As I’ve written here before, the United States has the largest prison population in the world. The second largest isn’t even close. People age 50 and older is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population. Prison is one place where ageism, ableism and racism intersect.
About five years ago, as I was preparing to facilitate an 8-session conscious-aging workshop in a men’s maximum-security federal prison, I speculated how this workshop might compare with the workshops I’d already been facilitating among the un-incarcerated population. I already knew that one difference would be gender participation. By far, most participants in my conscious-aging workshops are women. I wrote about that prison workshop in the Sept. 5, 2017 issue of Wednesday Journal.
I decided to organize a second all-male workshop to run parallel with the one inside the prison. Those were pre-COVID times, so each group met in-person, face-to-face in a circle of chairs. One circle just happened to be behind high concrete walls, sharp barbed wire and locked steel bars.
The other circle still meets monthly. This group of older men has continued online through the pandemic and is now considering meeting in-person again. Camaraderie, angst, disagreement and humor circulates around the general topic of aging. Just like it did in the prison circle.
These men on the “outside” are in the privileged position where they can share about the internet, transportation, housing, travel, cooking or maybe food-shopping — topics that aren’t germane to life on the “inside.”
A few months ago, one of them asked the group for advice navigating a complicated situation. Although he and his spouse didn’t need it yet, and they love where they live, they decided to start looking at assisted housing in the area. They wanted help approaching this decision. The honesty of the request resonated.
This outreach led to a thoughtful, animated and wide-ranging discussion about a topic many of us shy away from. We quickly agreed on the importance of actually picturing living situations that could work for decades to come and how our transitions to them might unfold. One comment was that, if we live long enough, there will come a time when it won’t make sense or it won’t be possible to live where or how we live now. As we shared and listened, the impermanence of our relationships and our lives became less theoretical and more poignant. The beauty of that impermanence enveloped our words.
This honest discussion meandered a bit and included one guy’s sibling who’s had four broken hips but refuses to downsize, what it’s like being the house-husband, a local co-housing project, fire department key-access systems, locating advanced directive documents, and tattooing ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ on one’s own chest, among other topics.
Throughout the discussion, people commented on how important the initial question was and said thank you. There was consensus on the importance of having this discussion sooner rather than later. One guy said we were facing it squarely, and it was important for him to hear that he wasn’t the only one thinking about the particulars of what life might be like in 10 or 15 years. At which point another guy chimed in that they were already at that 10-or-15-years-later!
Conversations like these are percolating all across the country, as they should be. All it takes is for one person to reach out and ask a question, whether to family or friends or, nowadays, in a group on the internet. One such safe online place is called “Aging in The Age of Pandemic,” a weekly drop-in Zoom that I host for an organization named Courageus (www.Courageus.org).
Stop on by any Wednesday afternoon. I’ll see you there.