By Mariette Sluyter | The Foundation Lab
Read the first part of this article here.
As the project began we hit many roadblocks. (Blessedly, none of them were from funders or supportive agencies, but from individual human beings.) Shock, laughter, denial, repulsion and silencing. This came from youth, middle-aged people, professionals and, most heartbreakingly, seniors themselves. The attempts we made to overcome the roadblocks came from every angle. When one approach failed, we, our tireless core team of Nicole Hergert, George Hopkins, Gloria Zerr and myself, tried another way to get our elders to open up about this “taboo” subject.
There is a story we love to recount and laugh about. Gloria, who, in an attempt to get people’s stories, talked to her neighbors about what she was doing. They were all very polite, but the next day she no longer had neighbors. They would close the curtains, turn away, ignore her. Gloria laughs because she is exceptionally resilient, committed to social change and has the support of a different community. It might not be so funny if she were, like many seniors, without those resiliency factors.
So questions arose. What was behind the silence? Fear? What was it that they feared? For some it was the breaking of societal norms: “WE don’t talk about that” and “Seniors don’t do that” (playing into a misinformed belief system that this area of their lives was not only unspoken, but also inactive). Finally, we learned to speak a language of seniors sexuality and people agreed to participate, seeing how vital the conversation was. We set a date for a workshop. We returned for the follow up-workshop…but they didn’t. Why? Out of fear? Fear of what? Fear of losing their community? Go along to get along.
Slowly, remarkably, we built a community of 8 disparate elders between the ages of 60 and 82. They came from all over the city, for various reasons. First we had conversations one on one, then in groups of two or three. Then in a group of 4 or 6. It took a while for the whole group to come together. We hesitantly broke through the silence, sometimes with tea, sometimes with scotch.
Over the course of many months, something intangible but remarkable happened and it was only evident when the entire group came together. The language used in many of the stories around sexuality seemed to be playing out in front of us. I looked at Vera and saw a woman who looked 30 years younger. I watched as the group laughed and played with each other and thought of the word “blooming”… yes, people “blooming” after all this time. Some were more playful than ever, some were reducing the amount of pain medications they were on, some were reducing their isolation. They were all existentially changing.
I have worked with many groups as a facilitator or a resourceful human mechanic, and I had never seen this kind of change. It was beyond group ownership. It was a liberation of a profoundly moving kind. What was the difference? Why this group?
Now let me be very clear. Our group conversations, the stories told and the theatre created are highly respectful and speak mostly to the emotional challenges and responses to the intimate connection we label sexuality. This was not a crude process, nor was anyone “hooking up”. So what happened?
It’s not like we did much except speak out loud what was so deeply forbidden.
We recognized that we were not only working on the edge of what was acceptable, but we were fighting an oppression. Was that about sexuality or was it something else?
I certainly woke up to the deepened understanding of how our sexuality is such an intrinsic part of our essential humanity. The two simply cannot be separated. How we touch, laugh, speak, connect, see and are seen … these are part of our sexuality that have nothing to do with intercourse.
More questions emerged. Why would we, culturally, deny our elders that? Do we dehumanize them in order to rationalize how we, as a cultural, treat them, engage them, warehouse them, medicate them? Is it because we have created an output society? One that only values what you make for consumption, so that when our elders no longer create “outputs” they are no longer valuable and therefore less human? Does the human pattern of loosing agility, mobility and activity serve as a reminder that we are simple, fragile animals that live and die, and if we recognize this possibility we realize we have built our lives on a house of cards? If we don’t see, don’t look and don’t listen, we don’t have to acknowledge that fact and we can continue to believe we are not like them.
What emerged for me were questions about the potential for human rights violation so tragic that I couldn’t help but shed tears. When we dehumanize people, we make them less than and there is great potential for abuse. We know this happens. Look at the patterns of genocide. This tragic pattern played itself out in Calgary only recently when two young women attacked a 92-year-old woman at a mall in broad daylight.
But here, in these workshops, I was sitting with this resource, these amazing human beings who have lived almost twice my lifetime, with so much more information to share than I could even begin to take in and they were being wasted. They were being silenced and dehumanized.
That would explain how hard it would be to speak up, be heard and be valued. To be fully alive in a culture that would prefer you not be.
That would explain the living that started to happen when the group came together. The celebration at being valued, being heard, being seen—intimately, as Wanda, one of our participants, says: “Intimacy is Into Me See…. What do you see, really see when you see deeply into me?” There was laughter, fears, tears, joy and connection. We recognized that we were playmates, soulmates, adventurers on the journey.
It is my profound hope that this group of Elders continue to cull out their stories and share them with us. We are very fortunate that they were willing to risk so much…to risk their community in order to tell these long-silenced stories. Our planet needs our wise Elders to stand up, teach us, guide us and keep us on track. Now all we need to do is learn how to be still and listen to their stories.
Videos from the Project