by Bill Palmer: Co-founder of Elderventure and director of the School for Experiential Education
The idea of Elderventure comes from a realisation that the elderly are not valued in British culture and we want to change that. Older people could be an enormous pool of resource for society instead of being perceived as an increasing burden.
I believe that the first step on that path is to help people who are getting older to update their self-image so that they see their own value.
As we get older the things that give us a sense of value must change. Our physical attributes such as prowess, sexual attractiveness and fertility fade. If we have felt useful because we are bringing up children, at some point they leave home and get on with their lives without needing us. If our sense of self value has come from the position we hold at work or our skills then when we retire, that becomes a memory rather than a reality. So many of the reasons for which you are valued and through which you value yourself fade away.
We need to update our self-image. If our sense of self is still dependent on how we were in the past then it is doomed to failure. Getting older is inevitable!
How do we do that?
We are aiming to set up a group of people (not necessarily older) to explore how to update our sense of self-value as we age, to maintain energy and health and to share our experience with the younger generation. These can be summarised:
- Updating self image through awareness exercises and group process
- a) Letting go of youth
- b) Exploring your expertise
- c) Publishing your resources
- Body Process
- a) Dealing with physical deterioration
- b) Developing a personal practice
- c) Being kind to yourself and to your body
- Being a Resource
- a) Being a resource for young people
- b) Creating lessons
- c) Developing elder capacities
Two experiences formed my personal vision for Elderventure.
One was my experience of visiting China. I was invited by the president of Beihang University in Beijing to spend some time helping him to translate a book he had written. Universities in China are complete communities. Both students and staff live on campus with their families.
Every morning I went to the park in the middle of the university to do my Qigong and the park was full of people doing the same. But their average age was about 75! I got talking to them and they explained that most of them were the retired lecturers and professors. The university kept housing them and supporting them because they were seen as a great resource of wisdom and experience. That sense of being valued kept them energised and, because they valued themselves, they cared for themselves.
Professor Li Wei, my sponsor, was also soon going to retire, and the incoming president, Xu Huibin, confided in me that he was happy that Li was going to ‘stay on’ after retirement, because he (Xu ) felt he had lots of energy to develop the university but not enough experience or wisdom. Xu realised that youthful energy and elder wisdom was a perfect marriage.
The second experience was witnessing the decline of my aunt when she was committed by her doctor to a care home in Guernsey. He did that from the best intentions because her memory was getting so bad that he felt she might leave the gas on and burn her house down, but I feel now that she would have preferred that way to go.
Before going into the home she was the lady of her domain, planning jobs for her carers, visioning the garden and supporting her many great-nieces and nephews. She was respected and loved.
After she moved to the home she was only loved, and that wasn’t enough. The staff at the home discouraged the inmates from any challenge and treated them like children. Very soon, because of being encouraged to use a wheelchair rather than walk, her leg muscles wasted away so she couldn’t walk even if she wanted to. The language used by the nurses was baby talk and I never heard them seriously ask the opinion of any of the elders who were housed there.
In this environment Penelope, like most of the other elders, became increasingly inactive and less alert, fading slowly into a hopeless passivity.
I realised how important respect is. It is the last flame that keeps the light of life alight. I vowed that I would never allow myself to be put into her position and I realised that I wanted to do something to change our culture that treats elders in such a way that they become passive burdens on society rather than a rich resource to be used and cherished.
When I came to live in Frome I got to know Neil Oliver, who is facilitating Elderventure with me, and Johannes Möller who founded Edventure, an organisation which helps young people to find their own value by doing something challenging and useful for society.
Johannes told me a story, which he said was one of the inspirations for Edventure.
In Guatamala there is a tradition where the young of a village are given a challenge as a rite of passage into adulthood. How they perform this challenge is up to them and they are expected to be creative, brave, resourceful and learn to deal with difficulties themselves. But, by tradition, they choose a young man and women from their group to represent them, and this pair go round the village knocking on the doors of the village elders. The young couple ask the elders to gather together to hold the space and to energetically support the youth in their challenge.
This inter-generational exchange not only supports the youth but also gives that life-blood of respect and value to the elders.
So we decided to collaborate and that junction is one of the reasons for the naming of this project as ‘Elderventure’. I believe that, when the resources formed from the distilled experience of the elders is used by the youth of a culture, that society will be both grounded and vitalised.