I remain an optimistic aging junkie, having just gotten my annual hit of positive aging at the Seventh Annual International Conference on Positive Aging (aka “PAC”), now hosted by the Institute for the Ages, in Sarasota, Florida. Passing the baton from the West Coast to the East Coast venue, the conference was co-sponsored by the prestigious Fielding Graduate University of Santa Barbara, California.
As a professional futurist and transformational certified gerontologist, I’ve been tracking positive aging on the age beat for decades. The field chose me long before I realized it. It’s been a long deep dive and a challenging open-ended solo journey, applying foresight to our shifting demographics as we traverse discontinuous changing times. All the while, I’ve been honing an evolving aspirational view of the future, which perfectly dovetails positive futures with positive aging. Little did I know when I graduated Hunter University’s Brookdale Center on Aging (under the duo auspices of Rick Moody and Rose Dobrof, DSW, back in ’94, that I would become a leading GeroFuturist steeped in positive aging and conscious aging.
Birth of a Movement
We’ve come a long way, baby, since the early days of this movement, which appeared to emerge out of the shadows in ’92, when the upstate NY Omega Institute hosted the first two annual conscious aging conferences. I was there with a cast of the early neo-elderly “greats” coming together in one place, such as my favorite Jungian author Marion Woodman, Baba Ram Dass (last year’s PAC keynoter), Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn, Robert Bly, Rick Moody, and a cadre of other pioneers.
Then back into the shadows we went. The next conference was to be held in San Diego, California, in 2001, but it was canceled for the horrific reason that we were to convene and present on 9/11! It took another seven years until PAC was rebirthed onto the aging stage, calling for the positive aging movement to come of age. And so it is. How grand that we are sharing this transformative time in the aging field together.
Restoring and Restorying Positive Aging
My destiny has been to stand on the shoulders of and along with others in spreading the truth about our future and sounding the call for planning strategically to meet the challenges and needs of this enormous demographic group and the echo effects on our emerging intergenerational workplace, our future economies, our very way of life, and the fate of our planet. Now these positive aging conferences are bringing us out of our research and practice isolation, creating new tribes and reuniting oldies but goodies, professionals wanting to change the conversation on aging and positively impact the future.
This year’s conference theme, Positive Aging Transcends: The Voices of Innovation and Community, resonates with the now irreversible meme of positive aging as a collaborative creative effort across the lifespan. The meme isn’t new; it’s just moving fast, converting all those who resist its rapture! Now we can celebrate that positive aging is bicoastal in the U.S. and going global as PAC 7 attendees collectively sound the clarion call to join the positive aging movement. The title of one breakout panel session captured this so eloquently: “Evangelizing Positive Aging: Growing the Seeds of the Movement.”
I rejoined my colleagues again this year for my second PAC, as both a roving journalist/blogger and an author and presenter, sharing “Visionaries Have Wrinkles: How to Serve the Generation Who Will Change the World . . . Again!” In the intervening year, both I and my Ageless Futures models, approach, and teaching have morphed yet again. Now I am refining and integrating my life’s work in a synchronized holographic wholeness. My destiny is calling. Reverberating for me all year was James Birren’s parting query as he closed last year’s conference. He asked us to consider, “What is your life’s metaphor?” In other words, What story are you in?
I had been churning with this question relative to my own work for a long time. In a practical, down-to-earth way, I had been using this as a pivotal catalyzing question for creating new narratives with my executive and professional coachees for decades. Now Birren pushed me into the middle of the muddle of my own story and that of the fields of positive aging, adult development, gerontology, and the future.
Donning my Everyday Futurist hat, I am always looking for assumptions to dismantle and new aspirational futures on the emerging horizon. As I prepared for my presentation, Birren’s words did what they were meant to—encourage the idea that I/we can rewrite the ending, or at least come up with alternative scenarios (even aspirational aging futures) and take actions informed by what is so, actions fueled by a new wisdom only to be gained as we mature and evolve our wisdom lived.
This year I had the privilege of meeting a new audience of professionals in the field of aging, all convening on the East Coast in beautiful Sarasota. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to introduce my newest work on the narratives—the real stories and conversations—upon which we can evolve and restory our “Aspirational Aging” for the Age of Greatness that we are entering, and to explore our never-before-imagined Ageless Futures.
Jack Levine subtly set the tone for our time together in his opening invocation’s succinct prayer, likening the conception of our movement to bringing seeds to loaf. The seeds we were able to plant in this conference alone were too numerous to recount here, but I would like to share some that are continuing to grow in my own body and soul.
