I spent this past Sunday afternoon with a group of 15 other people, all over 70, talking about going blind, losing our ability to walk and losing our memory. It was a surprisingly hopeful conversation. I left with this note-to-self: keep talking with other people about aging.
The gathering was the second of four classes that Ann Ivester and Jean Link, two amazing members of the Kittamaqundi Community, are leading this month. The class was inspired by Atul Gawande's brilliant book, "Being Mortal", but it is much more than a book study. Jean and Ann are masters at asking uncomfortable questions and giving people the space and support they need to explore them together. For example, they began by asking the class, "What are your fears around the diminishments that come with age? What personal diminishment do you fear the most?" Everyone took a few minutes to write down their thoughts and then we broke into groups of three and shared. We might have squirmed a bit, but we all did it.
As I was walking into the class, someone commented to me, "Not a lot of people in your age group have been coming to this class." Truth is, aging and death just aren't topics that I think or talk about with my 40-something friends. When I considered Jean and Ann's first question, I drew a blank. I don't much like the thought of losing my ability to communicate or losing my memory, but I spend very little time considering the possibility. But as I thought, I remembered Edith Campbell, a wonderful women from my first congregation in Somerville, MA.
When I first met Edith, she had recently retired from her work as an interior designer. Every week, she traveled to the Cape to visit an elderly aunt who was living in a nursing home there. Edith told me her aunt had macular degeneration and had lost her vision. "It's so sad," she said, "she used to do such beautiful needlework. Now she can't do a thing. If that ever happened to me, I'd want someone to shoot me." Edith tended to to be blunt.
I knew Edith for almost nine years. During that time, her aunt died and Edith herself moved to Assisted Living. She decided to move when she realized that she was losing her eyesight to macular degeneration. And you know what? She didn't want anyone to shoot her. She was just fine.
I learned an important lesson from Edith, one that I still think of frequently. When we are healthy and active, it is very hard for us to imagine being happy if we can't see or hear or talk or move. We are sure that living in that way would be torture. But if we talk to a disabled person about their experience of life, we very often come to a different conclusion about what makes life worth living. That's the reason why it is extremely helpful to know (and love!) people who are older than you or sicker than you or less able than you for some other reason. By valuing them, we expand our understanding of what makes life worth living.
Edith never said this, but I have no doubt that visiting her blind aunt for all those years made her more able to enduring her own growing blindness. She knew someone, after all, who had figured out a way to cope with this problem. I am sure that made her expect that she would be able to do the same.
When I told my small group a bit about Edith and her impact on me, Jean Link responded, "You're already jumping into the topic for our next class!" Our assignment for the next class is to write a story about someone you know who is "aging gracefully"--not an "outlier" who is hiking Mount Everest as 80, but someone who has had some setbacks but who has handled them in a way that has impressed you.
I have plenty of stories I could write about. One benefit of serving as a pastor for the past 20 years has been the chance to build relationships with a number of older people and to walk beside them as the deal with "diminishments" and even face their own deaths. I know so many people who have enjoyed life and found meaning and purpose up until the very end. I also know some people who serve as "cautionary tales", models of what I don't want to be like, now or later.
So, I'm adding another item to my ever-growing list of the gifts of community. Our relationships with other people help us value the life I may have when I can no longer see or walk or remember.