March Reading for Chalice Elders: Identity

At our monthly Elders Lunch (held on zoom the second Friday each month from 12 noon to 1 p.m.), Rev. Sharon shares a reading from the book In Later Years: Finding Meaning and Spirit in Aging by Bruce T. Marshall, a Unitarian Universalist minister. The following are excerpts shared at our March  Elders Lunch. The theme of this chapter is “Identity.”

In modern Western society, identity derives primarily from one’s sense of self as an individual: what I look like, what I can do, the accomplishments I can claim, the roles I play in everyday life, the resources I control, the power I can exert. We may also derive a sense of self from the communities in which we participate, but such collective identity is usually secondary. So while my identity is influenced by my family, the town in which I live, my faith community, my ethnic heritage, and my football team, personal identity tends to weigh more heavily than any of these.

But as we age, personal identity may diminish in importance, and we identify more strongly with our communities of heritage and/or communities of choice. Marguerite R reported her growing appreciation of the legacy she receives as a person of Greek ancestry. Her own identity is enriched through participating in the flow of Greek culture and history; it’s a n important part of who she is. So the foundations of our identity may shift from the personal to the collective, which, in turn, helps forge a deeper sense of who we may be. (pp. 61-62)

Perhaps my identity is grounded in how I look….

Perhaps my identity is tied up with what I can do….

Perhaps my identity is derived from my role in the family….

Perhaps my identity depends on my place in the world. (p. 54)

Barbara L. spoke of how difficult it is to maintain a positive sense of self in our culture that focuses on younger people, while ignoring (or ridiculing) older people. “I look at television ads and they’re geared mostly to that 18-to-49-year-old demographic. I hate it! It’s really hard because I think, as much as I don’t like it, when you get older, you are marginalized.” (pp.58-59)

A social worker told me about a couple in their late 80s in which the woman has always been in charge of the house and has always been the primary caregiver. She has prepared the meals, made the schedules for the family, kept things picked up and in order, and provided emotional support. That’s been her identity for more than 60 years. Recently, her attention has been focused on her husband, who has needed more and more help. But now she too is becoming frail. It is difficult to do what she has always done, to be who she has always been. Maybe she cannot continue to be as involved in his care. Maybe she can no longer be responsible for everything she has done in the family.

But her identity is that she is the one who manages the details, and she is the caregiver. This is who she has always been. Furthermore, her children, who have always seen her in this role, have a difficult time letting go. “You’re Mom,” they say. “It’s your job to take care of Dad.” Maybe they need to pay an aid to take on some of the everyday tasks. They have money, so that’s not an issue. But here, the woman resists. “I can’t imagine paying someone. That’s my responsibility.” And so they take no action. This woman may die taking care of her husband, taking care of her family. She will cling to that identity even if it literally kills her. She can’t imagine giving it up without surrendering her own sense of being. This particular woman is not the only person who faces this dilemma. I have observed both women and men who—consciously or unconsciously—make that decision. They cling to their identity even when it puts their own health at risk (pp.55-56)