Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Late Adulthood: A Time to Bless

Photo by Emmanuel Avetta
I grew up listening to Broadway musicals—on LPs, as played on the piano, and when the technology came along, on VHS.  One of the most salient images of older adults from these musicals takes place in the dream sequence relayed by Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof.

In Tevya's dream, two grandmothers deliver quite different postures towards the rising generations. On the one hand, Grandmother Tzeitel pronounces a blessing or “mazel tov” on Tevya's oldest daughter, her namesake, soon to be wed.  On the other hand, Fuma Sarah sends threats and curses.  

These gross stereotypes rattling around in my memory gesture towards the generational work I observe today among the oldest among us.  Those who are the most mature have the role, responsibility and opportunity to use their multigenerational perspective, their wisdom and their energy to bless the rising generations.  It is our task to heed these blessings.

The psychologist Bill Plotkin has created a detailed description of the roles and responsibilities of eight different life stages in his book Nature and the Human Soul.  He draws on archetype theory based on Jungian psychology, the cycles of nature, the directions of the compass, and the cultures of primitive peoples.  His name for the eighth life stage is “The Sage in the Mountain Cave.”  One of their roles is to bless. 

Every week, I spend one afternoon with residents in a skilled nursing center.   Even though they are all having a little trouble, they still express personality, show strength and choose how to respond to their situation and to others around them.  While it’s tempting to define the very frail by what they cannot do, it’s important to emphasize their capabilities.   The last time I visited, Tom Orr, one of the residents, made his capabilities very clear to me.

Tom always greets me with great enthusiasm, “Hello, Sweetheart! You are looking mighty fine today.” This day was no different.  He followed up with the question, “How are you this beautiful day?” When I reported that I was having some trouble with my back, he surprised me by offering a blessing:“Dear Lord Jesus, bless this woman so that her back may heal!”

He continued for about a full minute, calling upon divine forces to strengthen and heal me.  He showed his characteristic zeal while doing so, waving his hands between the heavens and my back.  I was moved to a stunned silence.  I felt very honored that Tom would use his time, energy, and faith in my behalf.

And wouldn’t you know it; as the day wore on, my back did feel better.      

Just the week before I considered the role of older adults to bless in a baba yaga tale called “Grandmother’s Basket.”   My book club was discussing a collection of tales from around the world about the role of mature women in society. This particular tale is closely related to the Hansel and Gretel tale.

There are contrasting pairs of women: the kind, but-now-deceased mother is contrasted with a mean-spirited step-mother; a caring grandmother is contrasted with the aged wood witch, who curses the children, gives them impossible tasks, denies them resources, and seeks ultimately to consume them. 

The caring grandmother cannot accompany the children on their journey, but she equips them with a basket of milk, bread, meat. She also equips them with advice and a blessing.  As the children progress through their trials with the wood witch, they are able to escape the wood witch through a combination of their own wit and perseverance and the application of the gifts from their grandmother.  

Day by day, I grow closer in age to the caring grandmother and to the wood witch in this tale. May I use my energies, my talents, and my resources to equip others so that they can achieve their own rescue.  And may I bless the lives of others, indirectly or directly, as my octogenarian friend Tom blessed me.

Have you been literally and directly blessed by someone from a generation or two above you--someone who was not a clergy member?  How have you been indirectly blessed by the generations above you? Please feel welcome to share your experience below in the comment section.   


Spirituality and Older Adults: Ask, Don't Tell
Talking with Older Adults: Serving as a Witness
Generational Perspective: Why This Blog?


  1. Thank you so much for sharing these experiences as a volunteer, watching other volunteers, and how to open up dialog with seniors in a positive manner. All too often, when I go to the Y during their Silver Sneakers time in the morning, I find myself asking the "regulars" I know about their health. It can be so depressing--and I wonder if my concern is misconstrued. I'd rather empower them and learn from them any day! I will use your suggestions.

    1. Good insight. If everyone focuses on the body in late life, then the gifts of the intellect, the mind, social connection, work, volunteerism, and emotions all get diminished or ignored.