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Convener Remarks at National Conference of Pioneer Network

Belleview, Washington August 11, 2013
Carter Catlett Williams

By long distance I extend a warm welcome to all of you brave pioneers attending our 13th Annual Conference. It is our custom every where we meet to look back to those who came before us in the region where the conference is held. Here in the State of Washington, we are truly in Native American territory.

In this place where we now gather, salmon were once abundant. People were so skilled at salting and smoking the fish that there was ample time to engage in the pursuits that adorn life. They decorated their canoes, their implements, and their clothing with distinctive designs. They engaged mightily in dance and music, community rituals and story-telling, freed for a time by nature's abundance from the necessity of hunting or fighting over territory. There were brave whale hunts by canoe, with every bit of the whale being used -- the blubber melted down for oil, the skins for clothing, the meat for nutrition, the bones for tools. Life was rich with meaning and community, protected by longstanding traditions passed from one generation to another.

Culture change similarly reaches for that which is beyond mere survival – for true community, for beautification of life itself, for aspects of living that contain joy, – such as close relationships, music, and art. These things that may be regarded as unnecessary in a strictly practical sense are absolutely vital to the life of the spirit, wherever someone lives and whatever age someone happens to be.

My own learning curve has been steep this year, and in its way has demanded as much change -- and growth -- on my part -- as I've ever experienced. This is how it came about, just short of my 90th birthday,

In May, I gave up my home of 45 years and moved to an independent apartment in single-generation housing. I felt the need for a little more support than was possible in my own home, which seemed large and empty without my husband and the busy family life that had always filled it. My decision-making was rational and matter of fact.

But once I began to settle into my pleasing small apartment with its generous, wall to wall window to the east and a view of the tree tops, surprising -- even shocking -- feelings beset me. They were not in regard to physical accommodations or the warm welcome from staff and other tenants, but to the unbidden critical responses that rose in me about social aspects of my new environment. I had known several people who lived here and had visited good friends here for many years, so it was with amazement that I viewed the dining room on my first evening.

Most everyone, it seemed, depended on a walker to get around. Walkers encircled the large room, and at the conclusion of the meal, a procession of bent bodies slowly made its way to elevator. It was a startling scene that suggested dependency and no sense of their own agency. And I felt emphatically that I didn't belong in it, nor did I want to be identified with it.

Deep within I rejected these signs of dependence, and fostered the idea that I was different, and didn't belong with people in this condition. Prejudice I didn't know I had -- in fact prided myself on not having -- was laid bare. How could I, a professional geriatric social worker of forty years' experience, harbor such thoughts? I was brought face to face with the cultural prejudices concerning old age that pervade our society and had to accept that deep down they had conditioned me along with everyone else. For now that I was joining THEM, the Infirm Old, I didn't like it. I was emphatic in wanting to set myself apart.

The first conclusion I draw from this experience is that we don't know our innermost souls until we're stripped of our book learning, posturing and our unrecognized absorption of the culture around us that says a person with
manifestations of physical aging is not a beautiful human being.

The second conclusion is that we've let our society really do a number on us. In advanced old age we've let society tell us that we've finished with personal growth and development. Now is our leisure time, if we have the money to afford it. Seldom are growth and development expected to be a part of aging. Rather it's expected that conversation will mostly dwell on the
past, to the exclusion of vital concern with current issues, and also to the exclusion of the idea of personal growth.

A third imperative that grows out of this experience is this: the generations must find ways to share daily life. Elders need the stimulation of young people, they need to know something of their hopes and dreams, to offer encouragement and sometimes words of caution. And elders need relationships with middle-agers, whose challenges are not so far removed from their own at that age. Children and young people need first hand contact with elders so that old age is not a strange foreign country to them.

I am convinced that we must offer multiple generation housing developments for those who don't want to be confined to one stage in life. I urge you all to explore intergenerational housing by means of the internet. Learn about the possibilities of young and old sharing housing and neighborhoods, and then introduce the people of your faith communities and other organizations to it. Educate yourselves and others about this new way of living. Because we belong together, not in ghettos of old age.

As I live these challenging days in my new environment, I feel a need to respond to this single-age culture I'm just becoming acquainted with, but my response will be an empty one unless it is embedded in relationship. So I'm called first to build and respect relationships.

What I see in place in the current culture is largely programmatic. A varied program of activities is offered – trips to restaurants and ice cream shops, as well as places of historic interest, and excursions on the lakes or the river. There are shopping trips, and many in-house activities – exercise groups, current event and book discussions, bingo, special cooking times in strawberry and other fresh fruit seasons, gardening, and concerts by music students. Family members and friends are welcomed as special guests.

With such a wealth of activities what could be lacking?

What is lacking is real life. Real life is not found in programs. Real life is in the give and take of everyday life. Our life within the walls of the apartment building or our touring bus screens us off from that give and take of ordinary life. We are turned in on ourselves. What is there to talk about except stories from times past, or the trouble with the air conditioning, or the weather?

Suppose, instead, that a few of our apartment dwellers reached out to people in the nearby neighborhood to inquire about needs and interests? For example, purely by chance I learned recently that a nearby church is struggling to keep up with the growing need for food that is straining their weekly food cupboard service. Would there be a helping role for some of us? This could be an opportunity for service and an entrée to new relationships, and new subject matter at the dinner table.

I challenge the idea that we are past the age of functioning in some capacity in our communities. Part of our sense of self-worth is bound up in the knowledge that we remain contributing community members and open to new relationships.

Pioneers, I leave you with this word of caution: beware of confusing programs with real life. Programs have their place, but life in the wide world is not programmable. LIFE is filled with surprises, with hope as well as setbacks, with affirming as well as unsettling experiences. As shapers and leaders of a new culture, we must be very clear that the culture we are building does not rest on programs but on our knowing each person, valuing what each person has to give and enabling each to make her contribution. Then we will be on the side of life.

Though this year I'm unable to be with you in person, I feel close to you and pray that your open minds and hearts will lead you to new discovery in your learning during this conference experience and in your work when you return home.

Let the 2013 Pioneer Network Conference begin!