Open Spirit: Honoring Our Elders

By Angela Garabet

The Honoring the Elders story-gathering project came about during the coronavirus pandemic when Transition Framingham (MA) had to cancel its in-person events. We were brainstorming ways to keep fostering community connections, which are even more important during this challenging time. The coronavirus pandemic had highlighted the need for resilience.

The idea was inspired by Rob Hopkins’ “The Transition Handbook.” We wanted to capture stories from the past when people used less energy and had different life skills. By learning from the past, we can learn “lost skills” to guide us going forward. We were hoping that the interviews could help inform our strategic planning and priorities of focus, such as what skills workshops to offer in the community.

By interviewing older community members (65 years old and better), we hoped to capture some of this intergenerational learning and perhaps more important, form greater community connections. 

There were 3 main organizers: Mary Memmott, Jennifer Benson, and me. We reached out to the Open Spirit Center, a multi-faith community center that explores the connection between energy, spirit, and healing and hosts educational programs, arts programs, community celebrations and community gardens. In the past, Transition Framingham has hosted and partnered on events at Open Spirit.

Reverend Debbie Clark, from Open Spirit, joined us for our organizational meetings and provided feedback on the interviewing materials. An introduction and questions were prepared in advance to help guide the conversations, but the interviews themselves were open-ended to create room for people to share any stories they wanted to share.

The prepared questions asked about food, transportation, energy, and the skills people learned and used in their childhood. The interviews themselves lasted, on average, an hour or more.

The project ran from summer until November 2020. We reached out to potential elders through social media and Open Spirit. Although we translated its promotional materials into Spanish and Portuguese, only one interviewee was a person of color.

A total of 14 people were interviewed by 9 interviewees who ranged in age from high-school students to elders. Some elders had growing up in the Framingham or Cambridge, MA, area, others were from other states or countries. Some were 1st generation Americans whose parents had immigrated to the US from Sweden, Russia, Germany, and Canada. They grew up in urban and rural areas.

The interviews were captured on audio file and I transcribed the audio files and summarized the content that our Transition group then grouped into themes.  

Key Themes Emerged

Community: One of the key themes was the sense of community that people felt in the past. A lot of people mentioned that everything they needed was nearby. In terms of social activities, you would go to neighbor’s house to watch TV or rely on other members of the community to fix something. If you didn’t know how, your neighbor or someone else would know how.

Anne S. displaying her reusable glass container. “It was the beginning of plastic but we didn’t use plastic.”

Self-sufficiency: Most people mentioned self-sufficiency skills they learned from an early age –

farm skills like driving a tractor and caring for animals, home-based skills like sewing and mending clothes, spinning, knitting, weaving, and laundering. They learned these skills at a young age as part of their daily chores of taking care of the home, growing food, and caring for siblings. Everyone learned skills from parents, grandparents or members of community, like a neighbor teaching someone to fix a car. They talked about bartering with their neighbors. A grandfather who made over 1,000 bottles of wine a year to trade for goods and services with others in the community. Neighbors who made cheese and bread and soap. Families reusing materials to make their own Christmas decorations.

While folks today might feel overwhelmed thinking of fitting all this work into the day, when these elders talked about it, there was a feeling of appreciation as well as enjoyment in doing it.

Frugality: Frugality and reuse was a common theme. Someone remembered the “rag and bone man,” a collector of unused household items for resale. They said, “Composting! We were doing that before there was a name for it!” Conserving, saving, reusing, not wasting anything – this was all taught to them as part of growing up. Now we have to think about doing that stuff, but then, it was automatic behavior.

Food. All the participants had some skills around food in terms of not wasting anything, being creative with how you utilized food. People reported food being easily accessible and nearby, within walking distance. There were not many items in the stores, but what there was, was healthier. Non-local items were expensive. An orange was a Christmas treat. Everyone then had an awareness of where vegetables and meat came from because it was local.

Transportation: Few people reported having cars. Everyone walked or biked, which was possible because everything they needed was typically located within a mile of them. Schools were community based and children could walk home for lunch. Things were delivered to the home, like ice, milk and eggs, vegetables and fish.

If a family did have a car, it was used for special trips. Those who worked in the urban area took a trolley or a bus downtown. They ran every half hour. Local elders said that public transportation now is much worse than it used to be.

Energy: Energy was expensive and like every other resource, people didn’t waste it. It was just ingrained in them to turn things off. There weren’t a lot of things to turn off. Many people reported they didn’t grow up with a refrigerator; food was kept in an icebox or stored outside in winter. There were no electronic gizmos or kitchen appliances. One person said they had a tub, put a chuck of ice in it and a fan behind it to cool things. Television wasn’t an escape from the day, it was a community event. Everyone didn’t have one, so it was a social gathering.

Elders’ Views of Our Current Way of Life

The interviewers asked elders to reflect on what they saw going on today. A lot of people noted that driving by houses and office buildings at night they are all lit up, even when no one is there.

Many talked about our throw-away culture, seeing people throw away usable materials. Nowadays, products are made to be disposable. Before you would fix or reuse items and they were better quality. Life was frugal. There was less stuff, but it was good quality. They were so used to fixing thing or repurposing items.

The elders opined about excess packaging and the amount of plastic one got going to the grocery store.

They talked about the difference in behaviors and expectations. Now people don’t turn off electronics. They are even resistant to bringing their own bag to the stores. People waste food and energy and time. Expectations have changed. We have a lot more money and a lot more gadgets.

How we use our time has drastically changed and the elders talked about the fast-paced lifestyle that we now have. Before, there was more time for reflection and family time. Stores weren’t open all the time. We weren’t distracted by consumerism and cell phones. People had more time to spend with kids teaching them to sew or knit.

Outcome and Benefits

The interviews had a big impact on the people doing the interviews and the Transition group. It gave us a sense of “WOW! This is where we want to go. We noted that people were mentioning community resilience aspects, not in those words but in what they are telling us in terms of localization, community support, having things nearby, reductions in energy.

The project also built and strengthened relationships. I now know more about the people in the Transition group and the community as a result.

We still have to do follow-up on how we can move this forward. It was designed to be a living project so any other group in the community or in the schools can take it on and form more connections with community members

In a feedback survey, 100% of participants said they extremely enjoyed the project. Some participant comments:

  • “I liked that I got to learn a lot about my neighbors past and how he grew up.”
  • “A chance to interact safely in person during the pandemic with a purpose that was interesting and timely.”
  • “Opportunity to share how different life was from when I was a child over the years.”
  • “The ability to connect with my dad about something that I am passionate about.”

Many people reported significant learning and reflection as a result of participation:

  • “I learned about how my neighbor grew up and how he and his family tried to conserve and recycle to the best of their ability.”
  • “That I needed to be conscious of speaking with a person who had not experienced the same historic and social transitions.”
  • “I interviewed 2 people with very different experiences around the same time period, but in different communities. The thread between them is that community connections are so important. We have lost a lot of that today.”

Challenges the Project Faced

There were some challenges in reaching out to schools and community organizations who may have been reluctant to take on a new project while dealing with all the other organizational changes and challenges of COVID-19.

The Transition group translated the advertisements for the project into Spanish and Portuguese, however, our sample does not represent the full ethnic diversity of the current community demographics. That is an opportunity for future work.

If You Want to Replicate This Project

  • Translate materials into different languages to build community connections and reach a wider audience.
  • Have structured questions to make the project accessible for younger interviewers. We also held an interviewer training session and recorded it.
  • It was time-prohibitive to ask interviewers to provide a full transcription. Instead, we asked for summaries and audio recordings of the interviews so we could go back and refer to it for quotes, if needed.

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