Self-renewal in Autumn

Autumn, with its crisp air and leaves of many colors, is my favorite season, but it’s also a time when I begin to pull into myself in anticipation of winter.  Still, I know that Spring will follow.  The cycles are trustworthy and I find the inexorable changes enlivening.

The seasons of our lives are not as trustworthy.  Sometimes we grow stagnant.  We are unable to move on with our lives, unable to find the tang of new experience.  We can’t move on because we are afraid of something, often unnamable, and cling to lives that we would never actually choose. We are in need of renewal.

Renewal is defined as “replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.”  For a few years after my father died in 1978, that was me.  I couldn’t let go of my grief or the life of the scholar that I had planned in his image.  Nor could I envision a future that excited me.

Yet, even as I felt entrapped in the past, events broke me out.  The birth and life of my new daughter, born in 1970, for instance.  The growth of my new psychotherapy career.  And meeting Franny, who would become my partner, then my wife, almost 42 years ago.

Like the seasons, lives are always changing, often out of our awareness.  There is the internal river of change that we call development.  We move from infancy to childhood, from early and middle adulthood to old age. There are external provocations, too.  Some are chosen, like marriage and new jobs, some come unbidden, like illness and loss.

In every case, we must adapt, if we are lucky or particularly conscious, we transform our behavior and our sense of who we are to fit the new circumstances.  If we fail to adapt, we stagnate; and then our relationship to our internal self and to the world we live in grows false, ineffectual.  Parts of us wither and die.  Vitality requires renewal, over and again.

In order to be renewed, we need to let go of some of who we have been—in particular, how we have understand ourselves-in-the-world.  This is ancient wisdom that needs to be learned each time we feel blocked.  One version of it goes like this:  “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  (1 Corinthians 13:11).  Lao Tzu puts it even more succinctly:  “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Self renewal is different for each of us.  It depends on who we are, who we think we are, what we fear and want to avoid, and who we aspire to be.  No matter what, though, renewal requires caring, doing something that touches our hearts and engages our minds, something outside of ourselves.  John Gardner puts it this way:   “Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature.” This last point needs emphasis: we need to “escape the prison of self.”

Generally self renewal requires an integration of past and present, inside and outside.  You must bring forward what has mattered to you over the years and reapply your concerns and passions to the world you live in now.  Taking care of grandchildren, for instance, can do that.  The activity brings back your experience of parenting, yet it is different.  You are easier, have more perspective.  You have an easier time seeing your grandchildren as independent people, not extensions of yourself.  If, as a young person, you fought for civil rights, rejoining the fight in later life, adding years of experience to sustained values, provides a comparable way to transform past values through current experience.

As an older person, it is tempting to say: “This is who I am; I’ve done my job,” then essentially withdraw from an active engagement in the life around you.  This hasn’t worked well for most of the people I know.  They may withdraw at first but soon enough they yearn for something meaningful to do.  Just the other day, a friend told me that he was tortured by how small his life had become, how small he had become, how much he wanted to reengage in the larger world.

This has been my path.  I retired at 74, thinking that disengaging from the world of responsibilities and productivity would lead to the kind of internal peacefulness that I had long dreamed of.  Meditation, exercise, travel, dinner with friends, and long walks with Franny filled part of the void left by my work.  But I still felt restless, a little empty, a little stagnant, yearning for someplace to go, something exciting to do.  I was in need of renewal.

During this three year period, there have been a number of experiences that have touched me deeply: taking care of my three young grandchildren; helping out with the organization I founded, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice; and, with time granted by retirement, deepening the intimacy of my marriage.

Maybe the best way to illustrate the renewal of my spirit would be to describe how I feel when I mentor and coach young people. I’d been in that role with young leaders and therapists for decades, but thought that with retirement, I should hang it up, and give it over to others.  But I couldn’t’.  The current iteration began with a conversation I had with Franny.  There I was, recently retired, tears rolling down my cheeks, describing a sad realization: I think I know more—now—than ever before.  Must I have all this hard won wisdom simply dissipate?  Fall to waste?  No it doesn’t.  Must I be a “has been? “ No I don’t.

When coaching, I pass on those years of accumulated knowledge.  I never feel so wise as when young people come to me, asking for my advice and guidance.  And when my mentees take and act on my wisdom,, and then succeed, a wave of satisfaction washes over me.   I consider this a great and empowering gift that my mentees have given to me.

