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Aging in Community
"Aging in community" is an emerging field in Gerontology. Research indicates that aging in community has many benefits. For my parents and many like them, first generation children of immigrants to Canada, the sociology of aging was of little concern. Surviving beyond retirement - that was the primary goal. After that, staying put: aging near where they had grown up, lived, worked, preferably in the home already bought and paid for, where they had raised their children, and to which they would welcome their grandchildren: a pattern now called "aging in place," in Canada considered the cheapest and easiest way to house the aging – especially as many owned their own place and could survive on their pensions -- no longer such facile assumptions!
My parents died over 20 years ago. The situation today is different. Since moving to the U.S. for grad school, and later becoming citizens, we have "left home" over and over again. For decades, "belonging" has taken a back seat to making a living, and then to improving quality of life. Like many of our generation, we have relocated because of jobs, schools, children's wellbeing, neighborhood disruption, and family health. But for me now, the longing for belonging has emerged almost like a haunting, moving up from the back seat to become a ghost-driver. The longing is exacerbated by a continuing diaspora of our children and of friends disbursing all over the globe. Perhaps there is the real truth – community is being redefined as world-wide, global!
Several years ago in San Diego, our children had both moved away, our own "nest" had emptied, and the peaceful cohesion of our neighborhood was shattered by rich, ruthless developers. We decided suddenly to sell our home in urban San Diego and to begin preparation for retirement. "And now for something completely different!" my husband exclaimed. Different indeed! We now live on a few wooded acres, as one of twelve families sharing a well, in a small rural community on an island in Puget Sound. During the search for where to settle, my husband and I had just begun considering the above questions. We didn't know the answers, but the "writing was on the wall." My husband's late father had an expression: "You don't have to go, but you can't stay here." Exactly!
We were fortunate to be able to make a joint decision to move into the mystery, to enter a new space, and to live into it. (Many couples we know are not able to come to a joint decision at this juncture, and separate.) The island community where we have chosen to live has long traditions of living in harmony with the Earth, with small family farms dotting its middle and south end, local farmers' markets, many cultural creatives, and resilient, caring offshoot groups from utopian spirit-based communities of the late 1960's. Our local neighbors are welcoming, and many members of the larger community are skilled in what is called here "radical hospitality."
As for belonging? "Not so fast!" island wisdom dictates. If someone familiar brings you in, then okay, you are already part of their circle. But for complete strangers, like us, utterly unknown -- well, strangers must first prove both their staying power and their worthiness – ten years is the typical waiting period for inclusion. (At least let it be in my lifetime! I hear myself wish on a dark winter morning.) After several years here, with both of us now having actually retired from our old jobs and both of us spending major parts of each day in artistic endeavors in our home studio, connecting with the community begins to take on a certain urgency for me, yet still I hold back. This past year, my husband's first year of full retirement from "bleeding edge" engineering development, I have noticed differences in our social needs emerging ever more sharply. Serenity, it turns out, is what my husband most seeks, sheer unperturbed serenity. Freedom to pursue tasks of his own choosing sets him off whistling happily for weeks at a time. But for me, the longer I live here in the bush, the greater the tension between outsider and entering in.
Identity and Aging
I was relieved to discover yesterday that "Aging and Identity" is yet one more emerging area in Gerontology. It turns that out empty-nesting and looming retirement are only two of the triggers. Life expectancy for our generation is almost an additional generation beyond what the previous generation anticipated. My own parents and my husband's parents all died in their early seventies. They had only a couple of years of retirement, and even those few years were severely compromised by serious illness. They had no opportunity to discover or recover other aspects of themselves. For our generation, who we are, how we act, and what we contribute during this next third of our lives could make a huge difference, not only to ourselves, but to the world around us!
Demographers reckon that over a billion people will be sixty years of age and beyond by the year 2020. If most of them are retired and can access their gifts, imagine the number of people-hours available each year – even if every person gave only 1 hour, on average, per day, per year to the commonweal – to the betterment of communities ----- 365 billion people-hours per year is nothing to sneeze at --- and surely not a resource we should waste! So if I and others choose to 'age in community,' we all have a reason to consider not only who we are in community and what gifts we might have to offer, but HOW we are in community, what does it really take to belong?!
Below is a story about what can happen when aging and community do not coincide. In my blog, I will discuss models I have often witnessed in communities where I have lived. I am definitely looking for a different model!
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