“Magical Realism” & Aging Upward

What a great term – “magic realism,” a phrase used to described the critically & commercially successful author Isabel Allende’s writing.   It also describes what I believe about aging upward, what I saw my mother, other adults around me live every day.  Magical realism.

In fiction, magical realism is not escapist – it is engagement.   It takes us outside of the everyday experience to experience every day’s reality & our personal deeper truth.  It escorts us from where we are situated in the world to see our place in it.  Where science fiction  & fantasy often interweave the serious with escapism, magical realism is always serious, always striving to convey different experiences, perceptions, views that actually do exist, or existed at some point.  It is different from what we or our culture experiences as reality, so we can’t lump it under realism.

In the same way that Isabel uses magical realism in her writing, she brings it into her talk on living passionately, given at TED2014.  She shares stories about people who are living in our country, our world who experience LIFE in different ways, as a different reality.  The woman whose red patterned shoes announce on her feet the free spirited activist in her heart.  Sophia Loren looking the way she does at the age she is due to … spaghetti.  The old woman who saves young girls from parents selling them into slavery.  Different worlds, different experiences, different perspectives than what’s outside my door, yet they ARE real inside my head.  Magical realism.

In her stories, Isabel may interject a ghost, not to create a frisson of fear but to manifest a reality I believe but  been spooked into hiding or silence;  to show  a reality beyond anything I could experience, yet can feel through another’s eyes.

Isabel weaves just such a tale at TED, making the audience – and viewers – see her exotic world through our own eyes.  She takes the kid of twenty-five by the hand to show what being seventy-one can be, reminds the 90-year old of the richness of aging upward.

For too many years, the magical realism spun around aging was a horror story, burdened with limitation loss liability.  Isabel invites us into her life, to feel its passion, to experience it (including erotic fantasies) as if it is our own.  Then to weave our tale of magical realism, welcoming others to enter the story & help us celebrate the years!

 

The Play’s The Thing

Human beings need play the way they need vitamins.  ~ lionel tiger ~

Spend the day with a typical older person living in even one of the better “senior lifestyle residences” & notice if any semblance of spontaneous, unstructured PLAY is part of his or her experience.

Too often, not much, if any.

The greatest source of playful interaction & connection is typically mealtime, where – if she’s lucky (and the vast majority of residents are women) – she’s part of a regular circle of friends sharing lunch & laughs.  Alas, such “breakfast brigades” & “lunch bunches” are far from the norm & many of the ones that meet every day focus on aches pains problems rather than providing lively & expansive back & forth.  Even the best are haunted by the specter of alteration by debilitation & death.

Typically, the more high-end a senior residence, the more choices there are for playful interaction, from year ’round swimming to fair weather golfing, dancing & bridge & the performing arts (as participant or audience). But how many of residents actually take part in those activities?  And if they want to participate, who helps makes sure they get to & from them?  Personal care in even the best facilities can fall prey to being top quality maintenance rather than continual enrichment, however well-meaning & best-intentioned its goals.

Top of the scale, Ma!   Everyone on the face of the planet needs a steady diet of laughter-lobbing play, play that gets the energies flowing, the heart pitter pattering, that deepens old ties & forges new ones.

I think of a young family who swiped my heart this past spring when I helped with the youngest while their mother finished up her degree work at a local college.  Those children –  & parents & grandparents – breathe play into everything they do, bring a sense of adventure & the unknown into all aspects of their lives.

That family sits atop the high end of my playfulness scale.  Don’t look to me to describe the sorry folks of all ages who slide down the scale to the very end.  My True North purpose is to duplicate/modify best practices, then upgrade, even transform lives.  Think Galileo, Pasteur, the Wright brothers, Robert Goddard – each was considered a crackpot or kook & look at all they accomplished, the paths they opened that others have traveled.  Boys – move over & make room for me.

When I look at that wondrous play-filled family that scampered off with my heart, I see children & parents who know their boundaries, who have chores, who place expectations on each other.  They live work play within a creative structure.  How can we create a structure where older people could value & access more play?

