Transforming Aging Summit


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Day 2

Day 3

Summaries of Interviews with Ron Pevny, March 3 – 5 2015

Day 1, March 3, 2015

Positive Aging: Successful, Productive, Conscious
Rick Moody provided a high-energy kickoff for The Transforming Aging Summit by defining three of the more commonly used terms that describe aspects of the larger paradigm shift that he calls “Positive Aging.” “Successful Aging” is about lifestyle choices and being as healthy as we can be. “Productive Aging” focuses on being useful or helpful to others. And “Conscious Aging” focuses and finding joy and meaning in life regardless of one’s external circumstances, and this is very much about cultivating a rich inner life. His primary interest is in Conscious Aging.  Key steps in aging consciously are overcoming denial of our aging and the inevitable changes that accompany aging,  and cultivating curiosity about life, about the changes we are experiencing, and about what is possible for us even in the face of losses. Key questions to ask ourselves are: What do I know? What should I do? What may I hope?  Rick talked about three of the most important models of Conscious Aging for him: Ram Dass, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and Larry Morris, a man in his 90s that Rick and his wife cared for for seven years. Larry, who had lost many of his physical abilities, taught Rick about the power of gratitude, which Rick described as key to aging consciously. Rick stressed the importance of elders finding ways to contribute to leaving a healthy world for generations to come, and cited examples of people who took what seemed like small steps at the time that ended up positively impacting great numbers of people. We must think globally and do our part, however small, to act locally. Among the many poignant quotes Rick shared is this from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

The Art of Aging
In this deeply inspiring session, Alice and Richard Matzkin focused on the importance to aging well of engaging in creative expression. They defined creativity as willingness to move into the unknown — a quality that is especially important for older people, many of have a tendency to stick with habitual ways of being and doing and seeing the world. Creativity draws much of its strength from having a passion for something, whatever that may be. Passion frees up our juices, for creative expression and for life. Another attribute of creativity is appreciation, which enables us to break free from habit and see things in beautiful and inspiring new ways. While painting and sculpture are their primary modes of creative expression, Alice and Richard stressed that creativity in any form has power to help us tap into healthy, life-supporting parts of ourselves, and they talked about studies that have shown the power of creative expression in people in their 80s to effect positive emotional, mental and physical changes. In response to a question from a listener, they said the best way to give children a sense of their beauty at every stage in their lives is to appreciate our own aging and these marvelous bodies. Their parting advice to listeners was to do our best to appreciate every moment as precious — a way of living that doesn’t really emerge for most of us until we are in our elder years and aware of our mortality.

Images of Aging in Film
There are few of us who don’t love movies and talking about movies, and Judy Steiert gave us a fascinating and inspiring look at the power of film to communicate positive, life-affirming images of the richness possible for us as we age. She has been studying movies for nine years, looking for the themes and images that can help us all strengthen our belief that aging can be a time of rich inner and outer experiences. In this session she cited a great many movies and the primary themes that she feels they communicate. Three of the movies she most loves to explore in her discussion groups about “Images of Aging in Film” are: Mrs. Pelfry at the Claremont, The Peaceful Warrior, and The Way (about pilgrims on the Camino in Spain). Judy shared the process she uses with film discussion groups, which involves meditation on the theme (as reflected in the movie) being explored that day, written reflections or practices to help participants explore how that theme plays out in their own lives, watching the movies together, discussing them in dyads, and then sharing perceptions with the group. She emphasized that the purpose in doing this is not to explore the filmmakers development of character or plot, but rather to look for underlying themes and messages and how these impact, and perhaps mirror, our own journeys of aging.  Judy is willing to share some of her extensive lists of life-affirming movies, bur asks in return that anyone who wants the list be willing to share with her parts of their own journey and their ideas for using this material in their own communities. Listen in and learn more…

Sustainable Eating for Longevity and a Healthy Planet
In this wide-ranging session John Robbins shared a wealth of information from his many years of research and teaching about lifestyle choices, especially diet, that support longevity and vibrant health at any age. The basic principle in his Diet for A New America is “Eat food, mostly plants, raised naturally.” Within this basic guideline, he stressed that it does not serve us to look to authorities for definitive answers about what to eat, or whether to take supplements. Rather, it is important for us to become more conscious of the effect various foods and supplements have on us as unique individuals. He advised us to become aware of which foods produce vitality and a sense of true well being, and which numb us out or imbalance us, and to become aware of how we feel when we eat processed foods filled with chemicals. He cited processed foods and the chemicals they contain as the primary causes of the inflammation that characterizes most chronic, degenerative diseases, including Alzheimers — which is rare in many cultures around the world. John said that chronic disease is reflective of people who live unconsciously. He cited a compelling new study that found that people who have positive perceptions about aging, who look forward to aging with vitality and joy, live on average seven years longer than those with negative perceptions. And he concluded by reminding us that aging doesn’t begin when we turn 65. The choices and decisions we make earlier in life make a big difference in how well we age.