My job is to bring out their potential but, as I do, they bring out mine.  They offer me a theater where I can participate in current and future communities.  Mentoring isn’t as hierarchical as you might think.  We work out problems and build visions together.  As a mentor, I offer perspective of age to balance the passion of youth.  I calm anxieties. I teach concrete things.

Mentoring provides an almost sacred space to share vulnerabilities.  We share our uncertainties, our struggles, our failures, our humiliations.  We admit to losing confidence in our skills, faith in our mission.  As I listen to theirs, I tell stories about my own failures and the redemption I feel when, tempted to give up, I carried on.  This, in turn, reminds my mentees of times when they, too, have triumphed in the face of adversity.  We discover or rediscover what has made us who we are.

Virtually every friend I have has chosen one form of mentoring or another during the autumn of their lives.  Some in formal coaching relationships.  Others with younger friends in churches and synagogues.  Some in political campaigns.  Some still in their workplace.  Still others with children.  In almost every case, we discover a renewed sense of ourselves.  Parker Palmer has a lovely way of saying this:  “Mentoring is a way forward with dignity.  For me, it has become a little piece of paradise, the closest I come to an afterlife.”  Amen to that.




Many of you tell me that you send my essays to your friends and your parents, among others.  A father in Taiwan.  A mother in Alaska.  A friend next door.  It’s extraordinarily satisfying to imagine my essays stimulating thoughts within you and conversations with others.  It’s why I write.

So I have a request: please pass the blog to one other person.  If each of you pass on word of the blog and the information about how to access it ( then press the Follow button on the right side), I would be very grateful.




I’m writing a book.  It’s about the search for vibrancy in old age. That won’t surprise those who read my blog.  But another book at my age?  What for?  Why can’t I just enjoy what I’m doing now: family and friends, reading, exercise, meditation, travel?  Isn’t that enough?  Franny’s response to the question is simple:  old leopards keep their spots. I write because I always have.  And I like projects, big, messy ones that absorb me.  And I have always needed to be helpful.  So here’s the first chapter of my new book.  I could use your feedback.


I am 76 years old, which means that I probably have about 10 years of good living left.  Maybe 15; maybe 5.  It’s impossible to tell.  But there’s no question that I’m in the midst of a period, however brief or extended, that is partly defined by a vivid recognition of my mortality.  It’s not all bad, though.  “Death is the mother of beauty,” according to Wallace Stevens; and I believe him.  What an extraordinary moment in a lifetime this is.

Beyond this moment, I’ll likely be pre-occupied by pain and anxiety—and by resentment because I’ll have to depend so much on others.  I don’t look forward to that time of life but, short of a quick and decisive heart attack or a lethal strike by pancreatic cancer, that’s almost surely my lot.  I’m no different than anyone else.

The harbingers are already clamoring for my attention.  I have arthritis in most of my joints, so it’s hard to hold heavy things in my hands.  I can’t take long walks without the help of Aleve or some other chemical aid.  I take statins to guarantee that my cholesterol doesn’t get out of hand — not because I absolutely need them, my good doctor tells me, but because they prevent problems and, studies attest, so far, show no serious side effects.  While no one would ever describe me as an obedient person, in this instance, I’m a compliant patient.

Just this year, I went over the acceptable glucose line and, my doctor tells me, I can now officially call myself diabetic.  I’ve been terrified of this kind of announcement for a few years now. Of course, it’s not so dangerous, he reassures me.  “If it were me,” he quips, “I’d be shaking.”  He’s 55 or so.  But diabetic symptoms take about 10 to 20 years to really set in.  So I shouldn’t worry.  “Why,” I ask.  “Because I’ll likely be dead in 10 to 20 years?”  He half blushes and half chuckles:  “Yup.”  I honestly didn’t know how to feel.  Reassured because trouble is a ways off?  Frightened because it wasn’t so far away?  Amused?  Annoyed that he was telling a joke at my expense?  But my immediate feelings didn’t matter.  What did matter was the dose of reality that I had to take in.

And, as the song goes, “that ain’t all.”  I’ve had torn rotator cuffs on both shoulders, a torn meniscus in my left knee, and a hiatal hernia—all requiring surgery.  As did my prostate cancer in 2001.  You could certainly say that modern medicine has stitched me together even when Mother Nature tore me apart.  As one doctor put it, he’ll soon own as much of my body as I do.  I’m sure I could list more of my troubles but let’s leave it there for now.

Except it seems important to say that I never expected a long life. My father fell to pancreatic cancer at 50.  I was so identified with him that, like a child magically convinced that his own fearful thinking could cause a plane crash with his parents aboard, I, a 26 year old man, was convinced that I would also die at 50.