Alas, when people think about play, they tend to limit it to children.  Back in February 2008, the NY Times Magazine’s ran a cover story on play – spinning off a presentation by Stuart Brown & Krista Tippett at the NY Public Library discussing its biological & spiritual roots.  But four months later, in a wildly popular TED talk, Stuart (I like to think of myself as friends awaiting an introduction) pointed out that the cover didn’t show a single adult at play, only children.  They’d missed the point of his work – that play is as needed in adulthood as it is when we are in our single digits, teens, twenties.  In my experience, it is as important as fresh air & good nutrition for a happy, healthy life.

Background – seventeen years ago, I expected that 2017 would find me easing out of my corporate career.  I had an exceptional run & quite a few professional accolades & honors, including 2000 Employee of the Year.  Then, in late summer/early autumn 2001, it became clear the Universe had WAY different plans for me.  But it wasn’t until I crossed paths with Anne Davis Hyatt that I got the first aha about my True North life purpose.

Kent, Anne’s best beloved, died after a stroke, in his late 80s.  She was suddenly solo.  And depressed.   Oh, and been recently diagnosed with dementia.

Anne’s family gathered together, discussed the situation, then checked out best next steps.  Their conclusion – infuse Mom with play activities, with a variety of play mates.  They brought me on for rambles & restaurant runs; Tamar to scoot Anne back to her beloved little hometown for visits with family & friends, pal up with her for weekly painting classes, play the piano & read aloud; and, always, Anne’s children were there for numerous regular weekly visits, after-church Sunday dinner & Sunday supper.

In the 7+ years Anne was our client, I don’t recall a single serious illness, nor a hospitalization.  The healthy dose of social interaction every day played out in a strong spirit housed in a declining body.  She was out & about doing things right up to the day she fell in her apartment.  This was a woman whose dementia had progressed to the point where she could not remember from moment to moment the day let alone the date, but no one – NO ONE – was more primed for the next great FUN moment.  Anne would frame the sunset with her hands, saying, “I don’t remember what they’re called (the sky, clouds, sun, trees & fields), but aren’t they BEAUTIFUL?!”  Imagine if she had been left, as the vast majority of seriously older people are, without an infusion of play into her day?

Play’s the thing!   For now, Anne – like my mother – would be considered an outlier.  Praise be, I have spent my life surrounded by older people whom others would consider similar fabuolous outliers!  My goal is to help turn that around so that the qualities that hallmarked their lives are considered the norm rather than a happy aberration.

Ten years ago, even 7+ years ago when I first started chumming around with Anne, that goal might have seemed unimaginable.  Today, it’s more & more can-do, with remarkable individuals groups organizations coalescing to turn around our current culture’s woeful attitudes around & expectations of aging upward.

It speaks volumes that next week’s International Association for Gerontology & Geriatrics (IAGG) World Congress will, for the first time (!), feature as one of its official venues, The Age Stage.  It’s HUGE, that such an august body recognizes the importance & power of creativity, a cornerstone of play, in aging upward.

The Age Stage is a physical reminder that “the play is the thing.”

Four years ago, I discovered that the National Center for Creative Aging is rooted in the findings of Gene Cohen, a “book mentor” of mine for many years who died far too young in 2009.  So much has changed since the years where Medicare allocated a laughable (not in a good way) $250 a year for mental health. Gene fought to get that increased, fought for oldsters elders ancients to be considered deserving of good mental health, whether a kid of 65 or a 95+ grey head.  Just as most people accept the various ages of life, Gene believed that older age has its own stages – reevaluation, liberation, summation & encore.

I will be thinking of those stages – and reveling at my liberation – throughout the IAGG World Congress, blessed to be who I am with the background I’ve gathered (or been gathered for me), at this age, in this era, at this time, in this place.

Next week, the IAGG will give space & time to showcase the importance of aging creatively.  Give me a little time & watch me win them over to giving play its due!