Planning for the Road Ahead
A major theme of this session with Dr. Karen Lincoln was the importance of people of various ethnic, economic and cultural backgrounds finding ways to come together to explore their various perceptions of the challenges and possibilities of aging. We need to learn about cultural differences and similarities in how we view aging so we can support each other as we all seek to transform society’s vision of aging. In response to a question from a listener, Dr. Lincoln said that in bringing together minority and white people to explore these issues, it is important for whites to find “brokers” who have a foot in both communities and can create the necessary introductions so that mutual trust can be present. She stressed the importance of having our planning for retirement include our families, since they will play an integral part of our wellbeing in our eldest years. Also critical is recognizing before we reach retirement age that Social Security was never meant to be the sole source of income, and for most of us will be inadequate without other sources of income. For those who are not able to retire, positive aging requires that they find some area in their life that brings them joy (if it is not their work) and make a commitment to build that into their lives. She also stressed the great importance of spirituality as a way of connecting with those meanings and energies that lie deeper than our everyday circumstances and that all of us need to truly age well.

Day 2, March 4, 2015

Legacies of the Heart: A Hallmark of Conscious Aging
In this inspiring session, Margaret Newhouse reminded us that a legacy is far more than a tangible or material gift we bequeath to descendents. Rather legacy is the imprint of your life that lives on past your lifetime in the ways that your life impacted others. We all receive legacies, positive and negative, from those who came before us and we are creating legacy throughout our entire lives. Our elder chapters hold as much opportunity to create a meaningful legacy as our years before retirement age. The size of the contribution we make to others as we age isn’t what is important, but rather the consciousness that we bring to everything we do. The best way to live so that our legacies are life-promoting is not to worry about our legacy, but to live from the heart, and legacy building will follow. For those of us who fear that they have created a negative legacy they are not proud of, a powerful healing practice is to work on forgiveness of ourselves and others, which can help shift their relationships with themselves and others.  Meg shared valuable advice about tangible legacies also, such as writing ethical wills or legacy letters for our descendents or others who have been important in our lives, and having others do oral history work (using video, audio, or writing) with us and offering this service to them. She stressed “Do It Now,” as we don’t know if we will have the health or opportunity later on. She shared a short but powerful legacy letter written by Sam Levinson, which reads: “To children and grandchildren everywhere: Leaving you everything I have had in my lifetime:  a good family, respect for learning, compassion for my fellow man, and some four-letter words for all occasions, like help, give, care, feel and love.” (From Rachael Freed’s Women’s Lives Women’s Legacies.)  Meg ended her session by sharing these words from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, which encapsulate the essence of creating a beautiful legacy of your life:  “Have I given and received love? Have I lived my life and not someone else’s? Have I left the world a better place for my having been here?”

Why Consciousness Matters in the 3rd Phase of Life
Kathleen Erickson Forder began her session by reminding us that the transition from mid-life to life’s third stage is a significant transition to a distinctly different stage of life. This transition offers us the opportunity to shift our perspective from a materialistic, ego-centered focus to a much broader and deeper way of approaching life. She defined being conscious as we age as being aware — not just of our thoughts and normal emotional reactions, but also of our intuitions, our gut feelings, of the beliefs we carry that filter our experiences of life. Being conscious also involves developing our observer self which enables us to witness our lives from a bigger picture perspective. Then she provided a beautiful definition of conscious aging that sums this up: “Using all our interior world to look at our lives so that we can maintain an open and accessible heart.” In describing the IONS Conscious Aging Program, Kathleen said that its greatest value is that it provides an opportunity for people to come together in dialogue to listen to multiple voices about aging. Most of us carry strong fears about aging, and  it requires real heroism to confront and work with our fears rather than deny or give in to them.  The support of community can be of great value in doing this. Also of value is looking back on our lives at those many occasions when we faced our fears and came out the other side having grown and become more courageous.

