by Nader Shabahangi, AgeSong Founder and CEO
AgeSong and Pacific Institute are vision-driven organizations. This means that people who belong to these organizations understand their work as contributing to a larger vision of a more loving and aware world that makes room for the many diverse expressions of all there exists. At its core, AgeSong is grounded on the belief that we live in an interdependent world where all is related with and to each other. As such, AgeSong emphasizes a relational model of working together as opposed to a model that believes in absolutes, that is in one right way of being and doing.
At AgeSong’s elder communities, we strive to create, both in theory and practice, a place where we can allow people to be who they are, a place where the intention of those with whom they interact, such as carepartners (commonly termed caregivers) staff, interns, family, and volunteers) is to understand more deeply about the Other facing them. As such, AgeSong desires to create learning organizations where we ask such basic questions as the following: Who are we? What helps? How do we help? What does it mean to live, to age? How do we age? At AgeSong, our intentions are to take a stance of curiosity rather than knowing, to understand how we best care for the other and to appreciate difference as much as homogeneity.
At AgeSong’s elder communities, AgeSong and Pacific Institute implement the foundational belief that all phenomena we humans experience are meaningful and important for a deepening of human awareness and for the enjoyment of life. This belief understands phenomena normative society designates as undesirable, even deviant – through labels such as disturbance, disorder, illness or disease – as essential for understanding and living human life. Among the phenomena mainstream regards as unwelcome belong also aging and old age and often any behavior different from what we consider normal, ‘appropriate’, or ‘well adjusted’. AgeSong elder communities share in the belief of the meaningfulness of all phenomena through by creating therapeutic environments at its elder communities. In this spirit, AgeSong works together with Pacific Institute to combine resources, apply internship training, and implement AgeSong’s varied and diverse specialized programs. These specialized programs are modeled on an existential, processwork philosophy and psychology that are non-comparative and do not pathologize. Such a philosophy and way of life do not separate the world into good or bad, right or wrong, better or worse. As such, this philosophy and practice stands in contrast to present-day mainstream perspectives with their emphasis on dividing the world into things that are more desirable and less desirable.
At this time, the following programs are being implemented at AgeSong senior communities:
• Community Living (Assisted Living Care)
• Forgetfulness (‘Dementia’) Care
• Engagement and Outings
• Expressive Arts Therapies
• Gero-Psychological Care
• Spiritual Care (Interfaith)
• Palliative (Hospice) Care
The intent of these seven programs is to address the many different facets and dimensions of aging, old age and of being human in as comprehensive a way as possible. The central concern of all of these programs is to educate and train carepartners, staff and interns in a basic attitudinal shift. At the heart of this shift is learning to perceive life as meaningful. Though seeing something better than something else, such differentiation and judgment are necessary in some parts of life, applying this attitude without discrimination to the care of the human being marginalizes and perpetuates suffering.
Towards an Attitude of Curiosity and Acceptance
An existential, processwork-oriented attitude that lies at the foundation of an AgeSong therapeutic environment approaches human beings and the world we inhabit with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance. It is this attitude of curiosity and acceptance in which both AgeSong and Pacific Institute would like to train carepartners, staff, volunteers, and interns. Such an attitude welcomes and enjoys difference. It understands perceived difference as an opportunity for growth, and thus wants to learn from it.
“From each difference I perceive in the other allows me to see a part within myself that may as yet be unfamiliar to me. That which I perceive as different is different because I do not identify with it or know yet. What I know already I do not regard as different or ‘other’. It is my attitude towards difference that is essential here.”
I have a choice to reject or accept difference. In rejecting difference I state that the ‘other’ is not part of me, is not worthy of being understood further. But would I not want to understand what I don’t know if it could help me understand myself better? In accepting difference I state that there is something I can learn from the other, something that deepens my awareness of myself, hence the world within which I live.
This attitude of acceptance and curiosity translates into the way each of the specialized programs is carried out. For example, in assisted living care the special needs of the elderly residents are met with an attitude that understands each need as a way the elderly communicate their unique difference to us. All kinds of possibilities can lay behind a community member’s tentative or slow walk, need to be fed, or desire to be quiet for a long time. Rather than ‘seeing’ these ways of being as aberrant, we might understand them as ways of expression in their own right. This holds true as well for those elderly who seem to forget what they once knew, appear confused to us in the way they go about their daily lives. If we do not judge forgetfulness or confusion as abnormal, but rather as the way this particular individual now lives his or her life, then we could see the wisdom behind this change and difference. As importantly, we can enrich our own lives with another way of being we did not imagine or ‘see’ before.
Educating and Training a New Generation of Carepartners and Interns
The central task in teaching and educating a new generation of managers, administrators, supervisors, coordinators, interns, carepartners and volunteers is to start with showing how each of us holds certain beliefs, values, ways of seeing people and the world. The purpose here is to have us become clearer about how our beliefs shape our perception and thus determine how we see our world. It is important to show how, for example, what we judge to be undesirable or aberrant can also be seen as something valuable, even enjoyable. Working primarily experientially, we are invited to probe in ourselves for character and behavior traits with which we would normally not identify. In this way we may begin to first notice and then counter the tendency to judge whatever may be in front of us.
