(Photo credit: Ralphiesportal.me)
Perhaps it brings to mind a cherished elder in your life – grandparent, family member, teacher, mentor – as it does for me. Specifically, the bond I formed with my maternal grandmother, Daw Thant, a Burmese woman born in a small village in Northern Burma, who came to live with us when I was 16 and she about 58 (I know, that barely qualifies as an elder these days!)
Adding a fourth generation to our household wasn’t as much of a stretch as you might think. Burmese live in multigenerational households as a matter of course; besides this, even families of modest means like ours, had live-in servants. Ours included, for instance a driver, a gardener, and a maid. Two were married with small children. We also had a Hindu cook who lived elsewhere but was on call every weekday. This made for a lot of people of different ages, with different needs, all sharing if not the same roof, the same compound and accountable to the heads of household. The difference was, the arrival of my grandmother introduced an elder in residence, someone whose mere presence added a certain gravitas to our sometime chaotic household.
Granny moved into a small porch-like space on our second floor. With windows on three sides, it was the breeziest and coolest room in the house. She had arrived with a small suitcase and one cloth bundle as if this might be a short visit when, in fact, she had come to stay. She unpacked quickly. One shelf held all her neatly folded clothing. Another became a shrine, with tiny clay Buddha figure on a cloth napkin and an offering plate that would hold fruit or sweets — the little ones were fed these treats at the end of the day.
Because I had no memory of my grandmother, I had been anxious about how this reorganization of our family could cramp my new-found autonomy: a driver’s license and very little adult surveillance beyond a weeknight curfew. I needn’t have worried. Granny had no interest in policing me. She proved to be adoring, funny, kind, mellow in temperament (perhaps there was more than tobacco in those fat cheroots she smoked). She was patient with my struggles to communicate with her in what was for me a second language. We became the best of friends. But there was more.
She let me into a secret: the power of meditation. She had a twice-daily sitting practice that she never skipped, even when unwell (a rare occurrence). Decades later, as contemplative practices like yoga and meditation have taken root in my own life, I better understand how the practices of her Buddhist faith could have supported her through a difficult life of multiple partners and precarious finances; long separations from her two, boarding-schooled daughters; shortages of every kind during wartime; the foreign occupation of her country. She became a masseuse, an expert seamstress, and an advisor on home remedies for everything from hiccups, the common cold, headaches and sore muscles, an infected insect bite, to an unwanted pregnancy (the maid’s). Granny was equanimity and resilience personified.
Though our culture accorded my grandmother a certain status, I never heard or saw her pull rank. She was equally comfortable with my parents’ guests as she was chatting over a cup of tea with one of the servants, sometimes taking a meal with them. She became the reliable adult presence at home, the company I most sought after school, even though conversing in multi-tonal Burmese was always a challenge for me.
This photo is the future, according to Marc Freedman, author How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations, and CEO and president of Encore.org, based in San Francisco. What if ‘forever’ signified more than the current craze among the wealthiest to extend their life span decades, via any means possible? What if we embraced a new role for ourselves as we age, as allies and advocates for the young? What might this look like? An example I love: Project Spring-Winter in Singapore that combines a nursing home with a childcare center for children between two months and 6 years. Read this excerpt from the book and hear Freedman’s TED Talk on this subject here. Sign me up.
Encore (also the title of an earlier book by Marc Freedman) is an organization (motto: Second Acts for the Greater Good), a multi-part movement, and a hub of information and innovation for those of us who aspire to age well by using our experience to solve social problems. The Purpose Prize, created more than 10 years ago to recognize outstanding older social entrepreneurs, is another Encore initiative. Now, with Gen2Gen Encore seeks to “mobilize 1 million adults 50+ to stand up for — and with — young people today.” All of this is worth your time. But with Gen2Gen, I’m sensing game-changer.
More ideas to ponder:
Dutch Students Cohabit with Elders
Toddlers and Seniors: Institute for Family Studies
Non-Familial Intergenerational Interactions