By Anne Wennhold
When I retired at 70 years of age, I was invited to work with a group of elders in recovery from alcohol. For years I had been teaching people of varied ages, but never those who were considered seniors: it was a new ball park for me. I asked a social worker what to expect from the elder population. Her succinct description made me laugh. “There are three stages of aging,” she said. “The Go-Goes, the Slow-Goes and the No-Goes.”
I am now in my 80s, a vantage point for understanding what she meant. The 70s were actually the Go-Go years of my lifetime. It was a decade, not only of integrating all the challenging aspects of my life but of sharing the results with others. Beginning with a Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat and its suggestions for aging successfully, I became a teacher, a leader and a facilitator for others on a path of self-discovery and aging.
In addition to co-leading the Choosing Conscious Elderhood Retreats at Ghost Ranch, I ran weekly discussion groups on aging for our local county day centers: gave lectures, presentations and workshops teaching the skills of aging to church groups and at libraries. I also held one-day retreats for small groups in several eastern states.
Other interests came to the fore during those 10 years: my love of art and the growing understanding of Native American and Shamanic spirituality and ritual. I held workshops at a variety of venues for those vested with a similar desire to learn more about these belief systems and practices. I held drum making, mandala drawing and dream decoding classes when requested.
Reading was a mainstay of that time. I wanted to learn as much as I could about what other paths might lead to a sense of my place in the world and a satisfaction that I was fulfilling what my mission and purpose seemed to be. Nature was both central to the work and a partner to my life: trees especially. They shared thoughts about roots, trunks, branches and leaves in support of daily life. My body was strong. It carried me forward with few complaints.
I cannot speak as definitively about my 80s as I can the 70s because I’m still in the middle of them but I can say this. Shortly after my 80th birthday there came what I now call a ‘sea change.’ It was like a soft breeze stealing in from the north, the place of transitions. My body felt it before my mind became aware of it and before my emotional self finally acknowledged that the Slow- Go years had arrived.
My body was no longer silently strong. It began to demand attention. Sorties to the doctors for check ups and tune-ups came first, dietary changes and attendance to exercise began to consume more time on a daily basis. Extensive travel for presentations and workshops was no longer the pleasure it had once been: easy access to nearby bathrooms became an obsession.
Nobody wants to hear this and as an 80 something year old I do not want it to preoccupy me either. I’ve already seen too many elders who bind themselves up in their ills. My body, however, is lagging while I myself, the ‘me’ inside, is still vital, still excited about growing and learning and being a part of the work world. Only now I must learn to compromise with the physical self.
I’ve always loved the work I’ve done with groups. It has been and continues to light my own path as I hope it does for others. However the COVID virus of the past year put a swift stop to all that: the distant, the local and the weekly meetings, all gone in a wink of time. On the other hand as often happens, while COVID took away with one hand, it gifted me with the other. Zoom opened the opportunity to continue meetings online and introduced new ideas: topics like Memoir Writing, Dream Decoding, Shamanic Journeying and Lectio Divina, a meditation practice with literary readings are now programs I offer on Zoom. I’m also toying with the idea of including Mandala drawing sessions there.
What’s not to like about holding meetings in my own home in the comfort of dress down clothing with hot coffee at my elbow and a bathroom steps away? Perhaps this is one answer to the question of compromise throughout the remaining years of the 80s: a way to reduce the amount of travel while maintaining important group connections.
Nature remains a constant support. The trees about my house are an entertainment of light and shadow, of leaves that are green, then gold, and finally a riot of color before the bare black of winter. They continue to dialog with me about life’s cycles and events.
My interests have changed. I seldom look to books and lectures from touted authors or gurus for information about their aging or spiritual experiences mainly because they seem to be one-way conversations. Their ideas can however, work as a basis for connections in depth, a way for ordinary people like myself to converse and share thoughts about what’s happening in our own lives: experiences with Spirit, thoughts of death, dreams and how ventures into personal growth at this stage of life are working. The exchange of information is more important now than the acquiring of it.
And there is a most subtle change to my inner dialog. My life purpose, which is to be of service to others, is being challenged because I am less mobile now. I guess it is part of the refining of spirit as one ages. The question is, ‘What will that service look like when the role of teacher/facilitator is no longer as viable as it once was?’ So far there are a few possible answers. I’ve already mentioned Zoom as one of them, at least for the time being: another is the practice of listening. The gift of listening to others and really hearing them is one of the finest gifts one can give to others. And after that, whispers an inner voice, ‘Listen to Spirit. You have more time to do that now and you have friends who will share and talk about what is growing there.“
In the long run, having answers really doesn’t matter all that much because with the newly heightened vision brought about by the Slow-Go 80s, I see more clearly how, as one moves along the continuum of years, the answers come when the person remains open and ready to receive them. They did so in the Go-Go 70s, they are doing that now in the Slow-Go 80s, and I trust they will continue to do that for whatever might lie ahead in the No-Go years.
In the meantime I remain a Work In Process.
Anne Wennhold has for many years co-guided conscious eldering retreats with Ron Pevny. She also runs support groups for older adults. And Shamanic Drumming groups in New Jersey, and facilitates online Memoir Writing, Drumming and other new courses. Anne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org