Choosing To Age in Community: 2

Thomas W. Hungerford

Born in Winslow, Arizona on April 29th, 1916
Died at Light Morning on May 25th, 2000

This is Part 2 of the story about Tom’s unusual life, which begins here.
The final portion of the story is posted here.

Robert and Tom watching a gravel truck in 1995, as Rivendell,
Light Morning’s new community shelter, was being built.

Choosing Light Morning

Robert–What did you do after your mother died, Tom? You were in your late 60s by then and you were trying to find an environment that was philosophically compatible with what your values were.

TomIt didn’t have to be compatible. I was just looking for somebody who was working on themselves in a different sort of way. The only thing I could go back to myself was what I had found at the time of my divorce — the Edgar Cayce material and Joel Goldsmith’s Infinite Way. So I started looking in that direction.

During the seven years I was with my mother in California, my sister and brother-in-law would sometimes come and stay with my mother for a month so that I could go off on a trip. I came here to Light Morning several times during that period. I also visited other communities: a couple in Arizona, a couple in Missouri, The Farm in Tennessee. I wanted to visit Twin Oaks, but they wouldn’t let me. You had to pre-arrange a visit first.

But I ran into aging again. Only two communities were receptive to me, regardless of my age. The people at The Farm said, “Welcome, come and retire. Come and be with us and work with us.” So they were wide open. And here at Light Morning. Any time I came here, nobody ever mentioned my age. That isn’t true when you get out into the culture. I always felt very welcome here.

Robert–Did the other communities tell you directly that they weren’t interested in someone your age, or did it come through indirectly?

Tom–It came through indirectly. Well, I could be misinterpreting that. [Laughs] It’s possible that they just didn’t like me.

If you’re out in the culture, you’ve bought into and you’re tied into a negative way of treating aging. There’s not much question about what’s supposed to happen. In certain circumstances — particularly if you’re with your family — you don’t get asked either. The family just steps right in and does what they think is best for you.

Robert–So there’s a loss of control over your life?

Tom–When you get into the upper brackets of aging, it becomes precarious. If you want to control your life—and I certainly want to control mine—you can get into stuff out in the normal way of things that you don’t want and that you can’t control. Particularly when it has to do with family and with legal people, your choice disappears. It disappears in relation to aging; in relation to people’s ideas about aging.

Robert–What sort of ideas do you run into in the general culture that would limit your choices?

Tom–They mostly have to do with your income or your health. If you have a substantial amount of income, it’s very easy — as you age — for family and other people to wonder whether you have the facility to decide these things for yourself. And legally they can interfere. It’s the same with medical decisions.

Robert–So one benefit of living in community is that it preserves more freedom of choice in the arena of aging.


A Strenuous Lifestyle

Tom gets ready to mow a field.

Robert–How is aging in community different from experiencing it somewhere else?

Tom–There are a number of examples. One that stands out in my mind is when I was a visitor here. I fell on the porch of the community shelter and hit my back just under the rib cage. It was quite a whack.

The way I was treated was totally different from what you would find in the normal culture. Joyce and Ron went up to Snowberry, the cabin where I was staying. I’d been sleeping in the loft. They made a low bed on the first floor, so that it would be easier for me to get in and out of it. And you started giving me comfrey packs.

No one suggested that that I should go to the hospital, which I probably would have run into in the mainstream culture, or even with some of my family. If I had been staying with my sister, heaven only knows where I might have ended up. In the emergency room to begin with probably. But you know where that goes.

Robert–You were in your late 60s when you fell here. It was a bad fall.

Tom–But it all cleared up, just by being willing to look at it and treat it in a different way. It wasn’t necessary to get into things that I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t work well with.

Robert–The Light Morning lifestyle can also be strenuous at times.

Tom–[laughs] Well, that’s something else that happens here and I don’t know whether it would happen someplace else. We had a big snow two years ago. On earlier visits, I’d been told that after a snowfall it was important to shovel the snow off the path to your cabin before it starts to melt. Otherwise, you tromp the snow down and then when it freezes, you can slip and fall.