The Spirit of Service
Robert Atchley told of how he was inspired to begin his long and distinguished career as a gerontologist by interviewing many older adults, and being surprised by their positive take on life and their inner core of strength and resilience. The first Conscious Aging Conference in 1992 at Omega Institute in New York was a landmark event for him, as that time with Ram Dass, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and others was key to giving birth to the Conscious Aging Movement. Reb Zalman was the first in  contemporary society to talk and write about important the role of Elder. And the biggest gift Reb Zalman gave to Bob and so many others was the way he modeled what he talked and wrote about. Then the conversation shifted to the theme of service, which means so much to Bob. He said that many people find that the act of doing service is a highly spiritual experience, as we tap into a great sea of being that we are all part of. Service provides an opportunity to act on our innate compassion, with a sense of holy connection. Service also helps us to learn to “be” while “doing.” We can develop a consciousness of just being present without any ego agendas, and being does so much to empower how we serve. Effective service also flows from wisdom, which is the product of reflection on our life experiences. Bob strongly encourages us as we age to gather together in sharing circles to pool our wisdom and as a group tap wisdom even deeper than what we carry as individuals. Bob closed by encouraging us to practice an attitude of service in everything we do in our lives, and to focus on the “being” we bring to all we do.

Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older
Wendy Lustbader began her session by stating that we only become  convinced that life gets better by experiencing it getting better as we live it. But knowing this is the case helps open us to possibilities. “Better” doesn’t mean easier, but rather better in the sense of relief of deep suffering about who we are and how we view our life experiences. For some, life doesn’t get better, with alcohol and drug abuse standing in the way, as well as being mired in self-centeredness. She shared that for many of us, it is times of crisis, such as death of a loved one or retirement, that open us up to see those depths that lie beneath our self-centeredness. Grief is also powerful in opening us up to the ground of life — grief calls us to life. There is a strong natural tendency in all of us for life to get better (except in the physical realm), and conscious aging is about working to support this natural tendency. One way to sabotage this tendency is to never take the time to be quiet and be with our feelings and inner life. For many people physical loss dampens the spirit and leads them to lose the experience of the growing richness of their inner life. Wendy said that in her experience with many such people, unexpected epiphanies happen to help them see beyond this darkness, and she shared the story of a woman who loved reading and as she lost parts of her vision became deeply depressed. And then one day she saw brilliant sunlight streaming through her window and this incredible beauty shifted her attitude and changed her life and her relationships with others. It is important to be open to the gift of these unexpected events. And we can do much to support each other in seeing how life gets better. Aging is a journey best not undertaken alone.

Shift Happens: From Aging in Place to Aging in Community
In this information-packed session, Janice Blanchard shared the importance of community in a transformed vision of aging, and a wide variety of emerging options that are helping to make community available to people as we age. This is a grassroots movement driven by a recognition, especially among baby boomers, that life is much more fulfilling when it includes relationships with others. The prospect of living in isolation is deadening to many emerging elders, even though most want to be able to live in, and die, in their own homes. Models for aging with community that Janice described include: Co-housing; the Beacon Hill Village Model; Pocket Neighborhoods; Shared Housing; Peer or Sharing Circles; and  Intergenerational Communities Without Walls. She also talked about the sharing economy which is rapidly emerging across the world, which allows people to share the material things we all need as well as talents. This social phenomena helps make life more affordable, reduces use of  natural resources, and, equally important, promotes social interaction and creates community. The final theme of Janice’s session was care for elders when they need the kind of care provided by nursing homes and assisted living. She talked about long-term care innovations such as the Eden Alternative model, the Greenhouse model, and a model where community members provide care as best they can with then understanding that when they need care, they will receive it from others. This is called “Care Banking.” The majority of care for elders with serious physical limitations is not skilled nursing, but rather custodial care, and these models help address these needs while providing that all important experience of community.

Enduring & Radiant Health
Dr. Gabriel Cousens shared a wealth of information grounded in research, the experience of those he teaches through his Tree of Life Center, and his own journey of living, enduring and radiant health as he ages. His primary message — strongly supported by the “Longevity Project” in which 1,500 people were followed for 80 years — was that the biggest keys to longevity are meaning, purpose, and being productive and creative in ways that reflect that deeper purpose. He stressed that diet and exercise certainly are critical, but commitment to these tends to follow from having strong purpose and spiritual connection (the ultimate purpose). Diet and exercise alone are not enough. He refuted the common misperception that that chronic, degenerative diseases are a normal part of the aging process. Rather, we all have the potential to enjoy enduring, radiant health until a very ripe old age, at which time our bodies quickly cease functioning. Dr. Cousens stressed that he is not one of the voices of the anti-aging movement (which is grounded in denial), but rather a voice FOR radiant health as we age. He strongly recommended his Center’s 21-Day Transformation Program to give people an experience of the radiant health that is possible, the kind of experience that is much more motivating than any concepts or books.

