Between April and June each year we say goodbye to our student interns at The Silver Clubs. While most of our interns are social work students we also host artists, nurses, occupational therapists, music therapists and the occasional medical student. For the students this can be a poignant moment of taking stock in a years worth of complex and deeply moving experiences. Many have spent upwards of 500 hours in this commitment on top of class work and jobs to pay the bills and support their families. I suppose interns in others settings are appreciated and valued, but it is hard to image they are more loved and included than at The Silver Clubs.
It has become a ritual for our elders in the programs to impart words of wisdom and encouragement to the students.. These brief sessions are a rite of passage and powerful to observe. All participants, including staff, have the opportunity to open up to this ancient human tradition of wisdom sharing. It is moving to witness the exchange of knowledge and heartfelt experience from elder to young person. Knowing the personal guidance shared comes from elders with memory impairment makes it even more profound. Over the years, I have been the recipient of extraordinary kindness from the wisdom keepers. They have witnessed my growth from young to seasoned social worker, allowing me to partner with them in care planning, program design and counseling. They gave me advice after my wedding engagement (“don’t wait too long”) and their best guidance for navigating the early years of marriage (“Spend time together, don’t forget about your friendship.”). They have responded with enthusiasm and delight at the birth of my children and in return have shared their stories of parenting and now, grand-parenting. As a result, I have a deeper understanding of parenting as a tradition and sacred responsibility which compliments the guidance offered by my own family. In many cases the babies they raised are now again intimately involved in their lives, all grown up and lovingly caring for their parent(s) the way they were cared for as their children.
I have grown in the light of elders and flowered in their kindness. Even the casual, unsolicited advice has been well-meaning. “I like your hair better when you let it wave ” or” you look like you could use some sleep sweetie” or “You look great in bright colors, wear less black”. I feel extremely fortunate to have this opportunity and my gift in return is a conscious effort to reflect back their shiny, sagacious spirit so they can see what they may have forgotten; their greatness, their wholeness. It is so easy to give and the benefits are immeasurable. This dimension of the wisdom exchange, listening and reflecting, is important to acknowledge and something not cultivated well in our society.
When do individuals with memory and cognitive loss have the opportunity to share their wisdom? How often are they asked and invited to participate in discussions and debate questions with eager invitations and patient students? What community platforms do we have to support and encourage our elders? It is time. It is time for all of our elders to speak loudly, share and offer guidance grounded in the knowledge of experience and remembering beyond the scope of our own youth and status as not-yet-elder. The “Age-ing to Sage-ing” book and subsequent movement pioneered by Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi and Ronald Miller in the mid-nineties has taken root in many places, but we still do not see enough evidence of it in mainstream American Life.
I was reminded recently of the The International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. I first learned of their awakening and council gatherings three years ago after reading an article by Spirituality and Health Magazine editor Stephen Kiesling. The Grandmothers united in 2004 by each responding to an individual call to service in the form of prayer, education and healing for Earth and all of her inhabitants. They represent regions from all over the globe and work together in one seamless message of hope and freedom for all children of the planet, young and old. Imagine if each elementary, middle and high school had a council of elders to hear from on a regular basis? Or neighborhood?Gathered, organized and supported for their gifts, insight and experience.
My personal hope is to see more elders rising up in the way of The Grandmothers; intergenerational reaching out to speak up against the insanity of our times, the intolerance, violence, exclusion and hoarding persistent around the planet. No matter how small the voice, all humans on this earth with more peace in their heart than hostility can hear a call towards community, unity and oneness. We see this sacred connection in the pain of our earth brothers and sisters in the midst of war, natural disaster, poverty and isolation. We see it in our own country, our cities and maybe even our own neighborhoods. When we are open to hear the call, no matter how faint, we are better equipped to sigh in the direction of love. We may not know what to do. We may feel more lost than guided, but we know what the truth looks like. We can begin to relax in the knowing that all we have to do is listen. The next steps will be clear.
During this time of upheaval on our planet I am looking forward to this year’s farewell rituals at The Silver Clubs. In a small city in the Midwest, in a nondescript professional building off a busy road at the edge of a large University, in a quiet and comfortable room there will sit a group of elders. They will be smiling and they will be feeling useful, appreciated, wise and admired. And we, their students, will be taking notes.