PAC 7 Seeds of Wisdom
The conference rocked from the engaging opening by Tom Esselman, followed by Katrina Rogers, President of Fielding Graduate University, the leading institute for adult learners in human and organizational development, our host from 2010 to 2013, and this year our co-host.
Passing the PAC Master of Ceremonies baton to Tom Esselman, President and CEO of the Institute for the Ages, Katrina created a vessel for what was to come by sharing the “4 Principles of What It Means to Age Well”: positive aging rests upon creativity, community, life transitions, and wellness. Dipping deeper ever so briefly, but profoundly, Katrina deftly wove together the themes of this year’s conference, Positive Aging Transcends, when she anchored us by sharing that “one aspect of transformation is transcendence” and closed by cajoling us with a caution: “Aging is not all happy talk.”
I was, and am, deeply appreciative that Katrina held the dark side of aging up to the light of transcendence around the conversations we have about aging positively.
Katrina ushered us on to an always enlightening keynote speaker, Marc Freedman, who explored “The Generativity Revolution: A New Movement of Americans in the Second Half of Life.” Marc shared his apt observation that a new myth of America is emerging, one not based “on the notion of eternal youth,” but one that “appreciates the true value of experience.” Here, here, we clapped. But what remains in my recall still today is Marc’s pronouncement that “Stages of life are fiction, not a fixture!”
Throughout his keynote, Marc referenced many of the early voices of human and adult development and aging. He discussed how the visionary Mary Catherine Bateson’s “Active Wisdom” was a pathway to social innovation. Memories flooded back from when I had been a post-graduate student in gerontology and adult development.
I had been blessed to take probably the one and only Aging Literature course given anywhere. What a gift! I didn’t realize till hearing Marc mention Bateson’s writings what an imprint that literature course had left on me. I had been exposed to all the visionaries and pioneers in our fields from way back to modern times. Like Marc, I’ve seen the truth of their groundbreaking work and words as positive aging reaches its tipping point. Marc also had a few urgent recommendations for public policymakers: Create new public policy such as a gap year for adults and new educational opportunities.
Our second day together started over breakfast, with Victor Strecher sharing findings that “declaring one’s life purpose is a driver for changing behavior and giving life meaning.” To all of us in life planning and all genres of coaching, counseling, education, and positive psychology, this is not a surprise. Rather, it’s a welcome affirmation and confirmation of why we do what we do.
In between plenary sessions, many of the best of the field’s pioneers and newbie innovators conversed about new approaches to positive aging, life and retirement planning, reinvention, and eldering as well as elder care. We discussed the importance of declaring purpose to our wellness; spirituality and dementia; intentionality in older adults; second-half adulthood; the challenges of the coming Alzheimer epidemic; multigenerational dialogue versus discord; aging and technology; and so much more.
Harry (Rick) Moody spoke about “Voices of Older People.” Demonstrating the passing of the baton as part of our legacy-making years ahead, Rick introduced and later interviewed the newest generation of NPR journalists on aging, including the highly popular Ina Jaffe, who shared her recordings of wonderful vignettes of older adults’ life stories.
Rick carried this subtheme forward as he interviewed Connie Goldman, the first NPR reporter covering older people and aging back in the seventies, who is also a prolific writer on caregiving and caregivers. My personal take on Connie in the short moments I’ve shared with her this year and last is that she is one of the warmest, most engaging wise women I’ve met in a very long time. Connie is so present and authentic; she is a gift to know.
For the first time, I heard Nancy K. Schlossberg, EdD, Founder of IFA, Board Chair, Professor Emerita at University of Maryland, author of Revitalizing Retirement, speaking on “Mattering Matters,” and then responding to Rick’s questions. Nancy, who is deeply honest and provocative, queried back, “Do we have an adult development story? How do you want to do this adult development story?”
To my surprise, Nancy asked a similar rhetorical question to the one I had posed in my session on the first morning of the conference. I had challenged my fellow attendees to take with them the questions of What story am I in? and What positive aging story do I want for myself, my employer or organization, my work and career serving 50-plusers? as they moved through the conference, in both their storytelling and conversations with colleagues.
Most important, I challenged them to take the questions home afterward, when they returned to their communities and life routines. Instead of putting them aside on a bucket list, bring these questions back home and keep asking them so we continuously improve how we serve and are served.