I was so convinced that I prepared Franny and my closest friends for my imminent demise.  Even now they tease me about that tense period in my late 40’s.  After passing over that threshold, though, I slowly came to believe that I would go on living, and we all sighed with relief, as though a real threat had been averted.  Since then, I have been consistently grateful for my prolonged life, treating it like icing on the cake.  These 26 years have certainly been far more than I expected, brimming with fulfilling, often joyful experience.

So don’t get me wrong.  Even though I’ve just taken you through a litany of pain, for the most part it doesn’t reflect how I feel about life now.  Most of every day, I experience myself as a pretty healthy man.  I feel this way deep in my bones.  I eat well and exercise almost every day — and, as you all know, you have to feel reasonably healthy to exercise regularly.  Just last year, Franny and I flew off to Yosemite and climbed — well, that’s an exaggeration — we walked for hours and hours in those green and granite mountains.  I was in heaven.


However challenging, this is an intense and intensely meaningful moment in life: the time between our understanding, deep in your bones, that life has end and that the end may be near — and the end, itself, either in death or a descent into dementia.  The moment may be brief or lengthy.  It may begin in your 60’s or 70’s but might begin earlier or later .  The timeline is indefinite; but the time is dramatic because it is lived in the shadow of death.

Our culture paints these years in shades of gray.  It is most aware of the diminishment and the humiliation of old age.  The poet Yeats describes it aptly:

What shall I do with this absurdity—

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

I differ.  Most of the time, I think the nearness of death makes each day more vivid, more engaging.  And Penelope Lively agrees:  “And if it sounds — to anyone — a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that.  It is not.  Certain desires and drives have gone.  But what remains is response.  I am as alive to the world as I have ever been — alive to everything I see and hear and feel.” P 47.  (Ammonites and Leaping Fish)

The experience of impermanence lends a poignancy, a melancholy that departs from the primary colors of youth and bathes our lives, instead, in deeper hues.   Here’s how a friend of mine, Pat Brandes, put it:

“I distinctly remember when I was in my mid-20s and my children were around 4 and 2 years old.  They were as fresh and lovely as the morning dew. I felt the desire to freeze the frame and hold onto it.  I also knew that I couldn’t.  Instead I said to myself ‘be with this as deeply as you can because this precious time will never come again.’  There have been many times since then when the same thing has happened but I notice that I am having many more of them now that I am older.   When I was younger it had to be something extraordinary or amazing that made me super aware and able to stretch out my presence.  Now just ordinary events bring on the inner voice saying, “This is it!”   I am increasingly aware of the poignancy of impermanence.”

I hadn’t expected it but old age has surprised me with how fresh things feel.  Far from the cultural narrative — continual, inevitable decline or frantic efforts to reverse the decline and the fall from youthful grace — my experience is better characterized by discovery, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery.

For older people, freedom and discovery come almost unbidden when many of the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities take flight.  There is the freshness of each, unscheduled day.  I can ask: What shall I do?  What do I want to do?  At last, the weather plays a role as it hasn’t since childhood.  If it’s sunny, I’ll take that walk.  If rainy, I may read more, or call a friend.  Or a friend might call me, and I can usually say: “Sure.  What time do you want to meet?”  Spontaneity is my friend again.

There seems to be more uncertainty in old age.  It’s not just your schedule that’s flexible.  You can’t count on your health as much.  Friends, too.  They get ill, become infirm, die, move away.  I mean this not so much in a sad or depressing way but as a fact of life, one that changes almost as much and as rapidly as during any time since early childhood.  It can make you anxious and unsure of yourself.  There’s a temptation to draw inward and to limit yourself in an effort to ward off bad consequences.  But, in the purest sense, this is also an invitation to turn up your capacity to adapt. This, in turn, can awaken you to a life painted in brighter colors.

For a long time, I had imagined that old age meant playing out a relatively prescribed script.  The sad part of the script — of course not the whole of it — included physical decline, nostalgia for my lost youth and vitality, and a narrowing of my social circle.  Now that I’m 76, I see that I was wrong in so many ways.  Like others, for instance, my ideas and images about old age have continued to shift.  As a young man, 60 seemed old.  By the time I was 45, it was 70.  At 60, it was 75.  Now, at 76, I feel so much more alive than I imagined I would. The ground of expectations keeps shifting and the shifting keeps me on my toes.

