January 12, 2019
I spend time every day with a loved one at an assisted living facility. “It’s not exactly home,” she says wistfully. She’s right: it’s Plan B following a memory-scrambling stroke. While the facility is lovely, it’s a bit sterile, like a nice hotel. A placard in the well-appointed lobby announces activities, including nightly movies. Residents eat nutritious, delicious meals in the spacious dining room. It’s a nice place.
Mine is the first generation in my family to care for elders outside of private homes. Elder facilities serve a purpose, yet they’re a far cry from the rollicking, ramshackle farmhouses where my Québécois ancestors aged and died. Middle age finds me caring for an elderly family member while balancing parenting, work, and other responsibilities.
North Americans work diligently to deliver quality elder care, yet I don’t believe we’ve found the “sweet spot.” Many people live in segregated age groups, a construct unknown in traditional cultures and in our own families not long ago.
Friendships with elders allow me to observe people aging in different ways, including with acceptance, bitterness, grace, anxiety, humor, and depression. I’m inspired by residents’ spunk and wisdom, yet it’s also painful to witness how — for some —loneliness can pervade lives even in a place filled with people.
Another way I spend time is by substituting and volunteering at the laudably community-minded Four Rivers Charter Public School, where I build relationships with students in grades 7 through 12.
When I see what it means to be a 21st century teen, I realize that my own struggles during adolescence were a walk in the park. Though plagued by worries about family poverty and the nuclear arms race, I navigated teen angst with a sense of hopefulness. I was not burdened with the knowledge that polar ice caps, bees, and whole habitable regions of the world could cease to exist, or change beyond recognition. I was unaware that human carelessness and greed could cause oceans to warm, altering nature’s rhythms.
Today’s teens are astoundingly creative in considering how to live on a fragile planet amid deep social and political divisions. The intensity of teens’ individual and collective despair stuns me, as well. Their balancing acts require more of them, I believe, than should be expected of young folks. I grieve for them even as I marvel at their brilliance.
Homo sapiens brings about division and damage with regrettable frequency, so I feel jubilant whenever we score one for humanity. Such is the case when, in keeping with Four Rivers tradition, I facilitate groups of eighth graders in “service immersion” at the assisted living facility I’ve come to know so well. Students and I organize singing, arts and crafts, and storytelling sessions. We conduct interviews, inviting elders to share histories, adventures, and opinions.
Although participating students’ personalities run the gamut, each one expresses gratitude after spending quality time with elders. Older folks, in turn, are over the moon about associating with teens.
I think the project represents a badly needed sweet spot in our world. Bringing teens and elders together is more than just heartwarming; we preserve our humanity by helping them build relationships. Perhaps it’s because they have much in common.
Vulnerable elders and teens should be protected and celebrated. Yet too often in our culture, members of each group are ignored or ridiculed. Our most precious ones — tender youth and wise elders — are marginalized instead of being cherished.
We could change that. When we create spaces where elders and youth come together, we introduce people who — at opposite ends of life — share attributes of rapidly changing bodies, worries about the future, zany senses of humor, and capacity for deep affection. There’s something about weaving together these two groups that yields magical moments.
If you want to test the theory, try introducing teens to elders. (It works well in groups, where awkwardness can dissolve.) Maybe you’ll see a bright 13-year-old pull out a baritone ukulele and perform the one song he knows on that instrument, “Five-foot-two and Eyes of Blue.” You may smile as a 95-year-old woman exclaims, “That’s my favorite song!” Perhaps you’ll look on with wonder as the duo, with 108 years of combined enthusiasm and heartache, light up the room as everyone’s eyes glisten.
These two groups belong together, and we miss the boat when we keep them apart. Could be a recipe for self-preservation?