After this big snow of 18″ or so, I decided that I better shovel the path from the community shelter to Snowberry. And it wasn’t any big deal at all. It went so smoothly that there was hardly any effort. I didn’t even realize how unusual it was until I was done. When I turned around, the path was clear all the way up to my cabin. And I was how old — 75?

Not only are you allowed to do that at Light Morning, it’s just part of being here.

The same thing happens when I’m splitting wood. If I’m careful about my attitude and how much energy I use, splitting wood is easy. There are lots of physical requirements in this kind of life. And if you need it, you can get help from others. But the general tack is to explore it some yourself.

Robert–So with shoveling snow or splitting firewood, what you value is making an inner decision about whether to engage in those activities and when to stop, rather than having someone else make the decisions for you.

Tom–Yeah, that’s it. And then having experiences that corroborate that way of doing things. It’s not just an abstract idea about something. It comes to pass and it works. That’s part of community — making your own decisions about what you’re going to think, what you’re going to believe.

Folks here don’t interfere with that. They’ll express what they feel, which is very helpful for all of us. But we don’t have any hard and fast idea that just because we believe something, somebody else needs to. We may come to feel the same way and have the same belief, but it’s not because somebody pushes us.

Tom and Lauren

Robert–That’s what we’re aiming for with Lauren. [Our daughter was 10 years old at the time of my conversation with Tom.] We don’t want middle-aged people to always be telling younger people and older people what to do and how to do it. We want to leave as much leeway as possible for people to learn from their own experiences.

Tom tying Lauren’s shoe, circa 1986

Tom–That’s essentially aging, too. How Lauren is treated as she grows up is part of her aging process. And it’s very different here than it generally is in society. The results of it show, too. Tremendously.

Robert–In what sort of ways?

Tom–In her resourcefulness. In her interests. She reminds me of my mother. Lauren always wants to help. She wants to get in and do things along with everybody else. It’s pretty amazing what she can do.

Robert–Does having you be a part of this community make a difference in her life?

Tom–I hope so. I missed a lot when my own kids were young because I traveled so much. I wasn’t an intimate part of their growing up. So reading to Lauren, having her come up to Snowberry and wanting to do things with me — those things that happen at a younger age. It’s been great to have it all be filled in. Where else could I have got it? I can’t think of anyplace else.

Robert–Turning that around, it must be special for her to have a close relationship with someone in their 70s.

Tom–[laughs] There’s a really good relationship between us. There’s no doubt about that. And she doesn’t have much of an opportunity to connect with her grandparents, who live far away. So there’s a lot of pluses for both of us.

Aging Elsewhere

Robert–What’s the difference between aging in community and growing old in community?

Tom–Maybe the best expression of that goes back to my mother. When I was in high school, I never realized that she always objected to being called old. I didn’t understand what her objections were until later. Someone who’s called old is being categorized in a negative way.

Robert–Does it reinforce a prejudice?

Tom–It reinforces a belief that is deep and hard to move.

RobertWhat’s the nature of that belief?

Tom–[pauses] It’s connected with death. People object to being called old because as they get older they’re approaching the possibility of death. If you’re apprehensive about death, I don’t know what can be done about it. I’m not apprehensive about it. But when my mother died, I was around fears of death from most of her family and friends. I’m sure it was related to their own fears: “What’s going to happen to me?”

Then Tom reminisced about visiting Fairhope, a community in Alabama that has a large retirement population.

Tom–The striking thing was how many of the men at Fairhope died soon after they’d made the transition from career to retirement. There was only a certain amount of time when fishing and golfing and that sort of thing made life meaningful for them. When that ran out, they ran out.

Fairhope is a city of widows. The women there didn’t change their lives much. They were still doing what they had been doing before their husbands retired. So you’d find women involved in volunteer projects, in art projects, in community projects. The men who survived retirement either created a new business for themselves or they got into community service.

Robert–So the men who aged and died quickly in Fairhope were those who couldn’t re-establish meaning and community in their lives?

Tom–Yes. They couldn’t replace what they had been getting from their business careers before they retired.

Looking In The Mirror

Robert–What do you see in the mirror these days? How does your reflected image correspond to your inner self-image?