One of the most surprising experiences of old age is the way that history keeps changing.  Here I mean your personal history, our life story.  By this point it has been extraordinarily well-rehearsed.  You’ve told it countless times to new acquaintances, among others; and you’ve mused about it inwardly for decades.  Now I find the narrative shifting, once again.

Here’s an example.  For the first few decades of my life, my father appeared to me like a rock, but now, he comes into focus as a troubled man.  My mother, who felt more like a peer, a friend, now seems like an inspiration.  I’d like to tell you that, with the perspective of years, I see them more clearly, but it may be truer to say I see them differently.  I see them now in light of my current life.  They are younger people, more vulnerable, and more complex too. I see their lives more in terms of the choices and drives and challenges they faced, and less in relation to me, their child.  Truth be told, this makes for a more interesting story.

As my image of them changes, so does my self-imagery.  For example, I was said to be my father’s child.  Supposedly, I looked and acted like him.  I was his heir, meant to carry on his dreams.  With each passing decade, though, I discover how much I have taken on my mother’s restless energy, her defiance, her wish to explore new territory.  One day last month, I looked into the mirror and saw, not a reflection of my aging father, but a dead ringer of my mother and her side of the family.  I keep “discovering” things about my childhood, my family, my neighborhood — not because they have actually changed, but because I keep seeing them anew.

You can say that these aren’t such major discoveries, but to me they are, because they shake everything up.  If I’m really more like my mother — or even equally like her — then that “realization” changes how I view the rest of my family.  It changes how I feel about gender, about my purpose in life, my destiny.  I put the word realization into quotes because I can’t be sure if my new insight is, strictly speaking, true, or if it’s just another view of the same phenomenon.  But it feels new.  And when you jostle your sense of reality, it stimulates a scramble to reorganize everything.  That’s what has happened to me.  I am scrambling.

Historian that I am, I have begun to reimagine the flow of events and relationships in my life.  Since I’m pretty comfortable with myself at this point, the project is more a source of fascination than anxiety.  I have begun to give up on the idea of a coherent narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Like others, I have a great desire to pin down the definitive story of my life.  But there is nothing of the sort.  Rather, it is a story that has been invented and reinvented many times throughout my life.

There is freedom in this realization.  A long time ago, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan taught me about this.  The more others think they know about your past, he said, the more they think they can predict your behavior in the present and future.  These predictions become expectations that limit your possibilities.

When we slip off the straight jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities.  In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time.  That is the possibility born of multiple freedoms in old age.


This is a transition of the first order, requiring or just yielding to the “chaos of a new freedom,” the realization that you are entering a new stage of life.  A time of terror and opportunity, a vivid time, a time that requires the best of our senses and our capacity to solve problems, to see clearly and accept what you see, a time to mourn, and a time to affirm.  This is the most extraordinary moment of our lives.

I’ve not chosen this phrase—a chaos of a new freedom—randomly.  It’s the title of my doctoral dissertation, whose first draft I completed in 1967.  I had been exploring a generation of philosophers and poets who had thrown off the received truths of the past—monotheism, tradition, and the like—and found themselves both thrilled at the freedom that rebellion yielded but also confused and frightened.  Back then, I sensed what my characters—William Carlos Williams, Walter Lippmann, and William James, among others—I sensed what they felt, but only a bit.  But I’ve continued to ruminate on the experience of freedom and now, in old age, I think I finally understand.

I want to shine a bright light on this next-to-last period.  In Mary Catherine Bateson’s terms, I want to compose or re-compose this period for my elderly sisters and brothers.  What that means, among other things, is letting in the new, no matter how terrifying, and letting the energy of terror animate our lives.  It means acknowledging the chaos.  And to balance both, it means finding and honoring the threads of continuity, the themes and values and, where possible, the people who have meant the most to us over our long lives.

The existential realities of human existence take on unique importance in old age.  The physical decline of the body, the increased awareness of limitations, major life transitions, and the continual experience of losses all require the aging individual to confront with greater frequency the transitory nature of life.  Insufficiently dealing with these issues by denial, suppression, or the inability to accept them, frequently causes suffering in the forms of depression, anxiety, illness, and suicide.

As it turns out, old age is such a strange, almost mysterious time. A time of loss and pain, humiliations, anguish, and uncertainty..  But peeking out from within that dark cauldron are discovery, creativity and imagination – a childhood borne not of innocence but of experience.  That’s what this book is about.


