background

  

                                            “We're the Live Wires!

                                       

Did I hear that correctly? Did he say “We’re the Live Wires!”? Upon inquiry the older gentleman confirmed the statement. He was a member of a senior adult group at a large local church. His group of seniors had chosen the name “Live Wires” to reflect both their personality and their purpose. Intrigued by the term I listened with great interest as this particular Live Wire described some of their recent activities and several upcoming events. This group appears to practice a good balance of social interaction and service involvement. Fellowship is clearly an important feature of their time together, but they also believe in putting their spiritual faith into action through meaningful service activities. By the time the speaker concluded his presentation I had made my own conclusion: every person traveling the Seniors Highway should be a Live Wire!

What does the term “live wire” suggest to you? My first reaction related to an electrical wire. I recalled the unexpected experience of touching a live electrical wire during the repair of a wall receptacle. The result was shocking! Well, thankfully, not too shocking. No serious damage was done and I made a quick trip to the circuit box to turn off the circuit breaker. We understand that a live electrical wire has the inherent power not only to shock a careless repairman but also to fulfill its primary purpose, that is, to provide energy to light a lamp or to cool a house. In contrast, a dead wire might look good but it lacks the inherent energy to provide the service for which it was intended. Furthermore, an electrical wire connected to an appliance or fixture must be plugged into a “live” receptacle for the power to get to the object you want to work properly. No doubt you’re already considering potential applications to senior adults. As we try to adjust to life in the later years we certainly need lots of “juice” or power to enable us to achieve the purposes and tasks that are important to us. Hopefully, we can all see how this “live wire” concept is very fitting for a group of travelers along the Seniors Highway who want to be useful, productive, and vibrant during their later years.  

One thing is definite about any “Live Wire” senior adult:  that person is actively engaged with life! That idea of engagement is the primary focus in this current article. This third article about the aging process revolves around the letter “E” in the word “AGE,” specifically about the importance of engagement. In the first article the letter “A” stood for “Accept your Longevity!”  In the second article the letter “G” suggested “Grow in Learning!” The third letter (“E”) encourages us to “Engage with Life!” For us to be healthy and happy in our journey on the Seniors Highway we must practice engagement with life. Disengagement brings isolation, loneliness, and despair. Engagement increases our sense of connectedness, and that connection with life makes our journey meaningful and purposeful. As we consider this challenge to “engage with life,” we need to explore several key components for successful engagement.


Rights of Engagement . . .

To begin with, we need to understand that senior adults have rights of engagement. They have the right to reach out to engage life in ways that are meaningful and beneficial for them. At the same time they have the right to disengage and withdraw from life, even though that choice usually has negative consequences. The senior adult could include in his personal “Bill of Rights” the pursuit of happiness which in turn involves the “right to engage” with life on multiple levels. The choice to engage or to disengage will determine the quality of life to be experienced as one travels the later-years journey.

The choice to engage with life is generated or motivated by a personal belief that people in the later years can be useful and productive in society and they can maintain and enjoy positive relationships with other people. That belief was addressed recently by an older Christian man as he shared his appreciation of something written in the Biblical book of Psalms. The writer of Psalms 92 compared righteous people to trees and stated, “They will still bear fruit in their old age.” (Psa. 92:14) This same Christian man also shared his reliance upon Biblical examples of engagement with life. For example, he described the courage shown by Caleb when he was eighty-five years old. According to the story, the nation of Israel was beginning the process of conquering the promised land of Canaan following their deliverance from Egyptian bondage. When given a choice about specific areas to conquer Caleb stated, “Give me the mountains.” (Josh. 14:10-12) He could have asked for a much easier area, but he requested what was probably the hardest part to conquer. At the age of eighty-five he was willing to engage life in a very significant style. Another Biblical example given by this same Christian man was Moses who at the age of eighty was commissioned by God to go to Egypt to deliver His people from Egyptian bondage and to direct them to their new home in the promised land of Canaan. As I pondered the story about Caleb the thought crossed my mind, “He asked for the mountains; we usually resist even the small hills in favor of smooth travels in life.”  At a mountain Moses accepted his right of engagement and at the age of eighty confronted the Pharaoh of Egypt with a God-given declaration of deliverance.  

Life is not always mountainous or hilly or smooth. On our Seniors Highway there are peaks and valleys, twists and turns, threats and dangers, and travel can range from very smooth to quite difficult. As seniors we have the right to engage life both during the smooth times and during the difficult times. Our right to engage is not nullified by the opinion of some younger people that we’re too old to be actively involved with life. We get to decide the level and type of engagement we prefer to pursue as we continue in our journey.  


Risks of Engagement . . .

