Honoring Our Elders

My seventies were interesting and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age.

— Florida Scott-Maxwell

These words aptly describe Dene Peterson, not in their particulars — she was passionate in her 70s! — but in their spirit. I remember seeing Moulin Rouge with her when she was but a spry 72. The movie about a poet in love with a cabaret actress/courtesan was sexual, rocking, flamboyant, and outrageous in its rapid-fire cinematography and cutting. It left me in the dust, but not Dene, who enjoyed it thoroughly. I couldn’t have had a more fun date than with this ex-nun and distinguished elder.

In the Bible, Sarah is unexpectedly and repeatedly challenged by God. Uprooted from their home, she and Abraham must in their old age travel at God’s whim to a new promised land. She, like Abraham, is given a new name (Sarai is changed to Sarah) and — at the ripe old age of 90 — informed that she is to have a child. Her reaction? She laughs. And when the prediction is miraculously fulfilled. she names her child “Isaac” — which means, in Hebrew, “to laugh.”

Dene is Sarah, Sarah is Dene. How many times has she heeded God’s call and moved to new places, assumed new identities, given birth to new projects and new versions of the self? Born in Kentucky, one of 11 children in an energetically Catholic family, at age 18 she became a Glenmary Sister. Dedicated to serving the poor and marginalized, she worked in Chicago… and Ohio… and Michigan — ever birthing new projects. Called to be a nun, she then experienced herself called out — along with the majority of Glenmary Sisters — to pursue their service work independent of the institutional hierarchy. When the age of “retirement” came, it became the moment for new birthing — her grandbaby being the ElderSpirit Community.

Though ElderSpirit upholds the traditional association of elderhood with wisdom and spirituality, overstating the radical nature of this experiment in communal living — and its importance — is difficult. ElderSpirit was the first senior cohousing community founded in the United States. It is also the first model of a residential setting where elders of all faith traditions (or none) can use their later years to support one another, serve social justice and the planet Earth, deepen their contemplative practice, and grow closer to God/Spirit.

In a land where aging can mean isolation — or self-centeredness — or institutionalization — Dene has shown us a different model. Dwelling just off the beautiful Virginia Creeper Trail, in Abingdon, Virginia, ElderSpirit residents own or rent their own homes — the community is resolutely mixed income — yet share common spaces to eat, meet, meditate, and worship. They are engaged in outward service and inward contemplation. They live together, age together, and maintain that support through illness, disability, and death.

Dene may be the Dean of ElderSpirit, but her gift has been to bring so many together — members of FOCIS (Federation of Communities in Service), co-leaders of the community, the Retirement Research Foundation, government agencies, prospective residents, and supporters — to make this “promised land” a reality.

Dene receiving the Cohousing
Association award from Jim Leach.

Elderspirit Community now houses 40 residents. It has become a national model, and a site for training communities around the country who wish to birth similar late-life experiments. She well deserves the Lifetime Achievement Award granted her at the 2011 National Cohousing Conference.

But what is her “lifetime achievement”? Herself? I know her as a person whose well-earned self-esteem is tempered with humility. "I am the first one to receive this award with but one project under their belt,” she said at the Conference, “and I made lots of mistakes doing it.” Mostly I think of Dene’s delightful sense of humor. “At 50,” wrote George Orwell, “everyone has the face he deserves.” Dene has such a face, filled with “wrinkles” which are really smile-lines. She made me laugh that evening when, visiting ElderSpirit, I found myself spirited away to Moulin Rouge, an outrageous film made more enjoyable by the outrageous person by my side.

In the Bible, when Sarah named her child “Isaac” (to laugh), she explained “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Let us laugh with Dene at a lifetime of joy and service. Let us laugh at her “retirement,” which was really a rebirth. Let us laugh at ElderSpirit Community, an impossible dream that now boasts some 29 completed homes.

If Dene’s 70s and 80s are this passionate — who knows what’s coming next?

— Drew Leder

PHOTOS:  — ElderSpirit labyrinth (left) | residents at the 5th anniversary fetę (right)

Drew Leder, MD, PhD, is a professor of Philosophy at Loyola University Maryland, and the author of numerous articles and some five books, including one on how to age creatively and spiritually, Spiritual Passages: Embracing Life’s Sacred Journey (Tarcher, 1997). Having proposed, in the American Society on Aging Journal, Generations, the model of an ElderSpirit center, he served as a consultant during the design of the Abingdon community. He now gives talks and workshops on creative aging around the country. Reach him by email or visit his Web site at http://evergreen.loyola.edu/dleder/www/.