What you’ve just read is the Prologue to a book that I’m writing.  Throughout it, I’ll be giving equal emphasis to ruminations and stories, the combination that people tell me they like best in my blog.

The book will cover a lot of ground.  I’ll be looking at the transition into retirement and what you need to clear out and let go in order to be fully alive to the opportunities in old age.  I’ll be talking about couple relationships, relationships with adult children and grandchildren, and friendships.  Regrets and roads not taken will be among the themes.  I will come back to the melancholy, the sweet poignancy, and the vibrancy of the final years.  And, towards the end, I’ll be ruminating about death and dying.  Throughout, I’ll be in search of ways to cope well and even to affirm the hard times, while savoring the good.


Throughout the book, which is currently in search of a title, I’ll be trying to keep both the pain and the opportunities of old age in plain view.  At the least, old age is humbling.  It demands a certain honesty.  At our best, we let go of ideas about how life should or could be—or might have been.  It simply is as it is.  With that realization, we free ourselves to engage our lives with greater immediacy, and that is the key to being as alive as we can possibly be.  I would be grateful to learn that these chapters urge you onto that path.




We Don’t Seem to Matter Anymore

The other day, a friend broke into a good day by talking about the anxiety his retirement had brought on. I had enjoyed a long, slow walk in the Minuteman Park, listening on my earphones as Spotify played an endless array of Paul Simon songs, then, a little later, a long, slow vodka martini to begin the evening.  This was a week day in September and, for the third year in a row, there would be no return-to-work preparations to worry about.  It felt almost illicit, like I was cheating someone, breaking some ancient and unquestioned rule.

I suppose I’m violating another rule, leaving my friend to talk about myself.  So let me return.  He had had a long and very successful career in the law, in practice early and teaching at a university in the latter stages.  He is the father of three children, all seemingly well set in their lives, and now spends a good deal of time with his grandchildren, each lovelier than the other, with four already in college.  Neither the children, nor the grandchildren, nor his former employees, of course, needed his support.  He’s free; and he’s having trouble with his freedom.

What bothered him most—let’s call him Isaac—was that he didn’t seem to matter any more.  Not to his children, not to his grandchildren—not deeply, anyway—and not to anyone at work.  He wasn’t responsible to anyone.  They weren’t responsible to him.  His successes and failures—whatever they were at this point in his life—are his, alone.  He might be free but he is alone.

Yes, he spends time with friends and that represents another kind of freedom.  Friends are chosen.  Family is not.  Nor, while you are in the midst of work, are employees and colleagues.  They are just part of your life, as unavoidable as the furniture in your home.  They make demands on you; you demand from them.  There’s nothing special about the demands but it’s as though they hold you up, like braces, like the crowd in a subway car where you couldn’t fall if you wanted to.

According to Isaac, it isn’t the loss of company that bothers him.  He loves being alone.  He loves being able to rise in the morning, unfettered, free to read the newspaper or not, free to sit out on his deck and welcome the sun, free to call a friend or read a book.  No, Isaac doesn’t want to be crowded.

But he does want to matter.  More than he had known, mattering to all those people—and all the roles he played with them—had defined who he was as a person.  All those obligations had made him feel important.  It might have been bothersome—Why can’t people manage for themselves,” he had often complained—but it was better to be bothered and important than free and irrelevant.

In his worst moments, Isaac found himself angry at the people who now seemed to abandon him.  Why didn’t they call to ask for his advice or, at least, his company.  He had been important to them.  He knew he was.  Yet, they seemed to have closed in around themselves and their own concerns in a way that didn’t just ignore but excluded him.  Walls had been erected that now seemed to hard to scale.

Outside those walls, Isaac felt confused.  He lacked the information about himself that had come in such abundance during interactions with all those people.  He had to depend on old stories, memory, internal musings, and the feedback of a few people who were still close.  Sometimes he wondered if he was the person he had thought himself to be all those years.

Isaac had a strange feeling of fading away.  Almost literally.  He’d take a walk in the park and, even as he’d pass people, he’d feel invisible.  Unless he called one of his children or set an appointment with a friend, he was beginning to disappear.  It was like living in a Kafka novel.  During the last year or so, he had even lost about fifteen pounds.  That was on purpose, a matter of health.  But it also rendered his corporal being as less.  There was just less of him.  Isaac had become less than the person he had known for all those years.

“It’s a hard transition,” I said.

“Maybe too hard,” Isaac responded.

