Interview with Helen Wilkes - Author of The Aging of Aquarius

by: Sara on 09/04/2018

Today we speak with author Helen Wilkes, about her new book The Aging of Aquarius: Igniting Passion and Purpose as an Elder. Helen a retired professor and activist, takes reader on an inspiring journey to find renewed purpose in retirement.  Along the way she helps readers navigate the transition to pot-work identity by fanning the embers of lost passion and developing new interests.The first questions come from our contest winner. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for your chance to win!

Are you a baby boomer and what inspired you to write this book?

I'm too old to be a baby boomer. I was born in 1936 to parents who fled  Hitler in search of safety in 1938, then had to flee once again in 1939. Today, the dreadful fears that were my daily reality have given way to life in Canada where neither my life nor the lives of my loved ones are under constant threat. Moreover, thanks to an education and the freedom of this great land, I can do something about lingering threats e.g. to the environment,  to our democracy, or to social justice and human rights.

I was inspired to write this book by the countless caring people I have encountered, especially in the years since I retired.  We are sold images of "the good life" that may involve sitting under a palm tree with a pitcher of margaritas, or daily rounds of golf. For some people, such activities feel inadequate, and they opt for involvement instead of entertainment.

These inspiring elders are actively engaged  in ways that may not have been possible during their working years. Some are doing volunteer work through various agencies and organizations. They arehelping to feed the poor, to visit the sick and elderly whose own family (if they have one) may live far away. They are raising funds for everything from babies dying of crib death and to old folks dealing with dementia. They are working for  safe drinking water, for adequate nutrition, for health care and educational opportunities for people here at home and in far-flung places.

Other inspiring elders have added  new skills to their repertoire, and they are applying these skills in creative ways. I think fondly of a retired librarian who decided to learn "the healing touch" as a means of bringing comfort to those in physical or emotional distress. At first, she  practiced in palliative care homes, but recently, she joined a group of visitors to imprisoned women in Central America. She reports that most lack even the concept of self-worth, and that the "women" in one of the prisons ranged in age from 13 to 17. Her experience in turn is leading her friends and her contacts to think more critically of who is in our jail cells and why, and whether more creative approaches might lead to less recidivism especially when mental  illness or drug addiction are compounding factors.

I could go on, but you probably also know people who are equally innovative and who inspire you. If there were one person in the world (not a  member of your family - that's a different issue)  whom you could help, who would that be, and how would you go about it? Would you have to take a course in ESL, like one couple I know who travel the world as they teach  children to read and write in English? Can you build upon the skills you acquired along the line, like a researcher I've met who is now in his 90s and continues to make a major contribution to his field?

 If you knew you couldn't fail, would you step forward and forge a new path, acting to effect change? Studies have repeatedly shown that pleasures cannot be sustained (the first bite of chocolate is always the best) and that most people feel better about themselves  when they are doing something they view as beneficial to others.

Do you think society's idea of aging is changing?

Having been a frequent critic of people who jump on the bandwagon and who do things because "everybody" is doing it, I can hardly claim now to speak for "society." From the advertising that I see around me, there are folks who buy into  magic promises of "eternal youthfulness" ranging from botox to viagra and beyond. Others wear their wrinkles with pride.

Speaking as an individual, I hope that as we all live longer, ageism will vanish along with other "isms." Medical breakthroughs along with greater awareness of what constitutes healthful living are extending our lifespan in major ways. having an impact. Those who are now retiring may well have 30 or 40 years ahead, and by 2050, the number of centenarians is slated to multiply eight fold. I hope that people will come to anticipate the years ahead as an opportunity and as a gift.

What tips can you offer to those experiencing a sense of disconnection and loneliness in retirement?

I am well acquainted with these two unwelcome visitors, and have spent long periods of my life in their shadow.  It began in my childhood on an isolated farm in Ontario, and continued through years

HelenWilkes

Author Helen Wilkes

ofschooling where I was mocked for my limited English and foreign ways. I inched my way through years as a wallflower only to be rejected some years later as a divorced woman and a  single parent in a coupled world.

Strangely enough, I am less lonely now than ever before. In old age, I feel that I have somehow been granted permission to reach out to others instead of expecting them to first extend a hand in my direction. I smile at complete strangers on the street.  I ask if I may pet their dog, or I admire their child, or I comment on the gorgeous red scarf that they are wearing, and these simple acts lend a whiff of sociability to every outing.

I know well that such superficial communication does not banish loneliness, but at least it's a start. Sometimes, simply getting out of the house leads in unexpected directions. Several times, I have met fascinating people in unexpected places. I think of the young man in a coffee shop who seemed to be busily working on his laptop while I chatted with a friend. As we prepared to leave our table, he looked up, smiled, and said how much he'd enjoyed eavesdropping on our discussion. He sounded genuinely interested in the topic, so I gave him my email. Now, we have exchanged lengthy and interesting emails and have met  several times in person. I think too of the couple that I met while exiting from a movie theatre. It seemed so natural to say "Wasn't that an interesting film?"- and when they proceeded to make several interesting observations, I suggested we go for coffee at a nearby cafe. Now, we are friends who get together regularly, and always with great pleasure.

I would also suggest going to places alone from time to time rather than always accompanied by a friend. If I want to spend time with a friend, I will arrange to do just that, rather than book time together at an event like a concert that will preclude real conversation. Furthermore, by going places alone, I frequently encounter acquaintances at intermission time with whom it's easy to renew the connection. At other times, I simply speak to the person sipping a drink beside me in the lobby, and I have often found one thing leads to another and that we share far more than appreciation of the music we came to hear.

My only hesitation with these  suggestions stems from awareness that for some people, leaving the house is not a possibility. Sometimes, both young  and old have problems that preclude physical movement. These are the moments to bless technology and all the connections that it enables. I am in  in touch with people who live miles away, as well as with people from other countries who have crossed my path either here at home or while I was a visitor in their part of the world. It is the most natural thing in the world to comment on or to ask questions about some event in the news, as well as to share details ranging from family celebrations or sorrows to interesting thoughts arising from books, newspapers, or personal encounters. I love email, but so many others find that social media makes them feel connected in a whole new way.

 Is there an activity or exercise you would suggest to those looking to reconnect with their passions or an interest that they may have lost touch with during their working life?

Helen Wilkes_In action (2)

Author in action!

I'd start by asking "What would I learn if I knew I'd have a great teacher who wouldn't make me feel like an idiot?" Then I'd subdivide my answer(s) into categories. In my case, I'd love to learn more languages, but I'd have to decide between Mandarin, Russian, Hebrew, Ancient Greek and the Italian I love but speak so poorly. I'd also like to learn about the universe we inhabit, but I'm uncertain whether to begin studying astronomy because I often gaze  skyward in the dark of night, or whether to do basic biology because I love taking time out to watch a ladybug alight on the back of my hand or a bee buzzing about in the garden.

Then I might move to other questions like "What would I do if I stopped caring what other people think? " Would I  start playing the bagpipes for no real reason other than it's something I've always wanted to do? Would I dig out the instrument gathering dust in the basement and start playing it again?  Would I join a choir even though people have told me that I have the voice of a sick frog?

I too hesitated when I began writing. Repeatedly, especially upon entering bookstores or libraries, I'd ask myself "Does the world really need another book?"  I'm glad I answered in the affirmative. I hope you are too.

You can see Helen in person at the event listed here. 

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