A few days before the COVID-19 lockdown began, I discovered a small group of activist “elders” who seemed a world away from the dominant pandemic image of helpless old people trapped in nursing homes.
We met in a mountain cabin in Colorado. It was the culmination of a year-long international programme led by Farther On, a new American organisation set up to help people navigate the fraught rite of passage into old age. As we talked around the fire, I caught a glimpse of a new way of thinking where the experience, wisdom and commitment of older people might become essential in building a post-COVID world.
As Farther On co-founder David Oldfield put it: “We’re migrating from one image of old people to another: from mere flotsam, a drain on resources, to a vibrant, indispensable force in healing and recovery, people waiting to be asked to play a vital role, and maybe make the supreme sacrifice while doing so. The former image was imposed on us by old notions of ‘retirement’; the latter is emergent as oldness becomes a vital stage of life in its own right.”
So could coronavirus transform the way we value elders in our culture? And what use are old people, anyway? To find out, I reconnected with Farther On alumni all over the globe – by video calls, of course.
Reimagining the realities of aging
Best-selling author Richard Leider has been “staying sane” during lockdown by completing the manuscript of his latest book with co-author David Shapiro. It’s called Who do You Want to be When You Grow Old?.
Speaking from his office in Edina, Minnesota, Leider said ageism may become even more rife after the pandemic. But he believes communities can enrich the lives of all citizens by tapping into the vast experience and potential wisdom of over-65s. “There’s a big distinction between being elderly and being elder. We get to be adults by just living; elderhood is when we figure out what really matters. Wise elders see the big picture and know what weight to give things. They’ve been through it before. Wisdom won’t solve the problem, but it will help bring a new perspective.”
Now in his mid-70s himself, Leider predicts a rocky road ahead when such wise counsel will be much needed. “I do believe there’s a social and emotional recession coming big time along with the financial recession. We older folks can’t bring certainty, but we can bring some pattern recognition. We can help people understand their gifts and values. There is a yearning for leaders who have wisdom.”
Sitting round the fire in that cabin on the slopes of Red Mountain, Colorado – about ten miles south of the ski town of Crested Butte – I was struck by the potential power of this “pattern recognition”. Almost everyone in the room had lived through the Vietnam War, two Gulf Wars, the attack on the Twin Towers as well as several global financial crises and a vast range of political leadership styles and philosophies. Most had lost friends to HIV-Aids. Time, accident and disease had taken their toll of family and loved ones. My own parents met after World War II and that global struggle between two starkly opposed views of civilisation served as the constant background story of all my growing up in my native Scotland. I can hear my father now saying: “Stick with it. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid. You can get through this.”
Such experience is far from being just a passive virtue in this time of pandemic. All across the USA and Europe, older doctors and nurses have come out of retirement as volunteers offering to help struggling hospitals, health clinics and nursing homes. It is very much a calculated risk. Working at the “front line” of COVID-19 puts these silver-haired helpers very much in harm’s way, especially given the international shortage of personal protective equipment such as face masks, gowns, gloves and visors. I will never forget the image of a network TV reporter wearing a pristine hazmat suit in a New York hospital interviewing an older nurse and asking what she was wearing. “A bin bag,” she replied.
Pray she survives, for that nurse will have quite a story to tell her grandchildren.
Changing the conversation on elderhood
Old people can be story tellers, history keepers and curators of our cultural memory. But Alexis Diaz fears we’re just not listening. “As a culture, we think the elderly are not part of the system anymore – not part of our economic system or our cultural vitality or our rituals,” she said from her home in Aspen, Colorado. “There’s a huge vacuum here. There’s no celebration, no reverence, no solemnity about a transition to elderhood. It’s like a disappearance. We have to change the conversation because at the moment our message to the elderly is: go away, you’re a burden, you have nothing to contribute. But half a million teachers in the USA are aged 55 or older. How is their life not contributing to the economy and society? And that’s just the teachers.”
Transforming that conversation lies at the heart of Farther On. Its approach is to plant seeds of change and self-worth in older people themselves. “The elderly cannot wait for their communities to find something for them to do,” says Oldfield, locked down at home in Washington DC. “Redeeming elderhood begins with self-exploration and then translating insights into actions, wishes into movements.”
