Role models - friends

Role models - friends

5 cups of tea

I've always had at least one or two friends older than myself. They have been mentors in my work, fellow Quakers, people who seem to be on my wavelength and who are good company. I've learned a lot from friends. The trouble with having older friends is that they tend to die, so I've also lost a lot of friends but I can still treasure them.

When I think about my older friends, one by one, what strikes me is their many different but equally enthusiastic ways of staying engaged with the world and with life. Kath had a passion for peace advocacy and gardening; Judith was learning Russian and playing classical piano in her last years, while rereading her favourite authors such as Henry James; Brian was planning a trip to Europe with particular attention to places connected with Carl Jung; Margaret was a retired nurse who used her skills for the health of young people; Betty used her gift for caring by visiting friends in rest homes, many of whom were younger than her, and delivering meals on wheels; Bob's scientific mind was sharp to the last. Many of my friends were engaged in politics and activism throughout all their long lives.

Recently a friend died just a few months short of her 90th birthday. She fully embodied the saying, 'Live till you die.' In her eighties she was a keen walker and bird watcher and a good friend to a wide range of people, hosting hearty meals and addictive Scrabble games to bring people together. Three years ago, when she was told she probably would not make it to the end of the year, she started a complex creative project which engaged several other people and she saw it through almost to completion. She drove her car and rode her bike up till the last weeks of her life and she encouraged me to get back on my bike after I was knocked off and injured in an accident. She did this by offering to lend me hers to ride around some safe streets and by telling me how, as a child, the present of a bike was the best thing she could have had, much better than the doll she had been offered. In the safe and friendly environment of her English village she rode around visiting friends and family whenever she could. Inspired, I replaced my crumpled bike and got on with it!

This friend took great pleasure in music and the arts. The week before her death she had been to a concert and a ballet performance. Although we all knew the end was coming, her death seemed sudden because she was so engaged right till her last days.

I've also watched older friends face growing disability, and I hope to face my own losses with some of the grace I've observed in them. It's hard to see a bright mind dimmed by dementia and it's not always true that the illness brings a merciful oblivion, it may bring anxiety and distress. Some of the most active people lose their strength and balance, a musician may lose the ability to hear. 'Use it or lose it' might apply in middle age but for the really elderly it's cruel to think it. Even a healthy old age brings limitations and loss and the risk of death for each of us is 100%. Of course, take care of yourself, but there are no guarantees.

In a recent conversation with another friend, we talked about the problems of the world, as you do, and the growing burden on the natural environment of our ever-increasing human population. We were both very aware in our youth of the Zero Population Growth movement and had only two children, compared to the families of five to ten children that were common when we were growing up. I pointed out that the birth rate in New Zealand is less than two births per woman and it is falling globally, so the burden of our increasing population is mainly due to older people living much longer. To me, that suggests the need for us to be healthy and useful as we age, if we are not to be a burden to the next generation who already have a lot on their plates. What will keep us healthy? You know: exercise - nothing fancy simply walking will do - plenty of vegetables, enough sleep and good connections through relationships.

We need to seek our role models for this where we can. In general, I remember from my friends cheerful resilience, ongoing learning, a variety of ways of giving service. These are important values for me too. I hope I've learned well from those who have gone before.