Another training consists of learning to make contact with one’s own ‘inner elder’. This training conveys a connectedness to the wise part in oneself. This part allows us to learn to look at life and living from the ‘long view’. In such a perspective all phases of life are seen as important for the creation of a full life.
Central to the attitude of acceptance and curiosity is learning to be cognizant about our expectations. Noticing our expectations, becoming explicit of them, helps us be in and with the moment. We develop a ‘beginner’s mind’ attitude where we feel more and more comfortable with not knowing what will be, what should happen. This attitude allows us to enjoy what is. Enjoying the beauty of the moment means enjoying life, enjoying all that happens. This enjoyment is based on us being present with the unexpected events that often go unnoticed: the graceful movement of an elder, the faint smile, the warm hand I touch, the green plant I see, the food I taste, the raindrops I hear.
Important in this shift to an attitude of acceptance and curiosity is learning the art of listening. This involves as much noticing our desire to speak as our tendency to assume what the other is saying. Language, however, both verbal and non-verbal, is very complex and difficult to understand fully. Every word, movement and expression contains multiple meanings, often unknown even to the person communicating. Here trainees will learn ways to listen and understand, to take time paraphrasing and helping the other search for understanding.
Warriorship of the Heart
What we want to communicate to the world ought to be congruent with our message itself. At AgeSong we desire to communicate to others that we would like to re-define aging as an important phase of life. This phase of life is given special importance through re-establishing the role of eldership in our culture and society. To be truthful with others we need to model the ways of elders ourselves: being attentive listeners who continually practice being aware of what occurs in the moment, within and without.
The Seven Specialized Programs
All seven programs are based on the same attitudinal shift towards a loving curiosity and acceptance of the other. The only difference is the form this loving attitude takes. In assisted living care, carepartners practice their loving attitude of acceptance and curiosity when they bathe, groom, feed, walk, and otherwise help, support and sit with our residents. In forgetfulness care, carepartners and interns practice an attitude of curiosity and acceptance when they work with elders’ attempt to remember, find their room, walk the hallway, search for contact, do activities or engage in the many different forms of communication and relating. In expressive arts therapies, interns, staff lovingly follow community members’ many diverse attempts in being creative and expressive. In our spiritual care program residents encounter a safe place where they can express their struggle for meaning and their search for the transpersonal aspects of life. In our memory improvement, interns in training work patiently and lovingly with elders’ desire to remember and to stay cognitively active. In hospice care, elders find acceptance in the way they are and need to be as they move through their process of dying.
Once the attitudinal shift to a loving curiosity and acceptance of the other – whether the other be community members, family members, or carepartners, staff, and interns – has been made, the above programs meld into one. This means that whether we do expressive arts, memory training or assisted living care, the basic attitude with which we undertake each program always follows the process of the elder moment to moment.
A Different Model of Doing Business
At AgeSong we try to walk the talk. The way we care for our organization, for people and things ought to reflect the way we would like to care for community members. This is what we mean by staying aware of the Circle of Care – as I do to do, you will do to others, to yourself. This circle of care extends not only to the people who work with AgeSong, but includes the community and environment, the larger world in which our organization lives. As such, our organization desires to stay aware of this interrelationship by paying attention to how it cares for and relates to this world. Concretely, we try to remember that there are different bottom lines, that return on investment does not only refer to a monetary return but also to what we return to our workers and our community, near and far.
For additional reading and study, please view:
Process Work on the Arni and Amy Mindell website.
What is Processwork?
“Processwork is the art, science, and the psychology of following the nature of individuals, communities, and eco-systems.
What is this nature exactly? It appears in the descriptions or self- descriptions of nature and people, as well as the subtler often missed signals and deep experiences of everyone and everything involved. Following this nature is often a great help for everyone involved. Following nature often gives meaning and necessary change.
Processwork, also called process-oriented psychology, is a multicultural, multi-leveled awareness practice including people and their natural environment. It is an evolving, trans-disciplinary approach supporting individuals, relationships and organizations to discover themselves.
Processwork uses awareness to track psychological and physical processes that illuminate and possibly resolve inner, relationship, organizational, and world issues. Processwork theories and methods, skills and metaskills are available for anyone to experience and can be tested.
Processwork can be used to help people in all states of consciousness, that is in so called normal awareness states, or in altered states such as psychotic or extreme states, comatose and near-death states. It can be applied to psychological problems, body symptoms, groups, organizations, governments, and has been used for very young and very old people.”
More Info on Processwork
Read more about What is Process Work?
Books by Arnold Mindell:
City Shadows: Psychological Interventions in Psychiatry
The Quantum Mind and Healing: How to Listen and Respond to Your Body’s Symptoms
The Shaman’s Body: A New Shamanism for Transforming Health, Relationships, and the Community
Dance of the Ancient One
The Deep Democracy of Open Forums: Practical Steps to Conflict Prevention and Resolution for the Family, Workplace, and World