“It takes a village to raise a child,” we’ve often heard. Does it also take a village to grow old? I wondered after a phone call with a friend who is a generation older than me. We talked of her move from independent living into a small seniors’ apartment, and the pleasures and challenges she is experiencing there. Then she inquired about my mother and how her aging is going; she knows that I’ve been struggling with my mother’s struggles. I was grateful both to hear how my friend is doing in her new home, and her concern for my family. “We’re not alone in this,” I thought, and now affirm: it does take a village to help one grow old.
They’ve made different decisions, my friend and my mother, one choosing to move into a smaller, supportive living environment, one choosing to remain in her three-bedroom country home. I am learning from them about adaptation, letting go and grace, and independence, determination and spirit. Through them and others, I am learning how hard it is to age, for the senior and their families, and the kinds of things that make it better or worse.
The village—our community—helps us as we move through the changes that accompany aging. In my case, the village includes professionals in medicine and social work, friends at church and elsewhere, and family members. What follows are a few examples.
In a conference with a frail senior and worried family members, a doctor counselled, “Seniors are often focused on independence and their family members are focused on safety; we look for a plan that takes all that into consideration.” Or the chaplain at a seniors’ facility who offered a lecture subtitled “The Bitter and the Sweet.” She laid out the good and bad news about walking with aging loved ones. From her, I gained encouragement to be honest about the losses and the need to lament, as well as openness to seeing the grace and potential in each stage. She also emphasized the importance of listening, as did the stranger seated beside me at the lecture. “I wouldn’t have believed how much listening was needed; it took a lot,” she said. “And, in the end, it was the listening that got us through.”
The church has been a significant place of support. The seniors, in particular, pick up on my concerns and offer back their nibs of wisdom. I appreciate their advice and am sometimes bemused at the contradictory messages. “Ah … that’s hard when people fight changes,” one will say. Then another exhorts, “Don’t take away her independence any more than you have to!” Or sometimes, what is given is a wordless hug or squeeze of my hand. Knowing they are walking the same path adds poignancy to their words and gestures.
Finally, there’s family members. My three sisters and three brothers all have their perspectives and their parts to play as adult children who want what’s best for our beloved Mother, even if we can’t all agree on what that might be, or be on the same page as Mother herself. We are blessed by abundant love and good will, and for most of the time, open and respectful communication skills.
In the village, I’m pretty sure that love is the primary rule. I see love threaded through all these people and their wisdom. The ocean of God’s love surrounds and holds us, creating a community to walk with us, as we and our loved ones age. The village—and love—will see us through.
Melissa Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a passion for helping people develop healthy, vibrant relationships with God, self and others.