I accepted the job, but in all honesty, wasn’t sure that fundraising for the elderly would be my best fit. Was I was afraid of my own aging or leary of the stigma attached to aging in our youth-oriented culture?
The answer was to be subtle and profound. I never dreamed how much working in a retirement community would give to me. It didn’t take long for the good nature and open hearts of these older adults to work its way into my psyche. “Love is the only thing that matters,” one 90-year old man told me. He lived his life that way, spending his considerable intellect looking for meaningful ways to help those around him. He read books to those with failing eyesight or terminal illness. He gathered widowed men together at mealtime so they wouldn’t eat alone.
Time and again I witnessed such tenderness: reaching out to one another in the spirit of love or comfort or companionship. Not just a few, mind you, but thousands of such acts. New residents would move in, boundaries firmly in place, only to find themselves shocked and moved by this shameless caring around them. They, like me, were opened by it and forever changed. We became family; accepting each other, flaws and all.
Over time many of these friends have grown weaker; some have died. But their spirits are so strong that they remain; their memories a shining beacon. To me they are, in the words of one 100-year-old woman “polished stone(s) worn smooth and beautiful because (they) accepted, with courage, the harsh wearing of time.”
Loss is the predominant reality for older adults. I attend memorial services. Sometimes I cry at work. But I don’t really mind, for I am far more enriched by having known these special people. Sadness is eclipsed by that gain. They have taught me to share, love, and laugh every day, and to always, always, reach out to those around me.
Our culture fears aging and death so much that we push it far out of sight. But I believe there is transcendence in death. Aging and dying are ever-present in my workplace, and it is the most spiritual and comforting place I know. I watch the grace with which inevitable losses are met. Youth, mobility, independence, loved ones, and health slip away. Letting go of ego with humility, dignity, and surrender reveals an essential self at the core of each of us – profoundly simple and connected to the eternal life force. At last, the distractions and trappings of outer lives gone, grace is revealed.
I believe that aging and the passage into death is perhaps the most spiritual and profound act of our lives. Could all of life be but a preface to this most important moment, and death our greatest achievement? Is that what T. S. Eliot meant when he wrote, “at the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
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