The truth is that we as seniors have the right to engage with life. However, the decision to engage is not risk-free, no more than the decision to drive an automobile is a risk-free venture. Most of us have learned from personal experience that driving can be dangerous. Several years ago a careless driver ignored a traffic signal and smashed into my car, sending me to the local Trauma Center and my car to the Trashed Car Center. For a few days I was not sure if I’d ever be able to drive again. The risks of the road had become very real to me. I’ve known people who purposely chose not to get a driver’s license simply because, in the words of one such person, “the highway is too dangerous.” Some individuals prefer to stay off of the interstate highways and to remain in the safety of the nearest Rest Center. Admittedly, staying at the Rest Center is probably safer, but the traveler makes no progress toward his destination. Likewise, the owner of a ship could keep his ship in the harbor since the harbor is safer than the open seas. However, ships were not built to stay in a harbor. The risks of engagement can feed our fears and push us into a state of perpetual hesitation. It’s hard to leave the Rest Center once we’ve gotten comfortable and complacent. This choice to avoid risks by resting reminds me of a quotation by George Cecil.

                “On the plains of hesitation lie the bones of countless millions
                Who, at the dawn of victory sat down to rest, and resting, died.”
                                                                                            --George W. Cecil (1923)

Many older adults choose to withdraw from active travel along the Seniors Highway in favor of a lifestyle of isolation at their personal Rest Center. That choice to withdraw is indeed tempting because engaging life certainly has its risks. If we choose to interact with people we automatically deal with problems, some of which could be harmful to us. We could get hurt, either physically or emotionally, by pursuing relationships or participating in particular activities. With engagement come unwelcomed adversities to be endured. Understandably, we might conclude that the risk factors outweigh the potential gains, and thus we decide that a decision not to engage is safer and better for us. Or, we could throw caution to the wind and jump into engagement activities regardless of the potential harm or danger. How do we decide which course to choose? Perhaps we would be well-served by the use of a balanced approach to the issue of risk-taking. The pursuit of balance is probably better than either the extreme of under-risking (isolating ourselves) or the extreme of over-risking (endangering ourselves).

Hopefully, as Senior Adults we’ve grown in wisdom to such an extent that we can assess accurately the amount of risk we need to take while, at the same time, we’re assessing how much risk there is within the specific activities under consideration. Our wisdom can direct us to engage with life in meaningful ways, and we rely upon that same wisdom to keep us out of trouble. Through life experience we’ve learned how to follow the rules of the road that allow for safe travel, and we’ve learned to approach the bridges of life with care and caution. We choose not to cross bridges impulsively or impetuously, but important goals in life compel us to cross the bridges that need to be crossed. We never leap before looking, but we do not allow irrational fears to prevent us from adventuring at all. We accept the fact that engagement with life has its risks, but with those risks in mind we continue to push forward in our travels along the Seniors Highway.


Rules of Engagement . . .

Our reaction to risk brings us to a vitally important issue. Without doubt there are risks inherent in the practice of engaging with life, and at the same time there are risks in a choice to isolate in withdrawal from life. These risks of engagement can be minimized and managed by the acceptance and practice of relevant rules of engagement. The phrase “rules of engagement” might bring to your mind certain practices in military life in terms of “what to do” and “what not to do.” In our day-to-day travels through the later years we need to identify and follow the rules of engagement that are fitting and appropriate for us. Some rules would be relevant for every senior adult; other rules may be unique to specific individuals. The key question for each man or woman is simply this:  “What are my personal rules of engagement?”

Your personal rules of engagement are based upon or grow out of your basic belief system about life in general and about you in particular. These rules refer to how you treat other people and how you want to be treated by them. The wise traveler on the Seniors Highway will have given careful thought to the specific rules he chooses and uses while engaging with life.   


Roles of Engagement . . .

Let’s say we choose to engage life as a senior adult. That initial decision invites other choices about the specific roles we undertake. If we are to fulfill a role that allows us to engage with life, what role would it be? In terms of work we could choose the role of a paid employee or we could select the role of a non-compensated volunteer. A variation might be to do both—some paid labor and some volunteer work. The roles we choose obviously are related to our abilities, opportunities, and personal goals.

Perhaps the most important roles for us to fulfill are those that involve our personal families. Many senior adults are actively involved in the lives of their children and grandchildren, and they stay connected with siblings and their families. The opportunities for positive engagement are usually readily available in these family relationships.

However, our engagement with life is not limited to our personal families. Many senior adults find a great deal of personal satisfaction and continuing growth through helping non-family people in meaningful ways. This type of people-helping can be done privately or through local churches or community groups. For example, the Live Wires church group referenced earlier is deeply committed to a lifestyle of people-helping. Numerous civic organizations provide wonderful opportunities for community service projects. Senior adults can become vital members of teams involved in disaster relief activities, house-building efforts, or preservation projects. A group at one local church makes stuffed bears that are taken to a nearby hospital where they are given to children coming into the emergency room for treatment. Opportunities are everywhere for visiting sick people in hospitals, individuals confined to nursing homes, or shut-ins restricted to their personal residences. Local Senior Centers provide wonderful settings in which community needs are identified and members are encouraged to engage in meeting those needs. Personally, I deeply admire and respect older folks who choose a lifestyle of engagement. One such person is my uncle Cleo who will celebrate his 90th birthday this summer. I’m always impressed with his optimistic outlook on life and the way he tries to encourage people around him. Even at his current age he continues to play his harmonica almost every Sunday at the church services of his home congregation. The gospel songs he plays reflect the inner spiritual faith that guides and motivates his engaging lifestyle. He is indeed a blessing to his family, friends, and neighbors. (By the way, if you’d like to hear this 89-year-old senior adult play the harmonica, click on the link provided at the end of this article.)   

