Embracing Elderhood Changes Lives Across Generations

By / Posted on September 20th, 2012

By Laura Beck on September 13, 2012

At last week’s Green House Annual Meeting in Grand Rapids, Mich., I had the opportunity to introduce Green House adopters to Embracing Elderhood, an Eden Alternative initiative that brings volunteers, age 16 and older, together with Elders through the power of story

There is an African saying that equates the passing of an Elder to the loss of a library.  This proverb is the inspiration behind Embracing Elderhood and the notion that to truly care for someone, you must have a deeper understanding and appreciation of who they are.  On November 15th and 16th, The Eden Alternative will offer Embracing Elderhood Guide Certification to Green Houses and other organizations to help make legacy creation  an integral part of their community culture.

Part life story and part gift in the form of whatever an Elder wishes to offer future generations, legacies highlight and celebrate Elders as unique individuals, provide meaningful engagement for all, and answer important questions about our own lives.

When Elders are encouraged to share their legacies, we strike a blow against any potential sense of helplessness and isolation and reclaim their vital societal role.  In a healthy human community, this precious balance between giving and receiving across generations is essential. Every effort to weave Elders back into the social fabric of our communities – even one relationship at a time – is another step toward promoting a vision of Elderhood as a valued phase of human development, rather than just the decline of life.

Organizations tell us all of the time that they already ‘do’ Elder stories.  What we’ve learned, though, is that legacy creation, at its best, is much more about the process, than it is the outcome.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to some young people who’d been handed a list of questions and told to sit with an older stranger and get some answers.  These youth shared later that they had no idea why they were there and why they were doing this.  The Elders, in turn, stated that they didn’t know why they were being asked all of these personal questions.  Without a sense of purpose behind their actions, neither walked away touched in any particularly meaningful way.

Knowing WHY an Elder’s legacy has value is the first vital step toward successful legacy creation.  Given the right tools and perspective upfront, participants are often surprised by how deeply they are positively affected by the experience in the end.

Meredith, a 12th grade Embracing Elderhood Recording Partner from Charlottesville, VA, said, “This experience has completely changed the way I think about being an Elder. It helped me to understand that Elders don’t just live in the past. They still have the desire to learn, great senses of humor, and important lives to live.”

Meredith, like all volunteer Recording Partners, began her Embracing Elderhood journey in a 1-day training that introduces participants to culture change ideals.  Through the scope of the Eden Alternative’s Ten Principles, Embracing Elderhood Guides  teach Recording Partners person-directed concepts and techniques designed to create meaningful partnerships with their Elder Storytellers.  The interactive workshop emphasizes the power of story, the impact of ageism, redefining Elderhood, balancing “being” and “doing,” and appropriate communication and companionship building skills.

Recording Partners also learn how to drive an online template for legacy creation, which is just prescriptive enough for them to focus their attention on the relationship they are building with their Storyteller, while leaving room for creative license.  From there, each Recording Team, composed of a Recording Partner and a Storyteller, receives on-going mentorship from their Embracing Elderhood Guide, who is prepared to support each team’s legacy creation process.

Dr. Bill Thomas suggests that “acknowledging and embracing the idea of Elder-richness and strengthening the exchange between the generations can improve quality of life for all ages.” While the participation of youth tends to pique most people’s interest in Embracing Elderhood, Recording Partners can be as young as 16 and as old as they want to be.

This, coupled with the fact that any kind of organization can begin an ongoing Embracing Elderhood initiative, offers flexibility and the opportunity to help create a new vision of aging that calls on everyone to play a part in bringing it to life.