I found this journey much more demanding than I had expected: a year-long master’s course of sorts in the emotional intelligence of embracing a meaningful and productive old age. At the heart of the programme is an international story circle where twelve participants share twelve journals month by month and then meet only after that year of soul searching is done. For most of the year, we had bared our hearts to intimate strangers about some of the deepest questions of life: how to face death; how to make amends for life’s mistakes; how to cope with being old or sick. Everyone also tried to reimagine their future by exploring whatever talent and genius they have and what purpose they may now serve in the world.
Muscle memory of how to survive
This process of reimagining the future turns many of these elders into activists. I manage to catch one of the last flights from Denver home to the UK before the international lockdown. The next morning a text arrives from my new-found friend and fellow traveller Rita Payne: “Poignant how we left one world for our gathering and returned to quite another world, forever changed.”
When I track down Rita again she is quarantined in Florida with her husband Keith, unable for now to return home to Colorado. “I guess if I had any hopefulness, it would be this: look at the change that is happening with COVID. If you had told me people would stop driving, flying and using cruise ships, I wouldn’t have believed you. We’re at a pivotal point. We have cut our pollution numbers in half. Maybe we can build on the difference. I’m very hopeful about the environment for the first time. This could give the environment time to re-set.”
Rita seems invigorated and radicalised by the storytelling journey to the Rockies. She is now focussed on building a bridge between old people freed from the demands of working life and a much younger generation fearful of climate catastrophe. “It’s absolutely imperative that we don’t take a back seat. We have to be more aggressive than we were before. We are now more relevant than ever. We’ve got to show young people it’s possible to get through this and stay intact. Maybe we carry a sort of cultural muscle memory of how to survive.”
Then from the Lake District of north-west England, I receive a very brief and hurried email from Farther On colleague David Williams. Now in his late Sixties, Williams is fighting on all fronts to save his international consulting business from collapse in the aftermath of COVID-19. “My post-Colorado life sees me working harder than I have for a long time. I’m more determined than ever to weave environmental change into ‘what’s next’ for business.”
The value of ‘old minds’
In New Zealand, car industry executive Alistair Davis is preparing for retirement by helping his sector gear up for the transition to a post-oil, climate friendly economy. He says inspiring and guiding communities are important gifts old people have to offer. “That’s the role of elders: being a repository of values and core belief systems, not least because they have more time to think deeply about stuff.”
For all the suffering coronavirus brings, especially to the elderly, almost all the so-called “old minds” I spoke to hoped that COVID-19 could open the door to a fundamentally different approach to global problems and systems. “With things like climate change, it seems too big to tackle in the short term,” says Davis, “so people just want to keep kicking it down the road. With coronavirus, the whole world has come together to solve stuff. Clearly, the scientists around the world are working hard together to try to find solutions. Let’s see if that’s a model for the world working together. The thing that will undermine that is short termism. That’s why I grieve a little bit when governments become inward looking rather than outward looking.”
Now we’ve got a shot
For Farther On co-founder Richard “Rocky” Kimball, a global crisis is a terrible thing to waste. “During a crisis we are all dramatically out of our patterns and it gives us the opportunity – especially in lockdown – to think about things we’d hoped for but never could have created. It’s as if the whole world is acting differently. World War II was one of those times and so was 9/11. Suddenly the whole notion of time and what we do with it and how we spend it is changing.
“We all should be more optimistic now than before COVID-19 because there used to be no consensus about worldwide action. There was no widespread belief that we are all in this together. There was no widespread belief in science. Now there is a change. It’s not a wild-eyed optimism that I have, but we’ve got a chance now. We’ve got a shot. But hey – I’m running out of time.”
Radicalised by coronavirus
Only 5 per cent of Americans over 65 occupy nursing homes or some form of assisted living, according to the US Bureau of the Census, and there are around 50 million over-65s in the USA. This image of silent old people locked up in nursing homes – powerless, waiting to die and a drain on health resources and the economy – is light years away from the aspirations of old people who pass through the portals of organisations like Farther On.
Instead, I discover elderly activists who are eager to contribute to their communities and want to be the memory keepers and story tellers of an inter-generational world, reassuring the young and anyone else who will listen: “It’s OK – we can get through this. We’ve seen troubled times before.”
Many of these old people have become radicalised in the process and believe that coronavirus, for all the pain it brings, has pulled back the curtain on undreamt of possibilities for a better way of living in the world.
The “elders” I spoke to want to stay movers, shapers and shakers. As Richard Leider told me: “People want to feel their life is important and they want work that matters. It’s in our DNA to belong and to matter in life and that never goes away.”