That comment worried me a bit.  So I tried to offer some perspective.  “When you’re busy, when people need you, partly because we train them to need us, you feel solid.  You know who you are.  Even the hidden parts of you.  You know that that social person isn’t all of you but you also have explanations about how that secretly shy person fits with the sociable you, how the angry or frightened or even the violent side of you relates to the well behaved person you have constructed.  You have an idea of the whole person who has evolved over the years.

“But when you leave the many roles and obligations that support that whole person, it’s as though you pass through a secret barrier and you don’t know what’s on the other side.”

I was a little embarrassed by my attempt to offer this little bit of wisdom or pseudo wisdom.  But I identified with him, at least a bit.  And he didn’t take offense.  In fact, he did feel that some of his parts—the productive, the nurturing part, the confident guy, along with the secret, insecure selves—had split apart.  They were each on their own, had not joined a new configuration, a whole person, that he could call his self.

As a result, Isaac felt like an observer to his life.  Watching as all the parts sought out ways to join or wither or give up.  He noted that some of the fierceness and even his old obsessive attention to projects had no real place in his current life, but those qualities hadn’t yet disappeared.  The same was true for his paternal instincts which, while long waning, were still there.  What would he do with them.  Just tuck them away in some corner of his soul, marked “history.”  That was me then; and this is me now?  But his history was who he was—or that’s what Isaac had always thought.

As we talked, Isaac surprisingly began to chuckle.  “This is getting to sound strange.  Like I’m living in a twilight zone or having some kind of mystical experience.  But that’s not true.  Mostly my experience feels ordinary.  Most of the time, I feel very ordinary.  But not like myself.  And I don’t yet know who I’m becoming.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just repeated myself:  “It’s a hard transition,” Isaac.  I wish I could tell you what’s on the other side of that barrier but I can’t.  I’m not altogether there yet, myself.”

“It feels lonely,” said Isaac.

“There are lots of us walking in this strange land.  We can at least keep each other company.”

“That’s a hopeful thought,” said Isaac.  “I’ll try to keep it in mind.”



He’s 80, She’s 70: Notes on Aging as Couples

I find myself saddened and a little frightened by the struggles of older couples where the woman is considerably younger and the man begins to age badly.  The age difference, for decades, no problem at all, emerges powerfully when he has a stroke, a heart attack, cancer—or a series of assaults on his health; and she finds herself cast more and more in the role of caretaker, having to put aside her own needs and desires and the optimistic life trajectory that she had imagined.  As he struggles with physical and mental diminishment and she with the narrowing of life, it can be hard to hold fast to the love and friendship they had shared.

Franny and I, eight years apart, watch this drama with trepidation.  We have friends who are in their late seventies and eighties.  We are in our sixties and seventies.  It’s hard not to imagine their struggles as our fate.  Franny tells me that she has begun sharing a kind of anticipatory anxiety with friends.  She’s way ahead of me.  I’ve just begun to let in the possibilities.  The crisis may be a ways off but the fears are now present.

What do we see in our older friends?  In the worst case, there’s the physical labor of bathing her husband, helping him stand and walk, the same work that challenges the strength and stamina of young nurses.  There’s the effort to organize helpers and dealing with finances which, having often rested with the men, seem intimidating.  There’s shlepping almost every day to doctor’s appointments and hospitals—and the lengthy stays at the hospitals when things go badly.  These are times of fear and boredom and growing resentment.  “This is how I’ll spend my old age?,” the women intone, either out loud or in private to their female friends.  “Would you do this for me?” one female friend said to her husband.  “No, I don’t think so,” she answered for him.  She is not unique; her pessimism is shared by many others.

The emotional exhaustion may even supersede the physical while the caretakers try to hold hope and generosity in the forefront.  Even as the women work in their selfless ways, they fall prey to self criticism when generosity and even love fails, even for a moment.  Finally, there’s the desire for all of this to be done, even when she knows the meaning of being done: the horror of wishing a loved one would hurry his dying.  Which brings on more self-criticism and drowns out the possibility of grief.

For the men who are ill or failing, there’s the pain and disability, itself, but the psychological trauma is almost as upsetting.  First among the trauma is probably the dependence and the indignities that follow disability: how people talk down to you and around you; the inability to do simple tasks like buttoning the collar of your shirt; the incontinence. Even as the men ask for help, they hate it.

With time, passivity can set in.  At first, yielding to their neediness can be a relief to the men. But it also feels damning, as though they are relinquishing their souls.  Self loathing and panic may follow. In that mood, they may become moody, quarrelsome, hard to please.  They withdraw, become isolated, possibly despairing.   Death looms just over the horizon.

