Honoring Our Elders

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I first met Connie Goldman when she was a reporter for National Public Radio, covering the “aging beat,” as she described it. Actually, she had been the arts reporter before that, and her growing interest in artists and performers growing older had led her to a deepening interest in aging. At first she didn’t get a lot of support for her “aging beat.” But she persisted, and she has become a prominent journalistic voice, one of the most creative in our country, a national treasure, as the Japanese might put it.

When Connie first turned up in my office at the Brookdale Center on Aging in New York City, I immediately realized that I had found an ally: that is, someone who truly believed that later life could be a season of growth and positive change. I chuckle now when I think how young both she and I were at that time (30 years ago!). Yet, perhaps in proof of the “continuity theory of aging,” I haven’t changed my positive view and neither has she.

In the years since then, we’re both older (I’m even on Medicare myself ), but, as always, Connie is 15 years older than me and she remains a pioneer leading the path before me. But not only me. Connie is, and has been, a guide for all of us. In a professional group on aging and marketing in which we both participate (The Society), we have a nickname for Connie: “Mother Wisdom.” The name could not be more apt.

Connie would certainly refuse any claim to wisdom, probably describing herself as a merely an interviewer, someone who asks questions and who listens carefully. That’s all true. But it was also true for the very paradigm of wisdom, Socrates, who got in lots of trouble by asking questions.

Connie is not by nature a troublemaker but she is engaged in “disturbing the peace” because she asks deep, sometimes disturbing questions about aging. As she herself has advanced further into the territory, her questions only get deeper — and sometimes more disturbing.

An earlier radio series she did was entitled “I’m Too Busy to Talk,” and at that time she envisaged a side of positive aging which reflects activity, curiosity, and growth in new directions. All quite valid, and admirable. But there is more, and as she herself deepened the quest, she has become a one-woman testament to “conscious aging,” which is something different from either “successful aging” (good health and social ties) or “productive aging” (contributing to the world around us). Connie’s own aging has, without doubt, been “successful” and “productive.” But that’s not why I treasure her or why the interviews she has done have proved so influential. In recent years, Connie has probed the “hidden rewards of caregiving” (challenging the conventional thinking on this topic) and now she’s exploring what it means to be one receiving care. In this deepening quest, she has paralleled with Ram Dass as he has done, moving from writing a book titled How Can I Help? to asking the (provocative) question: How can you help me? Ram Dass’s question is not at all egocentric. Quite the opposite. It’s an attempt to grapple with caregiving and the challenge of dependency. So it is with explorers like Ram Dass and Connie Goldman. They ask questions that challenge conventional thinking and make us reflect on our own path through later life.

The questions she asks, and the answers that she gets, have brought us all a deeper consciousness of what age can mean. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote, “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” This is the trajectory of Mother Wisdom herself. The Psalmist tells us to “Number our days.” My wish is that we should number, and treasure, the days of her life as Connie Goldman helps us all find a path with a heart.

— Harry R. Moody