Marin Independent Journal
August 25, 2009
by Paul Liberatore
“Aging is the journey of losing and finding.” That poetic insight is from the late Marin author Elizabeth Bugental’s book, “Agesong: Meditations For Our Later Years.” Passages from it and from its sequel, “Paradoxes,” are at the heart of a Marin Family Services Agency program called AgeSong, a series of peer groups for seniors 65 and older to share their concerns about issues like dealing with loss and looking to the future.
“A lot of the topics involve loss,” explained Ann Coffey, a retired psychotherapist who co-founded Agesong with Bugental four years ago. “People have lost a spouse, they’ve lost children, they’ve lost friends, they’ve lost their home. But more importantly, they’ve lost their power in the world. We talk about that, but we also talk about new connections and new possibilities.”
Bugental, who died in February at age 83, was a former nun turned snowy-haired hypnotherapist and masseuse.
“‘AgeSong’ offers a feast of ideas for living wisely and well, from a truly wise women of our time,” said Roger Walsh, a physician at the University of California.
“We would usually start each group with a short segment from Elizabeth’s book,” Coffey said. “That would be the jumping off platform for a discussion.”
Those discussions often come around to a concept called “the new old age,” which can be defined by asking questions such as, “What are the new possibilities? How do we live in the present? And how do we get the most out of the time we have left?” Coffey said.
At 65, she is one of the youngest in Agesong, but age differences haven’t been a problem for her.
“Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez says, ‘The old are younger in one another’s company,’” she said. “That’s what happens in these groups. The discussion are lively, animated, smart, insightful. It didn’t seem like what I thought it would be with a group of 80-year-olds.”
Since the first Agesong group in September 2005, 100 seniors have participated in 20 groups over four years.
“The part that makes me happy is that once people participate, over half of them want to continue,” Coffey said. “They say they have a much better sense of themselves and are more optimistic. They get new perspectives on what’s going on in their lives.”
She and Bugental were the original facilitators. Now there are nine. Two facilitators are assigned to each of the five groups – limited to eight participants each – starting in the fall.
Three groups are for eight-weeks, and two are ongoing and open-ended. They have become so popular that the fall session is filled and a waiting list has been started for groups beginning in January.
“Obviously, as the program grew we knew we needed more facilitators,” Coffey said. “They all came from the Agesong groups, most with backgrounds in counseling or psychotherapy.”
Claudette Josephson, 73, a former aide to Sen. Barbara Boxer, began as a participant in the first Agesong group and went on to become a facilitator. One of the issues that resonated with her was how older people become marginalized in a society that focuses so obsessively on youth.
“That’s a big issue,” she said. “It means you get discounted. Younger people don’t pursue getting to know you. You’re not consulted. You’re not invited to socialize. They don’t value age. I watched how I, as an older woman, became marginalized because of age. Until you feel it, it’s very hard to understand.”
Along with that are the physical effects of aging that are inescapable for everyone except, perhaps, Dorian Gray.
“The deterioration of physical beauty is particularly difficult for women,” Coffey said. “I don’t feel old on the inside. On the inside I still feel like a 20 or 30 year old. Then I look in the mirror and I see my mother or my grandmother.”
Many more women than men participate in the groups, but men have their concerns as well. Josephson remembers a man suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the effects of a stroke who wanted to talk about the most difficult subject of all: Death.
“He was pretty focused on death, but not in a morbid way,” she recalled. “He talked about having the power to terminate one’s life, and that isn’t something people normally talk about. It was unusual, but this group was articulate and talked about it. It was the first group that I had that was willing to broach that subject.”
For Coffey, Agesong has soothed her fears about aging.
“I’m much less fearful about getting old than I used to be,” she said, bringing up the positive aspects of being an older person.
“At this stage in life, creativity becomes more important, as does self reflection,” she noted. “We’re no longer running around working in our jobs and taking care of children and all the things we’ve done all our lives. Suddenly we have the time to reflect, and talk about what really matters.
“We talk about it being a privilege to reach old age,” she added. “I had never thought about it that way before, but it really is a privilege. A lot of what we talk about is appreciation, celebrating what we have and who we are and what we can still do.
“We can’t do a lot of the things we used to do, but we can still listen,” she concluded. “We can still observe and appreciate. Those are all important things for all of us to remember. They’re the riches that come out of these groups.”
Paul Liberatore is a staff writer for the Marin Independent Journal.