solo was the last thing I wanted to do. Yet, I wanted to go back to Morocco, a country that had captured my heart at 21 years of age and again at 66. I attribute my stamina and ability to undertake this unwanted travel experience to years of meditation practice which has taught me how to connect my feet with the earth and ground my terrified mind. I attribute the desire to return to Morocco to knowing that I am going to die and I can no longer put off what calls me in the present.
Once in Morocco I found myself living with young people – 20ies and 30ies – a novel experience for someone who had no children and spent her working life amongst oldsters. I never thought about what it might be like to find myself in the role of an elder. Nor did I anticipate the needs of an older body living in a Moroccan non-tourist environment. Houses without heat in the winter months, squat toilets, unreliable internet, intermittent water, and intense heat in the summer without air conditioning. Periodically, I found myself stepping out of my daily routine, and being stunned by how I was adapting to this situation. Where did this resilience come from? I barely recognized this person that was moving through her days with such grace and ease. I didn’t see myself as a so-called ‘exceptional’ elder, who undertook new adventure in the later years.
More and more I’m realizing that exceptionalism is not the property of ‘certain extraordinary elders’ but, in fact, is accessible to all of us. Those now in their 70ies are really the vanguard of a whole new approach to growing old. Like me, I imagine that many reading this blog may find themselves stymied by their thoughts about what they can do and what is possible. It requires stamina to push through these initial hesitations. The trick is paying attention to what quickens the heart, heeding the call, and letting it grow in strength until it is bigger than whatever fears and hesitations the mind puts in the way as obstacles. When that happens, a whole world opens up – a world that is not unlike the world of our youth.
Older age is often likened to second adolescence because we must start anew. In my book, I talk about the differences between the first and second half of life. C.G. Jung often said the second half of life cannot be lived with the values of the first half. Whatever values, goals, ambitions or dreams that brought us to this time of life need to be resifted. Some will be discarded and some refurbished. We find ourselves standing on a peak looking at a different valley and mountain. And just as in youth, a new vision, energy and grace becomes available. It feels magical and, it is! What do we want to do with this new life? This last call invites us to grow into who we are truly meant to be. The first call was conditioned by society, history, parents, fears, ambitions and many other factors. This second call must be devoid of all those incentives, inhibitions, and prohibitions. It is both exciting and scary, invigorating and enervating, demanding and sustaining. But it is ours in a way that nothing else we have done has been. It comes from the deepest layers of psyche and offers us this final opportunity to grow into ourselves. I am finding it astonishing, regenerative, engaging and exacting. I hope you are too.
Sandi Peters, MA, is the author of Aging with Agency: Building Resilience, Confronting Challenges and Negotiating Eldercare. She is currently exploring the possibility of building an elder community in Morocco. She can be reached at Sandi4eldercare@gmail.com.