Friday, November 23, 2007

What Is It To Be An Elder?

photo Kelly Presnell/Arizona Daily Star

Sabino Canyon, Arizona

Upon retirement, people seem to take one of two paths.

Get small -- retire into themselves, curl up into their home, go out less and less, perhaps have mental and physical slowdowns over longer and longer periods, and then, die.


Participate in life -- retire out into their local communities, engage with friends, find projects where they can contribute back to children and teenagers their wisdom and understanding. This engagement keeps our elders alive for much longer, and allows their Institutional Memory to be passed on.

Like all seven major life developmental stages -- infant, child, teen, young adult, transition to adulthood, adult, & elder -- we can not say ahead of time, if a particular person will navigate the change well or not.

All of us know people in their late twenties and early thirties who are protracted teenagers, people who failed to move successfully from being a teenager -- which developmentally runs from the onset of puberty to the early twenties, and is characterized by being focused primarily on one's self, and pushing away one's parents -- and now at say thirty, are still stuck being very self-centered, relating to sexuality in a teenage way, and trying to go out and party as if they were a teenager. They are a protracted teenager.

In the same way, we can not say how any adult making the transition to elder, will do. Even the most successful adult, may go down the path of turning inwards, and the less successful adults may, counterintuitively, become very successful elders.

Like all developmental transitions, the transition to elder will likely take a number of years to tell which way it goes. These transitions are not under our control as observers, and we should be clear, they are not really under the control of the person in the middle of it all. Well, not any more than becoming a teenager or transitioning into adulthood was under your control.

My mother, Patricia, 70, has been transitioning into being an elder. She is a part-time municipal judge in Tucson providing backup for the full-time judges, however it is fairly rare she is needed to take the bench. After a successful career spanning being a respected bankruptcy attorney in two states, serving as the Chief of Staff to the Chancellor at a major urban University, and before all that, being the Assistant Concert Master of the Tucson Symphony (not to mention raising three children), it's really been fascinating for me to watch my oh-so-successful mother struggle to redefine herself from these large roles around family, work and career, into something more personal, more consistent with her passions.

This past fall, inside my mom's love of the Arizona desert, inside her commitment that people have the opportunity to learn at a young age both to love the desert, and that caring for the ecosystems we necessarily are part of is essential -- we will all live or die together with our plants and water, air, birds, insects and animals -- my mother along with retired airplane pilots, financiers, artists, and a group of massively smart, talented people (I met some of them when I went to Tucson in October), has been training to be Volunteer Naturalists at Sabino Canyon, just north-east of Tucson against the Catalina mountains.

Sabino Canyon is a glorious canyon, where many of us from Tucson did a lot of hanging out when we were growing up. It has water flowing much of the year, including some terrific floods during the rainy seasons. Awesome snakes to watch out for, BIG boulders to jump on, these old bridges built by the WPA which still look super-cool, spanning up the entire canyon, and the whole thing is just so perfect for hiking and biking. Or if you're not up for that, there's a tram to take you all the way to the top of the road, where you can keep climbing, all the way up to the top of Mt. Lemon if you want -- and I have.

(That's Mom in the photo, by the way, third person to the right, in shorts, helping to hold the king snake. Well, petting it, anyway.)

Mom and her classmates have been studying all fall, day after day after day, cracking books, working in the canyon, taking tests, so they can be Volunteer Naturalists and work with the 8,000-10,000 elementary school-kids who come to the canyon every year to be out in nature. Last month, Mom told me, one of her classmates encountered a real mountain-lion, right there in the canyon!

I'm proud of my mother -- and of the people she's graduating with. Instead of turning inwards, they're turning outwards. These people, the younger ones and the elders alike, are giving back to their community in a very real way, passing on the heart of their love for the land to a new generation.

That is the essence of being an elder -- giving your heart back to the community.