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Toward a future enriched by elders' wisdom

Published September 26, 2006

Does spending your last days in a nursing home fill you with dread? For many Americans, this is, unfortunately, their only option. But author William Thomas hopes to change that.

In his fifth book, In the Arms of Elders, a Parable of Wise Leadership and Community Building, the Harvard-trained medical doctor and AARP visiting scholar imagines elders living in communities where nursing homes are nonexistent. People of all ages are encouraged to have nurturing relationships with each other - as well as with plants and animals.

This story begins when Bill and Jude, based on the author and his wife, decide to take a trip to celebrate the completion of their book on gerontology and aging. They think they know all there is to know about the field. That is, until they are shipwrecked and wash up on the shores of the fictional island Kallimos.

They are nursed back to health by Hannah, one of the elders in the island's village, and their views on aging are gradually dismantled as they begin to learn the ways of their new home. Here, elders are the most respected and revered members of the village, serving as peacemaker, teacher, healer and storyteller.

They pass on the shared wisdom of the ages through stories, at the heart of which are lessons in learning to live as a community and avoiding the three "plagues" of aging: loneliness, helplessness and boredom.

Without the technological advances and machines of the developed nations - here, the Other World - the people of Kallimos are rich in a spirit of community. Relationships are based on respect, companionship and balancing "the giving and receiving of care."

"Elders exist because they show us how to make a community," Hannah tells the stranded couple. "As we give to them, they give to us their wisdom, their experience, their affection. When we come together to meet their needs, we learn how to live as human beings. They instruct us in the art of caring."

In the Arms of Elders is a delightful read, informative and entertaining. It is hard to imagine anyone reaching the end of this book without a vision of a better lifestyle for his or her later years.

I interviewed Thomas by phone earlier this month about his views of aging in the real world:

At what point did our society shift to a culture of youth and to marginalizing the elderly?

As America rose to become an industrial power, the attitude toward aging changed. Our current fascination with youth is related to our fascination with machines. We love things that churn onward without fatiguing, we love machines.

How do you see the future of elders in this country, now that the boomers are aging?

In the next decades, I think old age is going to be turned upside-down. There will be a huge split in the elder population:

One group will practice anti-aging and do everything in their power not to get old. They will, of course, fail.

The other will accept and embrace their aging. These people will grow into the elders of our time, and we need them desperately.

In your paradigm for "elder communities," how do you allow for different personalities? How do you balance the need for community with the need for personal, individual expression?

That is really the central question to all human relationships: How shall we live together?

It is relevant to all ages and remains the most interesting, unanswered question we have. Because we do not have the answer - and never will - we must concentrate on the work of getting along. This is the true work of all human beings, young and old alike. No one has yet mastered it.

Of the three plagues of aging, is loneliness the most difficult to address, since lost loved ones can't be replaced?

Loneliness is the most difficult of all human problems. The answer to loneliness always depends upon another, and anything beyond the self is very difficult territory.

What emphasis do you put on spirituality as an element of healthy, happy aging?

The richness and value of spirituality increases with age. This is one of the blessings of old age.

Have your attitudes and beliefs about integrating elders into community changed since your last book?

In my previous books and particularly the last one, I was looking at the situation in nursing homes and was thus focused on what was going on within the four walls. Now I'm looking at what's going on outside the four walls. I am interested in society at large, and I am trying to influence how Americans see old age.

Is Kallimos practical? Utopia looks nice on paper, but real life tends to be messy.

The magic of Kallimos is that nothing magical happens there. All the people of Kallimos do is live with each other and sort things out. Utopia presumes perfectibility, but in Kallimos there is discord, grief, loss, etc. It is like this world, except that the people who live there understand that elders have learned a thing or two about getting along.

Is basing a society around elders going to halt innovation and change?

There's good evidence that this is what happens if society develops into a gerontocracy - that is, a society that is ruled by old people.

What America needs is the influence of elders. Influence is best exercised without control. The influence of elders can and should improve the life of society as a whole.

You use dreams in your book. How do you see the role of dreams in real life?

Dreams are an important part of real life. Once remembered, they become a part of a person's life. Understanding dreams is very helpful, especially in old age. The dreams of old people are as precious as diamonds.

What can people do now if they want to understand the forces that are shaping the old age we will know in the years to come?

Talk. Make conversation. Remember. Tell stories.

[Last modified September 26, 2006, 09:26:56]

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