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Opinion: Squamish Lessons on aging

'Intently and with abundant curiosity, I relish hearing about their lived experiences.'
Active senior in Squamish.

The nature of my job as a healthcare worker involves many complex and situational highs and lows. The people that I interact with happen to be elderly, the majority being decades older than me. Yet, they include some of the most exceptional folks who I’ve met in the short eight years spent in the Sea-to-Sky Corridor.  

Intently and with abundant curiosity, I relish hearing about their lived experiences. The finality of their last months, weeks and days is a constant reminder that our time here is, in fact, limited. Why do we, as a society strive to resist the unequivocal pulse of aging?

So much beauty accompanies the culmination of any wisdom we are so fortunate to acquire as we get older. I know this because I am fortunate to see it firsthand.

Fifty-two chronological years separated me and one of the most beautiful persons I have ever met, a well-respected and cherished Elder in the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw.

Words can’t describe the bond that was so quickly forged as we shared life stories over coffee, gazed at the Stawamus Chief, or simply let the western sunshine warm our faces on those elusive sunny days at the tail end of winter. I told her about the different places that I had travelled to since my 20s, some of my climbing and bouldering endeavours, and my ambitions. In exchange, she would tell me about her life, her family, her upbringing, and how she loved meeting new people through road trips and exploring the rugged landscapes that surrounded the now-developed town of Squamish.  

Her beautiful and kind spirit, generous laughter, constant empathy toward others, and unwavering patience still resonate deeply with me even though she passed two years ago. When I spend time in the mountains, I feel particularly close to her; almost as if she is watching over me as I venture deep into this astounding landscape we are so fortunate to call home.  

She and many others I have had the privilege to meet through my work are constantly teaching me about some of the most beautiful aspects of aging. Becoming comfortable in your own skin as you have lived and survived all types of hardship and grief. Constantly adapting to the evolving landscape of life’s ups and downs. Enjoying many of the simple things that life has to offer. Being open and curious to learn about others. Taking the time to really listen.  

Many studies are touting the benefits and protective effects of being socially connected as we age. In particular, perceived individual levels of loneliness and how they have been demonstrated to impact our physical and mental health as we age. Our population is aging. It’s been widely shared in the media and amongst those in the field of gerontology that by 2031, almost 25% of our population in BC will be 65 years and older.

My hope is that these lessons learned through my work will stick with me and that I continue to savour the fortunate lifestyle that I currently have. Eventually, I realize that physical decline will start to slow me down; but I don’t want to search for anything that will make me younger. There’s no true recipe or strategy for that.

Maybe a small part of the solution, then, is to immerse ourselves in open and meaningful conversations with people from varied generations and backgrounds. As one of my master’s thesis participants, aged 57, noted back in 2018: “…and those people, they’re all in their early 20s and, I just love that energy and new perspective of life so … I’d rather hang out with them because I know what the 50 year-olds are thinking, cause I grew up with them and I want to know what these 20 year-olds are thinking about the world and life and ... it’s cool.”

Michelle LeBlanc is currently working in a local healthcare facility within its recreation team. She has a background in Kinesiology, Gerontology (social sciences of aging) and has previously worked for a National research study on aging: Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging.

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