Towards a Culture of Care for Our Elders

A recent walk in the woods left me somber and humbled. For years I have worried, feeling impotent, about the declining health of nearly every species of tree I observe. But because I am resolved to amplify the forces for good in the world — and in myself! — I am slowly coming to an awareness of my power in the smallest of ways. The practice of speaking with our elders, the trees, has been evolving slowly over the years to the point where I now trust I can listen to them — and trust that, in their infinite compassion, they will convey what I can bear to hear.

The message I received on this walk, while offering tobacco to a Hemlock with branches low enough for me to muddle in my hand, bury my nose in, and breathe with, was twofold:

  1. all of the respiratory (and circulatory and neurological) issues that humans are struggling with at the moment are also affecting every plant species, and
  2. the way in which we care for our human elders has everything to do with how we care for our trees — our spiritual elders

There is a cultural difference between how European Americans (EA) care for the elderly and how other nations care for and revere their elders. End of life was never a topic among my family of origin and, sadly, my father was abused in the nursing home he lived in when I could no longer care for him. I learned how deplorable the conditions are for many elders in such care.

Asian Americans, Native Americans — and likely all peoples of the global majority — have models for European Americans to learn from … on many levels beyond the caring of our elders.

In this A Place for Mom article by Kara Lewis, I learned that ~80% of assisted living residents are white and that the Parliament of India requires younger family members to care for their elders or else be fined. Sadly, these and other cultural practices of inter-generational care for elders are being challenged by the day to day stresses on younger “sandwich” generations rather than expanding to influence the substandard care experienced by so many elders.

Compound multi-generational stressors on caring for elders can be supported by challenging the North American culturally dominant notions of independence. In what ways might we re-visit care so that the divide between youth and elder may be bridged? In what ways might we look again — or re-spect — the assumptions we make about growing old? Living more communally is the new-old frontier of emotional skill-building.

If you are looking for a hero, you’ll want to grow familiar with Suzanne Simard’s research. I know that much of my ability to worry less about the substandard health and widescale disregard for the treatment of trees is due to the great impact of her book Finding the Mother Tree which explains through careful scientific study that the elders of the forest, the Mother Trees, take care of their “neighborhood” through complex underground networks of carbon transfer, communications.

I have no doubt whatsoever that as we live with greater reverence for our elders — both human and tree species — the improved culture of care will have direct positive impact on our respiration, circulation, and overall wellbeing.