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Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Years in Our Lives, Life in Our Years

Presented by Deb Rubenstein, Worship Leader, with Bettie Young, Worship Associate

Years in Our Lives, Life in Our Years

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

Deb Rubenstein, Worship Leader

June 23, 2013


I’m Deb Rubenstein.  I am 52 years old, and I’m getting older.  And guess what?  You’re getting older too. Some of you youngsters in your 20’s, 30’s and40’s might be here today more about your role as family caregiver than as aging person.  But the truth is we are all aging.

My knowledge about what it means to get older, and how to do it well, and not so well, comes from my own experience as someone born at the end of the Baby Boom who is now in mid-life, as a long-distance caregiver for my mother and grandmother, as a former pastoral care associate here at Paint Branch, and as a social worker with older adults and those who care for them.  

I’ve been working with older adults for almost twenty years, but I want to tell you a story about one of my very first clients, whom I will call Ed.  When I met Ed I was an intern learning how to be a social worker, and he was a tall, thin retired civil engineer in his 80’s living alone in a musty, dusty basement apartment.  In cold weather and warm, whenever I visited, he was always dressed in pajamas and his plaid bathrobe.  Like many of my clients, his health was failing and he had few friends and no family; in fact many weeks I was his only visitor.   Our visits had two parts.  First I would try to persuade him to go to the doctor or to accept one or more kinds of help that I thought would improve his well-being, and he would refuse.  Then he would tell me fascinating stories, usually about growing up in Chicago, or about his life’s work of building bridges all over the world, and I would listen.   At the end of my internship I asked Ed what, if anything, was helpful to him about our work together, particularly since his living situation wasn’t much different.  He thought about it for a minute and then he said to me, “You know, everyone needs an audience of one.  And that is what you have been for me.”  When my work gets too complex or difficult, as it often does, I remember what Ed told me.  There is nothing more important to do for someone who is aging, actually for someone of any age, than to be an audience of one.  That’s my best advice for those who are caring for older relatives. Be an audience of one.


I believe that it is a good idea to be an audience of one for ourselves.  I would like to invite you to enter into a meditation with me about getting older.  


Please get comfortable, close your eyes if you are comfortable doing so, and tune in to your breathing, just breathe in gently.  In and out.  Now I’d like you to imagine yourself as very old, whatever age that is for you, just imagine yourself at that age.  Where are you?  How do you feel in your body?  Who is around you?  What is difficult?  What brings you joy?  Ok, now gently come back to your current age and open your eyes.


It takes courage to contemplate our own aging.  We wonder if someone is going to feed us when we are 64.  Actually, what we wonder is: are we going to be able to feed ourselves at 64 or 74 or 94.  And in fact the question of whether we can feed ourselves, or drive, or take our medicine correctly or do housework is one that greatly determines quality of life as we age (well, for myself, if someone else is doing housework for me in later life – I can live with that).  When I asked Esther Nichols, our Chalice Lighter this morning, to tell me about life at age 94 she said to me: It’s a puzzle.  And she went on to talk about what it is like to have some mobility challenges, to be “tipsy” as she described it. As we know, Esther is still a force to be reckoned with, continuing to be an active volunteer and leader here at Paint Branch and in the community.  But Esther, like many of us who are aging, has a functional impairment.  She cannot walk as well as she once did.    Esther, like most of us as we age, has a form of disability. 


We may not think about someone who is older and in a wheelchair or using a cane or unable to live independently because of Alzheimer’s as having a disability, but  according to the Centers for Disease Control,  they do.    Here’s a statistic for you.   Someone in good health at age 70 has a  life expectancy is on average 84, and is likely to live seven years of our lives with some form of  disability.  It may be more or less severe, but a period of disability in our lives is a probability, not a possibility.  This is a personal challenge.  We don’t want someone to feed us when we’re 64, we want to feed ourselves. 


The widespread development of disability in later life also presents a social justice challenge.   People with disabilities of whatever age need health care and support with those daily tasks they cannot do for themselves.  In this country families take up much of this slack, providing  over 300 billion dollars worth of care each year, but it is impossible for families to do it all.  No one can care for someone with dementia all alone, without extra help, and emerge with health and employment and relationships all intact.  Yes, we have Medicare, at least today we do, but Medicare does not pay for long-term help in the home or even long-term care in a nursing home; for that you have to exhaust your savings and therefore any inheritance for your children, and go onto Medicaid.  The community senior services agency I work for dependent on government funding, and we are struggling to cope with increased demand for our services in a time when the social services safety has bigger and bigger holes in it.


Which brings me to the second of the big aging challenges: money.  Over the last several decades pensions have morphed into 401(k)s and similar tax-deferred retirement savings plans.  We are more and more funding our own retirements.  One study says that we will spend on average 21 years in retirement but we have on average only 14 years worth of savings.  We get more and more calls at my agency from people who have outlived their savings and whose rent, even on rent control, now takes 70% or more of their income.  And then there’s the added issue of paying for the care and services we or our older relatives are likely to need.   None of the provisions in the Affordable Care Act intended to address long-term care remain in the law as enacted. 


Another significant challenge in aging is that of changing roles and relationships.    With retirement and empty nests we have to renegotiate our roles.  I have observed that members of our congregations seem to do this successfully.  We have members of Paint Branch who are retired, and are now cooking, advocating, dancing, tutoring and doing a myriad of activities that keep this congregation going,from serving on the Board to selling scrip. 