Observing this bleak scene scares the hell out of both younger women and men. There is a sense of foreboding.  For women in their sixties or early seventies, looking at their future is like gazing through the reverse side of a telescope and seeing the diminishment of their lives.  For the men in their mid to late seventies, averting their gaze is easier than facing a potentially harsh future. As many of my friends say, “Who’s old?”

Many of these anticipations seem to be hidden from one another or contained in discussions of finances, wills, and formalities that at least seem to have answers.  But lately the ability of these discussions to deflect a clear-eyed view of the future has waned.  I know that Franny has been thinking ruefully about the future.  And she tells me that she’s had conversations with numbers of friend who also have older husbands.  To my surprise, the air is abuzz with the talk; and I hate it.

Still, the women need to speak.  They need this gathering of information and commiseration.  They need the companionship now and the promise of later support.  Men do, too, but we are slow to act. =

Though these conversations speak mainly to the future, and though they are good preparation, they can also be dangerous by coloring the way that men and women see one another.  Here I want to be careful.  People generally look for first causes: the problems begin with male decline; no, they begin with female reactivity.  Rather, I want to portray an interactive process in which it doesn’t matter where you begin.  In that spirit, here’s what may constitute an early stage in a typical, downward spiral.

  • Let’s say that he has become more forgetful and doesn’t take care of practical matters like paying bills or turning off the oven as crisply or reliably as he once did.
  • This makes her nervous, raising questions of safety and security. She says so.
  • His pride is hurt.  He own fears have been articulated.  He gets defensive.
  • She feels unheard, grows more nervous and criticizes.
  • He explodes or distances himself or both.

Even when men are still mostly healthy, women have grown alert to decline—or, possibly, hyper-alert to decline.  In their desire to be equal parts helpful and self-protective, the women may overreact.  They may see decline where it isn’t.  They may treat their men as if the decline is already upon them.  Feeling respect slipping away, men try to make the women’s concerns illegitimate, neurotic.  He grows reactive. This is a fight that divides the couple and they have to call on all their resources to bridge the gaps.

Now here’s how the difficulties may play out in their later stages:

  • The more he declines, the more she worries
  • The more the she worries and articulates her concerns, the more he worries that his wife is right—and begins to hide.  When emotional distance has been the norm, this may exacerbates an old struggle about their lack of intimacy.
  • When he hides and grow fearful, himself, she believes she is being asked to maintain a lie, as though things are as they had been.  In this awkward, irritating, imprisoning, and fearful position, she, nonetheless, still also feels guilty.  “Why can’t I be more loving and accepting,” they ask.  When they can’t, do so all or even most of the time…
  • He feels demeaned, as though his status in the marriage—and in life, generally—has plunged.  That saps his confidence, which, in turn, depletes his actual competence.  In that state his ability to support and love his wife shrinks.
  • Her fears are confirmed. She grows alternately compassionate and resentful, often as inconsistent as her man.
  • His fears are also confirmed…
  • And so it goes.

And so the downward spiral goes, taking on a life of its own and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I’d like to think that many of us can step outside of this ghoulish prophesy.  I’d like to believe that awareness of its destructive potential will steer us in more collaborative and loving directions.  Why can’t we—men and women together–keep in mind all of the times and all the years when we have solved problems together, when we have moved through dark and dispiriting events and back into each other’s arms?  Throughout long marriages, we have lost and restored our friendships more than once.  Why can’t we discipline ourselves to keep respect and love in the forefront?

Maybe we can.  I believe we can.  That’s my purpose: to bring the threat to light, hoping it provides fuel to our ability to overcome it.  You’ll have to tell me if it has helped you.



Hiding in Plain Sight: Leaders in Our Midst

There are certain people who touch the lives of others, some lightly, some deeply, seemingly without effort or without concern for their own standing.  To me, they more closely resemble the flight of bees fertilizing one flower after another than the deliberations of those in search of influence.  Some are my friends.  Others are strangers who have fascinated me throughout my life.

James Agee wrote a wonderful book called Let us Now Praise Famous Men.  Instead of the famous men that the title suggests, the book is about Alabama share croppers during the Great Depression, whose humanity he captured in the most concrete yet profound way.  He said of his book that it was an “inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”  I have something like that in mind.  I want to write about the seemingly ordinary people who serve their communities in extraordinary ways and with humility, dignity, and passion.