Day 3, March 5, 2015

The Pass It On Network: A Global Exchange for Positive Aging
In this session, Janet M Hively and Moira Allan focused on how an empowering vision for aging is sweeping the world, with different aspects of this transformation emerging in different countries. Jan and Moira shared what led to the founding of the global Pass It On Network, which is becoming a global exchange for information and collaboration about positive aging efforts around the world. They shared about the three categories of support that this growing network provides:  mutual support (how can we share our strengths with each other?); championing initiatives to create meaningful work for older adults, and; life-long learning opportunities. Another project they are considering is a virtual Worldwide World Café in which elders around the world can share with each other. They said that if we place decisions about aging in the hands of mainstream authorities, what we will get is programs that help older adults deal with the losses and diminishments of aging. While these programs are crucial, what is urgently needed are complementary programs that focus on the strengths and opportunities of aging, and many of these programs are coming from the grassroots. These are what the Pass It On Network focuses on. They also are unique in the positive aging field in that they focus on three generations of elders, and not just the baby boomers. One example: they cited an organization in France called “Old Up” for people 75-90 that focuses on how to make longer life expectancy meaningful and purposeful. The guiding light that has inspired and motivated Jan and Moira’s work has been that beautiful statement from Hopi elders called “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For.”  They read these beautiful words during their session.

How to Unlock Your Purpose
Richard Leider began this inspirational session by saying that purpose is fundamental to health and wellbeing. To thrive at any age we need enough financial resources, good health, and purpose. He defined purpose as a reason outside of oneself for getting up in the morning. It is a direction or an aim that we want our life to be about. And it is more a verb rather than a noun. For his best selling books on purpose, Richard conducted many interviews with older adults nearing the ends of their lives, asking the question, “What would I do if I could live my life over.”  The three consistent answers were: I would more often step back and look at the big picture; I would take more risks, being more authentic in love, work, relationships; I would be clearer about what really matters — my purpose — earlier in life. Richard was strongly influenced to focus on purpose by Victor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” who taught that purpose is a choice. Frankl’s gift to the world was his message that the last of the human freedoms, after all else is taken away, is our ability to choose to find a purpose outside of ourselves. Richard said purpose need not be a big cause but rather some contribution to the world. It usually doesn’t come in a big revelation, but rather in smaller stirrings. And it is not a luxury for the affluent but rather fundamental to the wellbeing of all humans. Purpose is most often found by getting out there and experiencing and experimenting, following our noses to see what has passion for us and uses our gifts, and looking for venues where we act on our emerging sense of calling. He closed his session by telling a key lesson imparted by a Hadza elder in Tanzania, where Richard takes an “Inventure” group each year. This elder said that the two most important days in a human life are the day you are born, and they day you determine why you were born.

The Need & Resulting Fulfillment that Comes from Elder Activism
John Sorensen, founder of the Conscious Elders Network (CEN), shared that much inspiration for his work came from the book “Blessed Unrest” by Paul Hawken, about small groups all over the world working on social issues but not together. He realized the need for collaboration as elders working together in social and environmental activism to help leave a healthy, life supporting planet for our descendents. A basic premise of CEN is that it is critical for successful activism that elders bring wholeness to their activism rather than using the same divisive approaches and consciousness so often used by our opponents. It is necessary, for our own well being and the effectiveness of our actions, that we bring wholeness and heart to our activism. He stressed the importance of elders working intergenerationally with younger people — a blending of experience, wisdom, idealism and passion. One of CEN’s primary areas of focus is developing such intergenerational collaborations. John shared a powerful definition from Corinne McLaughlin’s book “The Practical Visionary”: the practical visionary is one who has her/his eyes on the horizon, feet on the ground and heart on fire. He also shared the three dimensions of the “Great Turning” from Joanna Macy’s “Work That Reconnects.”  These dimensions are (a) shift in consciousness; e.g. change in our perception, thinking and values (i.e. our inner work); (b) holding actions; e.g. campaigns in defense of life on Earth (i.e. the bulk of our current outer activism); and (c) life-sustaining systems and practices; e.g. developing new economic and social structures (i.e. our challenge to try ideas for living in a more caring, compassionate, sustainable way and evolve our culture thereof). These form the three-legged stool of what the Conscious Elders Network is about. Finally, John stressed that visible activism should not be a “should” for everyone as we age. Rather, what’s important is to work to get in touch with our inner knowing of what we are called to be and do in our elder years, however visible or private, and to trust that if we all do so, the wisdom, gifts and energy needed to transform the world will be there.