But that doesn’t mean that it’s an easy transition from work to retirement, and I know that those of us who are looking ahead to this phase in our life are wondering “what next”.


And relationships are of course central to our well-being.  Esther called me up after our phone conversation because she forgot to tell me something very important.  She said “ I have four children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.”   Maybe in the meditation we did earlier you connected to a strong hope that as you age you would be surrounded by those who love and love you.  Or maybe you felt a deep fear that this would not happen, that you would grow old alone.  We often build our worlds around a few cherished beings, and when they are not in our lives the void is wide and it is deep. 


And one last challenge to consider is ageism.  Ageism, you might be interested to learn, was actually invented in Washington, D.C.  That is, Robert Butler, a psychiatrist and pioneering scholar of aging and mental health, coined the term in 1969 after attending a community meeting in his Chevy Chase neighborhood.   Residents were opposed to the conversion of a

luxury apartment building to public housing building for older adults.  They were opposed in part because they did not want economically disadvantaged people and people who were not White living on upper Connecticut Avenue.   But they were also opposed because they did not want “a bunch of old people” in their neighborhood.  Butler coined the term age-ism to refer to stereotypical and negative views of older adults as less intelligent, able, interesting and sexual than younger people.  Not only can we hold this view about other older people but we often have internalized ageism.   Why is it so hard to think of ourselves as “old”?  I think because it’s a term with a lot of social baggage that we don’t want to carry. 


So here’s the bottom line.  Aging is indeed a landslide.  Aging equals vulnerability: physical, economic and social vulnerability.  But we’re not done yet, fortunately.  There’s another bottom line. 


I’ve been an audience of one for hundreds of people as they age, and though vulnerability and suffering are absolutely real, I have learned that aging is also an opportunity full of power and possibility for us as individuals, for our families, and for our communities. 


Here’s one rich opportunity.  The opportunity to practice radical self-care.  What do I mean by that?  Well, Bettie mentioned that she exercises, and eats her veggies, and chases around after her grand-twins.  And she does that because she hopes to have a healthy and happy old age.  Bettie is on to something.  The research data supporting a plant-based diet and exercise as protective against not just dementia but heart disease.  No, I can’t guarantee that you give up steak and get 100% cognitive functioning until the end.  But for me, I am understanding that good diet and exercise are a mandate for successful aging.


And here’s another piece of great news about aging.  Another of my gurus in understanding aging, the late Dr. Gene Cohen, looked at creativity in later life.  He noted that while in later life the aging body may not work as well as it once did, many artists and scholars actually do their best work in later life.  He pointed out that while certain cognitive functions such as word-finding can be more problematic, increased life experience actually enhances problem-solving skills.  He argued that we should all be intentional about creativity in later life, whether that means learning a new art form, taking on a cause that is important to us, or recognizing the imagination required to keep active grandchildren engaged and happy while we’re baby-sitting them.  And there is the idea that retiring baby-boomers, overall a well-educated group, represent enormous social capital that can be put to work through volunteering in ways that could transform communities.


Here’s another concept to explore.  I propose that this July 4 we declare our interdependence, rather than our independence.  We’re all going to age more successfully if we can both give and receive.   We’re all going to be more successful caregivers if we can be open to receiving from those we care for.  In the five years from my mother’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s until her death, I made many trips up to Massachusetts and did countless tasks of all kinds for her and my father.  I gave.  But I also received.  Mom got confused, didn’t always understand what was going on in my life, but her love of life and of me was constant and I knew it.  The last thing she said to me, as my sister and I were leaving her after spending the day with her in the hospital was, “I want you to know, this has been a lot of fun.”   A final gift, a benediction.


An example of interdependence in community is the evolution of Villages.  Villages are neighborhood-based nonprofits whose purpose is to help people age in their communities.   There are many Villages in this area, including one in formation in Hyattsville.  Usually there is an annual membership fee and some staff but mostly Villages are about neighbor-helping-neighbor.   Members can get rides to the doctor or pointers on how to operate their computer.  Neighbors get together for social events as well.  What I like about the villages is that a member can both contribute to the village and benefit from it.   


Which brings us to the village that is Paint Branch.  In the fall I led a couple of Enrichment Hour workshops on Aging Well to the End.   I also led one at the Women’s Retreat on Conscious Retirement.  I have learned that many of you are deeply interested in conversations on aging and caregiving.  I am open for more, and welcome feedback about what you need from this congregation in terms of support with your own aging and caregiving, and what you can give to the congregation around these issues.   On the UUA website I found some examples of programs of ministry to older adults and those with disabilities.  There’s everything from buddy systems to an Aging and Saging Curriculum.  


So what do we do here at Paint Branch?  Do we explore aging and caregiving as social justice issues?  Do we need a support group that meets regularly to discuss aging and caregiving?  Do we expand We Care and Pastoral Care Associates in some way,or create our own Village or mini-Villages or covenant groups  to provide mutual  aid in coping with some of the challenges of daily life in the event of illness and disability?  I don’t have the answers but I am interested in exploring these questions with you.   I will be in the foyer after service and interested in hearing your thoughts.


We are always aging and evolving, personally, in our families, our congregation, and in our larger community.   Having more years in our lives is a challenge, but it is also a gift and an opportunity, to live in ways that are healthier and more creative, and that recognize and celebrate interdependence.  

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