In the near future, I’m going to begin a series of interviews with vibrant older people who have sustained their community engagement and influence well into their old age.  I am using the word ‘community’ broadly to include actual neighborhoods but also other groupings, like the GLBTQ, religious groups, people with a hearing loss, artists, and even professional groups.

The purpose of the project is to understand and celebrate leaders, some hardly known, others with some renown, who are so vital to their communities.  By leader, I mean a person, most of all, who gets things done, usually as a catalyst, sometimes as an inspiration, occasionally as a manager, but always to the benefit of the many, a person who others look up to or admire, a person who matters to the community.

People like the Kelly’s (a pseudonym, because I haven’t yet asked their permission to use their real names), of whom my friend, Bill Walczak, a great community organizer himself, writes:  They are “an amazing couple in Codman Square, beacons of hope in hopeless times, who have been the bedrock of that community, and the couple who, through goodness and example, kept their neighborhood from blowing up in the 70s and 80s when racial change occurred in the neighborhood.  They invited new black families and couples to pizza dinners at their house to introduce them to their new neighbors, integrating newcomers of all sorts into the fabric of that community when busing was tearing it apart. Kevin started the Codman Square Health Center with me.  Kevin and May are people who continue to make a huge difference in their 80s, and maintain their optimism and hope, despite their own son getting murdered about 20 years ago.  Lots of people tell me that they “want to be Kevin and May” when they grow up/get older.”

People like Lauren Hatch, who I first met about twenty years ago when she was leading an organization that housed, educated, and found jobs for homeless women in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, Dorchester, Massachusetts.  Today, Lauren is no longer heading up an organization but works tirelessly in the same arena, now happy to assist all the official leaders in the community by mentoring and connecting them.

I have put out the word to friends and colleagues to identify these industrious souls and to introduce them to me.  Already my interview schedule is burgeoning.  But I want to know about as many of these leaders as I can.  So I’m asking you, my readers, to introduce me to them, to tell me their stories—or your stories.   And, if there’s someone you particularly want me to meet, introduce us.

I will be describing what I learn in my blog and, if I can find the stamina, in a book that features the sustaining power of these aging ‘local’ leaders.

In the meantime, here are some of the qualities that I have discovered so far and that I find so intriguing.  Maybe the most remarkable quality that these elders bring to their work is a rare combination of freshness and perspective.  You’d expect the perspective.  They’ve been fighting the good fight for ages, seen ups and downs, strategies that succeed and fail, people who join and those who reject their missions.  But the sustained enthusiasm and the pleasure in the work for its own sake that they bring to their missions after all these years is so admirable to me.

Like Camus’ Sisyphus, they have learned to act well and act decisively in a world that seems absurd.  They have lived through economic depressions and natural disasters.  They face opposition that makes no sense to them.  They might may say that we need more jobs, better health care, and better schools for people and think “No one could disagree.”  How could they?  But people do—under  the banner of lower taxes or fear of strangers in their land—that’s code for people of color.  The community leaders might answer that “It will help your children, too.”  For whatever reason, the opposition can’t factor that in, and you could tear your hair out.  Even so, the community leaders that I have met move on, with less confusion and less anger than when they were younger.  They’ve seen this before.  They know how to take the high road.

Of course, the elder leaders have their setbacks, feel discouraged and blue.  But the ones who keep on going into old age seem to have a resilience and a capacity for affirmation that is rare.  ”This, too, shall pass,” they say.  They have learned to work through the darkness and into the light.

The role that they play most often and best is that of mentoring the young and idealistic leaders who cross their paths.  I think of people like Hubie Jones, who, in his day, built and led innumerable nonprofits but, somewhere in his seventies, called an end to formal leadership.  In its place, he set up shop in a little office in City Year, whose leaders he has supported for decades, and “receives” visitors in search of his wisdom and in the hope that he will “lay on the hands,” will give legitimacy to your efforts through association with him.  I know because I was one of those visitors, even though I was already sixty when we began to talk.

I’ve noticed in myself and others a withdrawal from formal leadership roles, which seem to have lost their appeal.  I am grateful, for example, to have Yolanda Coentro lead the organization I founded (Institute for Nonprofit Practice) and grateful, too, that Mark Rosen serves as Board Chair.  In place of those formal leadership roles, many older leaders have discovered their places in a less defined but very fulfilling set of roles: mentoring and encouraging and connecting younger people.  Isn’t that how it should be?

No doubt, there are other qualities of elder leadership that I will learn about during the upcoming interviews; but this should give you an idea about what makes them special and why we should celebrate their efforts.