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From Aging to Sage-ing

The Conscious Aging Network offers new ways for seniors to contribute and feel valued.

 

"The boomers are coming!" Frank Kenney says with a laugh. People are reaching retirement age en masse, people are retiring earlier, and the very nature of "retirement" itself is changing, he says. "But just because they stop working. . . doesn't mean they want to stop living and doing and giving. They want new challenges, and these should be challenges that fit their stage of life."

Kenney, director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) in Silver City, says there's a better way to grow old. He calls it "sage-ing," a term coined by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, author of From Age-ing to Sage-ing.Implied is a shift in focus–away from the limitations that come with aging and toward employing the wisdom that comes with life experience. It's a way of thinking and living that not only enables seniors to feel more valued, Kenney says, but that also enriches all of society in ways large and small.

Inspired by the works of Schachter-Shalomi as well as by author Harry Moody, Kenney has been instrumental in starting up Silver City's Conscious Aging Network (CAN), partnering RSVP with several social services organizations. CAN's mission statement says its goals are to "provide activities in which elders may explore the spiritual and practical aspects of aging and incorporate this knowledge into their lives, while creating a reciprocal relationship between elders and their community where their experience and wisdom are a valued resource."

"Our society values productivity. It's youth-oriented, youth-obsessed," Kenney says. "Elders provide wisdom and experience. Late-life productivity is different from productivity in our youth. And it should be!"

We've all seen those ads: Silver-haired men and women power-walking in the park or talking about how happy they are in their "active" retirement community. One spokesman for hair dye credits his darker locks with enabling him to remain competitive in the workplace. Sure, it's great to be vibrant and full of life into one's golden years, but equating youthful vigor or competitiveness with success, says Kenney, shortchanges seniors–and society itself–from experiencing some of the real and true value of growing older, the richness of age and wisdom.

The gifts from our elders are non-economic contributions, he adds, but of great value, and learning from them and passing them down to our youth enriches society. That's what CAN is all about.

After a well-attended general open house at the Silco Theater last fall, several areas ripe for outreach were identified. At least three areas–an elder-circle discussion group, a mentorship program and an oral-history preservation effort–are underway, having regular meetings and drawing new seniors to participate.

 

Los Sabios is one such group under the CAN umbrella. At the Silver City Public Library on a recent afternoon, Julie Ramirez, a counselor at La Plata Middle School, addresses a group of senior men and women. Los Sabios means "the wise ones," she explains, and this group seeks to match up senior mentors with children in the local schools. Ramirez initiated the original Los Sabios program in 2000, but it waned after a few years. When approached by Kenney, she was keen to start the program back up with CAN's support.

Children chosen for mentoring are not doing poorly in school or have big emotional needs, but just "seem to want or need the attention," Ramirez says. Under the arrangement, the students spend a half-hour with their mentor, out of the classroom setting but on school grounds, once a week. "This is not tutoring," she stresses. "It is simply to spend some time and build that child's self-esteem. To share something of yourself. You could show them a hobby of yours or read to them or maybe show them a photo album."

Meeting facilitator Tom Gibbons puts in, "If you have a particular skill or interest, maybe a hobby you'd like to share, let us know so we can keep that in mind when doing the match-up."

Describing the mechanics of the program, Ramirez says men may mentor boys while women may mentor boys or girls; mentors must have a background check and mentorship meetings take place on school grounds for security reasons. The children are in kindergarten through fifth grade, and mentors can choose the school in which they'd like to volunteer.

Dean and Ginger Holloway offer some of their own experiences in the past with mentoring children. Dean volunteers to serve as a contact person for prospective mentors who'd like to know how it went for someone else.

"Great," says Gibbons, jotting down notes and the Holloways' phone number. Others around the table voice their school preferences. "That's right near my home," says one woman. "I work there, so that's easy for me," says another. Before the group adjourns, all in the room are matched to a possible school and the seniors eagerly confirm a date for their mentor training.

 

Another arm of CAN's outreach is "Untold Stories," a group concerned with preserving the life stories of local elders. Kenney addresses a group of seniors that has gathered around a table at the County Health Building in Silver City, explaining the"Untold Stories" effort:

"If I can paraphrase Gary Staley, who is a real advocate for preserving our elders' stories, he says something like, 'Every time an elder dies, it's like a library burning down,'" Kenney says. He then introduces a dark-haired woman, Patsy Sanchez, and her daughter, Mary, who have entered the room. "Mary's grandfather Felix spent over four years in a Japanese prison camp," Kenney says. "He participated in the Bataan Death March. These are powerful stories, a powerful part of history. And he's been telling these stories to Mary, who's been writing them down."

The group murmurs approval and asks Mary a few questions. After the Sanchezes leave, those around the table describe why they have come to today's meeting. One woman works with hospice patients and is looking for tips to get her clients to tell their stories before they die. A man suggests video recording and offers his experience. Another woman asks for tips on making a life-story book using photographs. The six trade ideas and resources that might facilitate storytelling and oral-history preservation.

Alex Zinner, facilitator for the group, says a video or book capturing an elder's or terminal patient's stories "can be a beautiful gift for the family."

Another man at the table, who surprises everyone by revealing he is an octogenarian, says he has stories to share about the students he's taught over the years. He thinks the youngsters' methods of problem solving might be of value to others.

One woman asks for help getting some homebound seniors together with younger people so they can share their stories. Solutions are discussed.

After the meeting, reflecting on the group's interest in eliciting and preserving elders' stories, Kenney says, "Elders provide continuity. In an article I wrote, I think I said something like, 'Tradition is the ballast of civilization.' Without that, young people lose touch with the past, lessons are lost, perspective is lost.

"We're talking about treasure, absolute treasure."

–Donna Clayton Lawder

 

For more information on the RSVP program or the Conscious Aging Network, call Frank Kenney at 388-2535. Los Sabios mentoring group will meet Jan. 11 at 3:30 p.m. in the Silver City Public Library, 515 W. College Ave. The Untold Stories group will meet Jan. 16 at 3:30 p.m. at the County Health Bldg., 2610 N. Silver St. in Silver City.

 

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