I was in Girl Scouts growing up. One of the badges I spent time on was my Pathfinder badge. As I remember it, there was a series of tasks I had to accomplish that demonstrated I could think my way through a problem, work with others on a project, and light a fire in the woods to keep me safe and warm. In acquiring this badge, I had the benefit of regular interactions with older Scouts and Leaders, having a guide and instructions to follow, and the reward at the end of the project, my coveted badge.
I wish aging were more like this. There are a series of tasks that we are faced with as we age. These include learning to adapt and accommodate to the changes in our functioning, adjusting to different kinds of loss, and expanding our collaboration with others on solving problems with finances, housing, health, and companionship. Other tasks involve coming to terms with our mortality and finding purpose and meaning in our lives even when what we think and do is no longer valued. Some of us will be more successful with this than others. Some of us may not complete all the tasks.
What is required of me is that I stay engaged in all the domains of my life. Staying physically engaged requires that I exercise and make good choices in what I eat. Staying cognitively engaged makes me try new things and do old things in a different way. Staying socially engaged spurs me to have meals with friends, go to movies, and check Facebook. Staying spiritually engaged satisfies my desire to give back and create a legacy of meaning for those who follow.
Tasks that continue to challenge me include facing my mortality. I remain relatively healthy. Many of my peers are alive. But I have lost my grandparents, my parents, and my husband. So I am perhaps more adept with grief and loneliness than some of my peers.
I have many mentors who have taught me skills. The legacy I inherited from my grandfather sustains me to this day. He was stalwart in his faith, he was tolerant and patient, and he was grateful for everything he had. That model of faith, tolerance, and compassion was not unique to him, but because I loved him and he loved me, it became imprinted in my psyche.
It has been my privilege to know exceptional elders who lived to their late 80s and 90s and who continued to be present and active in engaging with their lives. They provided me with templates on what can be ignored and what I must pay attention to. This includes ignoring minor aches and pains and not taking things personally. Paying attention to being grateful and expressing love daily is essential.
I have developed a skill set and knowledge base that serve me in decreasing my fears about aging. I have a sense of peace as I enter into my young old age because I have watched family, friends, and patients successfully navigate their elderhood even in the face of Alzheimer’s, chronic pain, and loneliness.
I continue to find purpose and meaning in exploring aging through my writing and work with elders. I am beginning to expand my circle of friends and acquire new partners in addressing the needs of all people in my community, regardless of age. I am joining with others who are already working on projects and plans for creating safe places for people to age and recruiting others to care for us as we do.
Our guidebook for all this is a bit thin. We are exploring new territory that while familiar, carries with it unique challenges such as adapting technology to meet the needs of those of us who are not technologically inclined, Needs such as finding ways to stay connected emotionally and psychologically as well as technologically. Guidelines are needed for managing behaviors that cause others distress, but are not responsive to medication or instruction because the brain no longer has the capacity to change. Guidelines are needed to help younger generations connect with us.
We are exploring new territory in a time fraught with instability and threat. Planning for evacuation of a few older people in the face of fire, flood, earthquake, or other disaster once meant obtaining enough wheelchairs and a bus. Now it involves moving whole communities to new locations, perhaps never to be able to return. There is little infrastructure in place to do this occasionally. What is needed is better planning to address this on a regular basis.
We need collaboration at all levels of government to identify and prioritize funding sources to insure that elders receive the care they need instead of being abandoned. Building capacity for the total number of aging adults who will be unable to care for themselves is challenging. It is made more so because once the Boomers have died off, all that capacity will no longer be needed.
We need to light the fire of compassion and create systems of care that will keep all of us safe and warm. We must come to terms with our collective denial of aging. We can learn, as I have, to appreciate the wisdom and insight that comes from having lived through times like these before. We need to seek and make use of this collective wisdom instead of diminishing its value and assuming incompetence.
As pathfinders, it is our responsibility to create a legacy of values for those who follow. To collect and curate the best of what went before and make sure this information is shared and available to those who come after We must take a stand against being marginalized and make our voices heard, not in strident tones of righteousness, but out of a collective sense of purpose to preserve what is best.
One of the tasks of a pathfinder is to know how to make our way through uncharted territory and most importantly, take that information back with us, so those who follow can make their way more easily.
What is our reward? I don’t know what the badge would look like. I suspect it might contain a weathered face, with fine lines around the eyes from laughing a lot and having had a good cry or two. It would have gray hair (if there were hair at all) noting that there had been a passage of time. There would be a twinkle in the eyes that comes from recalling happy times and loving memories. There would be hands, perhaps with joints slightly bent or swollen, that demonstrate a masterful and tender touch. And there would be a heart, with evidence of breaks, but still beating strong. This is a badge worth acquiring.
Thanks for reading.