Most if not all of these activities share an important goal:  helping people in need.   A vital role that any Senior Adult can fill is that of a people-helper, whether the effort is extended toward one’s personal family or toward non-family individuals. In that role he strives to help other people through at least three important efforts, all of which provide a lifting effect for the individuals being helped. Essentially, the goal is to lift people in three important ways.

First, we lift through listening, by hearing people as they share their stories of pain. Recently, my oldest granddaughter, Anna, gave me a shelf plaque as a Christmas gift. The plaque read, “What people need is a good listening to.” Too often we think people only need a “good talking to” whereas they really need someone to hear their heart and understand their hurt. The recipient of a “good listening to” might say, “Thank you so much. Your visit meant a lot to me.” Your question might be, “What did I do? I just listened.” Then you would be told, “That’s right. You cared enough to listen. That’s what I needed the most.” The bottom line is clear:  learn to listen effectively. Use those tools to listen to people in pain. As you listen actively to them you are engaging with life in a very special and meaningful way.

Secondly, we lift through leading, by providing helpful guidance when needed. On many occasions the practice of active listening is sufficient—and may be all that the person wants or needs. However, in other situations the listening turns into productive problem-solving in which relevant guidance and direction are provided. The person might need potential solutions and useful resources for the problems with which he struggles.

Thirdly, we lift through laboring, by bearing burdens that may be hurting and threatening people around us. Our ability to function as burden-bearers may be limited or restricted by health problems or financial issues, but we strive to do whatever we can to ease the burdens of our fellow-travelers and those not yet on the Seniors Highway. We look for and welcome opportunities through which we can be of meaningful service as we provide specific labors of love.

There will always be a role of positive engagement for us to fulfill. Even if by physical infirmity we are literally confined to life in an elder-care facility we must do everything in our power to stay engaged with life. Residents of nursing homes and “shut-ins” at home have opportunities for engaging life through their interaction with caregivers and visitors. While the patient is receiving care he can also be giving care to others in the form of personal encouragement and a positive example. This type of patient makes every effort through attitude and action to lift the lives of his caregivers and visitors. Though limited by the flesh these later-years travelers are still making a difference. To the best of their ability they continue to function as people-helpers, and because of them the world is indeed a much better place.  

Concluding Thoughts . . .

A safe and successful journey through the Later Years is one that is filled with personal engagement with life. Senior adults possess the right of engagement; they are not to be excluded simply because they are older than everyone else. The choice to engage with life carries with it certain predictable risks, but the alternative of disengagement bears much greater risks. When wise rules of engagement are accepted and applied the senior adult can fulfill meaningful roles through which he lifts up other people by his effective listening, leading, and laboring. The end result of positive engagement is a satisfying trip along the Seniors Highway.

If I were to describe the Later Years with two words I would choose the words “adversity” and “adventure.” I see the Later Years as a period of life characterized by a mixture of adversity and adventure. That mixture may feel marvelous and motivating to some seniors but mysterious and menacing to others. Some travelers on the Seniors Highway choose to focus primarily on the adversity and, as a result, their journey is threatened by anxiety, depression, and despair. Other travelers acknowledge the adversity but choose to focus on the adventure of life in the later years. Predictably, their journey is improved by their attitude of optimism and their attention to opportunity.

We know that the later years are not totally one or the other; that is, this period of life is neither all adversity nor all adventure. Both elements are present in varying portions to each individual on the Seniors Highway. The successful traveler must learn to deal with both elements. He learns to endure the adversity and to enjoy the adventure. The success you have as you try to handle the hardships and to hope for the highpoints requires continuing engagement with life. I trust that the material explored in this brief article has encouraged you to choose a lifestyle of active engagement with life in your later years. I wish you well in your personal travels along the Seniors Highway. Best wishes for a good journey!

 

Resources:  Dr. Baker has compiled a list of relevant resources (articles, books, websites) about the Later Years that is available on this website. To view the list you can click on the link below or on the image to the right.


                                Readings and Resources about the Later Years
 

Video: In this article Dr. Baker referred to his 89-year-old uncle Cleo as a good example of positive engagement with life. To see a short video made in 2010 in which Uncle Cleo plays the harmonica you can click his name/link below.

                              Cleo: At Age 87 and Still Engaged with Life!

 
 
 
 
 
 
 



VIDEO:  To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Aging:  Engage with Life" please click on the image to the right or just click here.







 

 







(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)


 
 
 

 

 
            (Later Years Blog #1203)

*************************************************
 

9340 Helena Road, Suite F123 • Birmingham, AL • 35244-1747 • p# - (205)305-3073

• Copyright © 2011 • Dr Bill Baker.com