The mission of the annual conference is to sound the clarion call for positive aging. It was spreading organically, certainly not intentionally structured. Or was it? We were spreading the seeds from the opening till closing, when they emerged as a rising loaf!
There were several other fantastic keynotes, and way too many breakouts to attend, much less report on. For me, there were a few standouts that I’d like to reflect on with you, or if you didn’t attend, then introduce you to.
On the next to last morning, I was drawn to hear and meet Juanita Brown, PhD, and David Isaacs, Co-Founders of the World Café. They were co-leading a short-form breakout session. As an advocate for creating multigenerational solution-finding conversations to make Ageless Futures the norm, I was magnetized just by the title alone, “Wiser Together: Partnering Across Generations for the Common Good.” I was not disappointed. It made me feel like I was coming home to my kin, other professionals who share a similar mission, a mission expressed in simplest terms by Juanita “to enliven across generations and be a catalyst for collaborative action.” How cool is that? 🙂
In response to their first Appreciative Inquiry–inspired What If question, I responded without hesitation or thinking beforehand. My immediate “aha!” was that the soloist journey need not be isolated or solitary any longer. Seeded like the conference’s opening prayer, we at PAC 7 came together to ramp up the power of this new transcendent meme, vibrating and ensnaring us as it spreads globally of its own accord…we, my path mates and I, are solely the vessels being called to hold the space for this new positive aging meme, to ground it so that it becomes the new norm for emerging older adulthood in the Age of Greatness.
What came across loud and clear from start to finish is that positive aging is at its tipping point, just in time for the longevity revolution. But what about the future we are leaving for seven generations forward?
Attending in my journalist garb, with my futurist hat still in place, I kept asking, what is jumping out at me? What are the gaps, what new “aha’s” are showing up, what’s not being addressed?
Last year I left PAC on a burning quest to find out why so few were entering the field of aging or other fields serving the enormous Boomer generation and what we could do about it. I have spent the last year writing and speaking about the intense and time-sensitive necessity of meeting the challenges of our times by reaching across generations collaboratively to redetermine what is the greatest possible future we want to reimagine—together restorying our aspirational Ageless Futures.
Although I incorporated the import of restorying in my presentation on the first day of breakout sessions, and offered up new models of Multiple Conversations Across Generations, this was not an overt collective framework for the conference. Unbeknownst to us, our collective story was being written by us and for us.
As we approached the last day of the conference, I could sense we were coming to a breakthrough, so I listened for it as if my ear were to the ground…I could track threads emerging and a tapestry being woven as I attended presentations and shared conversations at breaks, but it wasn’t yet fully formed…that is, until we were invited into a World Café model of convening conversations.
In this model, we started in pods of four, then moved to a new pod several times. In each conversational grouping, what kept re-emerging was a tectonic shifting of our field’s bedrock. As each group’s spokesperson shared their “aha’s,” what emerged for all to hear, and to own, was a demanding call for initiating intergenerational outreach and collaboration that spoke volumes about the potential to truly transcend false mythic generational divides. This call was to hear all voices of innovation and to form new communities of visionary leaders, of all ages and stages, to transform our conversation around aging and the future.
Nurturing the New Story
After the high of a great conference, being stranded in the airport unable to fly home, then facing the steep return to our ordinary demanding schedules, it’s easy to lose the connection, to put our new conference-triggered “aha’s” into an unused wish bucket. This time, if we are truly turned on and committed to transcending the “aging as a disease” model and the “intergenerational war” hype, we can transform the conversation around aging and positively reshape the future across generations and for generations to come.
Creating and sustaining new connections and forming community post-conference is a nice thought often lost when we get back into our lives and routines. But if we take a moment to reflect, we all know that the whole is greater than its parts. So let’s stay connected, sharing our stories and restorying our Aspirational Ageless Future.
I’d like to invite you to respond to the challenge I offered to my presentation attendees: Stay attuned, conscious of what aging story you and your organization are living, marketing, and espousing in all your interactions and significant conversations—at the conference, in your life back home, in your workplace, in the design and marketing of your products and services, and most certainly in your interaction and conversations with your post-50 marketplace and those who serve them…the people we serve or seek to serve better.
The seeds of positive aging, of intergenerational collaboration, of transforming the conversation around aging and transcending artificial boundaries between us—these seeds will only grow if we nurture them daily, just as our connections to each other will need nurturing. Our roots are in the same soil. Together, we can reach for the sky, . . . for transcendence.