Death Makes Life Possible: Transforming Fear into an Inspiration for Living & Dying
This session took us into an exploration of a subject with many taboos around it in many cultures: death. Marilyn Schlitz said that because of these taboos, many struggle greatly in somehow coming to terms with their mortality. Mortality is the great equalizer that ultimately can bring us all together. However, denial often leads to a false sense of immortality that can cause people to become self-righteous and insulated in the core group that shares their beliefs. Denial and fear of death are not an American phenomena, and Marilyn’s research in cultures around the world has found a huge hunger to transform fear and denial of death. In the U.S. this hunger is reflected in the proliferation of Death Cafes, Death Salons, Dining with Death events, and the huge popularity of the recent book Being Mortal. There are a multiplicity of worldviews about death and the afterlife, and these worldviews have a strong impact on how those who hold them live. As examples, she cited a worldview grounded in materialism; an indigenous worldview from Ecuador that sees our true essence as being the spirit in us which often leaves the body to gather information to help us live; the Islamic understanding of life and death; and the Christian understanding of a final judgment and life after death, which motivates many to live with love and kindness. To help people transform their fear of death, Marilyn suggested mindfulness practices as power, because they help us recognize that we are more than the body. Other ways include getting together with others to explore these fears and perspectives; and using art, music and poetry as gateways to seeing ourselves as more than just bodies. Another recommended tool is viewing and discussing with others the film she is making with Deepak Chopra called Death Makes Life Possible and doing the same with her soon-to-be-released book by that same name.

Inventing the Encore Years
Marc Freedman shared how his passion for mentoring 10 years ago led to his thinking about the role elders could play in mentoring and the untapped human capital in society. He realized that unlike younger adults who serve as mentors to young people, elders have the time — and a relationship to time — that is so important in successful mentoring. He found that elders approach mentoring and other activities with less ego involvement and more ability to just be fully present. With these elder qualities in mind, Civic Ventures and now were formed, devoted to helping older adults take advantage of that life stage between retirement and true old age that offers unique opportunities for growth, fulfillment and service. He sees this new life stage, for which he is a prominent advocate and which still needs a name, being a sweet spot in life where longevity, awareness of mortality, and a sense of urgency to live and serve authentically intersect. An encore career is practical idealism. He defines it as a sustained body of work at the intersection of purpose, passion and productivity (which for many includes paycheck). While many encore careers involve being entrepreneurial, increasingly, older adults are finding ways within established organizations to use their talents and passion. Some people hold a “regular” job while transitioning into encore careers. Marc stressed that people do not need to reinvent themselves to find an encore career. Rather, they need to creatively explore ways that the skills they have acquired throughout life can be used to address unmet needs in the world around them. For those who want an encore career but don’t know how to proceed, he recommends patience and not self-judging. It takes time and there are not yet enough models. The best way to proceed is trial and error, experimentation, “try before you buy.”  Consider internships or volunteering to gain experience and see what feels right. And save money for this transitional period so you have the freedom to experiment. Marc closed the session by telling the inspiring story of one of the many Purpose Prize winners, out of the 10,000 people over 60 who have been nominated for their encore career contributions to their communities.

Lessons From Centenarians: Learning Healthy Longevity at Any Age
The power of belief to shape our lives, impact our health and determine our longevity was the central theme of this session with Dr. Mario Martinez. In sharing what he has learned from his extensive research with centenarians around the world, he said these long-lived people don’t live to live long, but rather live long because of how they live. In general, they live with a sense of purpose, with a childlike curiosity about life, and with moderation in all things. He sees purpose and meaning as crucial to healthy longevity. People who had meaningful careers and then retire to lives without a sense of purpose run a high risk of dying within 4-5 years. Our immune systems respond to how we see the world — to what he calls our attributions, or the meanings we assign to events in our lives and the beliefs that reflect these meanings. It is very difficult to change beliefs and subsequent behaviors, since they are so deeply ingrained in us. An intellectual approach to transforming disempowering beliefs is not enough, since beliefs are held in our emotional and physical selves as well as our minds. Dr. Martinez shared a process for transforming beliefs that works with all aspects of ourselves. His best-selling book, The MindBody Code, details this process and the other information he shared in this interview.