Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 1, 2008
One of my recent columns unleashed a flood of invective when I suggested that one’s “golden years” could be spent more productively than in the pursuit of self-gratification, easy mobility, and the long-term environmental consequences of both. I had the temerity to offer, as an antidote, the pursuit of wisdom.
One respondent to that column introduced me to a locally grown organization ” Spellbinders ” where wisdom is, in fact, the MO: “Boomers need not be a drain on society as they age,” states the Spellbinders newsletter, but can “reclaim their earlier legacy and have a second coming in terms of social idealism.”
According to Spellbinders, that legacy is based not only on wisdom, but on civic engagement. “Seventy-seven million Baby Boomers will soon have the opportunity to redefine the meaning and purpose of their older years. These Boomers will create a new and largely unrecognized stage of life.”
Spellbinders quotes a report from the Harvard School of Public Health and MetLife Foundation that states, “There is an opportunity to help Boomers create a social legacy of profound importance.” Legacy is the important word here, especially for Boomers who wish to reawaken their sense of social idealism.
Spellbinders created that opportunity when it was founded in the 1980s as a nonprofit, grassroots, volunteer organization devoted to storytelling. It’s vision: “To create intergenerational connections, promote literacy, and transmit the wisdom, traditions and humor from all cultures and all times, thereby enriching communities.”
According to founder Germaine Dietsch, Spellbinders grew from a return to traditional storytelling into a social phenomenon. “I believe that in the coming decade Spellbinders will become even more important as retiring Baby Boomers look for ways to stay meaningfully engaged in their community’s life.”
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Community life can be improved, suggests Spellbinders, “by integrating the old with the young, transmitting knowledge and experience to future generations, and re-enforcing the value of people of all ages. Studies have found that young people in such programs show measurable improvements in school attendance, attitudes toward school and the future, and attitudes toward elders.”
Benefits are equally accrued by adult volunteers ” those in advancing years ” who discover the satisfaction of sharing their experience, feeling useful, and giving back to the community. At a recent Spellbinders celebration dinner in Aspen, adult storytellers were effusive from making a positive difference in the world, mentoring youth through sharing their personal experiences, and reinstating the role of tribal elders.
The scope of Spellbinders speaks to the natural growth of this vital approach. There are currently 25 chapters of Spellbinders in the United States, Canada and Wales, and the program is available in 397 schools. To date, the Spellbinders audience totals 284,244 children.
“Listening to stories increases children’s literacy skills and builds character as children are exposed in a vivid, gripping manner to a rich vocabulary, story structure, and struggles between good and evil,” explains Al Dietsch, executive director.
Such civic engagement is great for kids, and it also improves the health of participating elders who, according to one study, enjoy better overall physical health, fewer doctor visits, experience fewer falls, enjoy better scores on depression and loneliness scales, and have a 30 percent smaller increase in medication use.
Most of us have choices as we age. How we exercise those choices reflects on society, culture, community and environment. Above all, our choices fashion a future world view and a personal ethic that define us.
Reinventing aging has never been more important as global issues force us to expunge old habits and embrace present realities. Spellbinders offers our aging population an opportunity to imbue upon our youth a powerful and positive ethic.
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