“That’s us in a few years,” I whispered optimistically to my partner as we walked along the bluff trail behind an affectionate older couple. They’re out there frequently around sunset, always holding hands. Since walking this path is one of my favorite things to do, it gives me hope to picture us still doing it in our 80’s and 90’s … and hopefully beyond.
As my mother began her decline into Alzheimer’s, one of her few constant joys was the pretty little goldfinches that flitted enthusiastically around the tube feeder outside the kitchen-table window. I often think she must have felt, not that she was changing, but that the world was inexplicably changing around her—that people had grown surprisingly unkind as they regularly told her she was wrong about things like what day it was and who this lady was who kept claiming to be her daughter. How did everybody get to be so critical, I imagine her wondering.
But those goldfinches were reliable in their small beauty, appearing in the same place every day, all year long. They didn’t criticize her or ask anything of her; they just chittered and hopped in front of the cherry tree by the window where they always had.
We begin shedding roles in later adulthood, as we retire and as our children become self-sufficient, and our lives begin to once again have space for a renewed connection with nature that can provide some stability for us. Increasingly free from those earlier self-definitions and tasks, we can return to some of our basic “natural” loves—gardening, walking, birdwatching. And so many of us in our later years have lost our human life-companions; time in the vibrant natural world can provide solace with its own form of companionship.
There are easy things we can do for elders that help provide that natural solace and stimulation. My mother grew up in Tampa, so walks along the beach always helped her feel especially calm and relaxed, even when her eyes began to take on that achingly vacant look. Having outdoors green spaces that make it easy to walk in nature helps elders stay healthy. Being outdoors helps older people with dementia in assisted-living facilities become less agitated, and sleep better to boot. If you’re stuck inside, a view of living nature out the window does far more to increase your sense of satisfaction and well-being than a view of buildings. Want to further add to your elder friend’s sense of well-being and help her stay more active? Give her a plant to water in her nursing-home room—one that she takes care of rather than the nurses. (This kind of contact with nature—animals, plants, views—is one of the foundational values of the Eden Alternative approach to elder care.)
Is there an elder in your life who might appreciate a walk in the woods or along the beach? Or a companion plant to take easy care of with a bit of watering? A little nature goes a long way, especially in those last precious years. How about a goldfinch feeder?