Tom cutting apples. October 1999

Tom–My inner self-image doesn’t have an age. It has a feeling rather than an age, and I’m often amazed to know how good the feeling is. A few years back, I was thinking that some of my friends were getting into their 70s; and now I’m nearing the end of my 70s. And I still feel great most of the time.

I had the flu recently. It really took me down. But I came out of it without getting pulled into negative beliefs about my aging. It was possible to work through the flu without thinking that the trouble I was having was because I was 78 years old.

Robert–So you saw yourself as just another person dealing with the flu, regardless of their age.

Tom— Yes.

I’ve given up guessing what age I’ll be when I pass out of this experience. I’m a lot further on than I ever expected to be. And in greater control of my senses and sensibilities. It’s not even too bad on the physical side. So I’m feeling now that it’s more important for me to learn to deal with whatever this process of passing is; to be ready for it when it occurs.

Which brings in something that I have a feeling about, but don’t yet know to be true. I feel that I have already reached a stage where I will have a choice — that I will know that I’m going to go. And that I will be receptive to it.

Robert–That death won’t sneak up on you?


Robert–How does one become more ready for death?

Tom–I guess it’s one of those things where you don’t really know. At least I haven’t reached the stage when I know what happens after death. I’ve met lots of people who say they’re not afraid to die. But observing them makes me wonder if they really are unafraid, or if they’re just trying to do something with themselves about the inevitability of their death.

I suspect that except for the body–which we make prime use of in our earthly experience–we simply pass on to a different kind of experience. I’ve been told that we have other bodies that are available, and that we use them in our next experience. Some dreams I’ve had suggest that this might be true.

Robert–What sort of dreams?

Tom–I have a feeling that lucid dreams prepare us for the death experience.

Robert–What do you mean by lucid dreams?

Tom–That’s when you’re in a different kind of dream state. A lucid dream begins like any other dream, but soon after it starts you become aware that you’re dreaming while you’re still in the dream. Then you can consciously participate in the dream.

If it’s a nightmare, for instance, realizing that it is a dream helps you face the fear and turn it into something else. It transforms the nightmare into a positive experience. I have an idea that these lucid dreams are forerunners of the kind of life that we’ll have after what we call death.

Robert–How does living in community affect the process of passing through the death experience with awareness or lucidity?

Tom–We keep pretty busy here, but we really have plenty of time for what most people don’t make time for when they’re in the outside world: working together with dreams, with prayer, with meditation. This contributes substantially to being able to die with awareness and to take the fearful aspect out of it.

To Be Born and Die at Home

Robert–When those of us my age were in our 20s and 30s, there was a strong emphasis on home birthing, natural birthing, conscious birthing. Now that we’re approaching the other end of the aging spectrum, maybe we’ll see that dying doesn’t always have to be closeted away in hospitals and nursing homes. Sometimes those settings are necessary, but families and communities might want to become more involved in these end-of-life transitions.

Tom–In a community like Light Morning, we’re family in a very real sense. We’re not a biological family. It has more to do with how we live together. Consciously or unconsciously, we contribute to each other by being in community and not being plagued by the hundred and one things that would demand our attention if we were living in another way.

Robert–In some ancient cultures — in the Egyptian and Tibetan Books of the Dead, for example — there’s an awareness that death isn’t something strange or foreign. They also knew about the contribution that others could make to help someone maintain lucidity during the process of dying.

It’s like when Joyce was going through childbirth. People she was close to helped her stay focused in the moment, so she wouldn’t get swept away by pain or fear. Perhaps there are parallels here to keeping vigil with someone who’s dying.

Tom–I think that’s a real possibility.

Robert–You spoke earlier, Tom, about the difference between aging and getting old.

Tom–I would rather have people see themselves as aging rather than getting old. It would be a tremendous psychological help. We’re aging from the time we’re born until we leave the scene. We’re aging — and that can be quite different than getting old.

Joel Goldsmith said that people ought to mature. They shouldn’t get old, they should be born and get into their life and work at it and gradually mature. Change and mature — all the time. The three greatest drawbacks to that, he said, are the clock, the calendar, and birthdays. Joel wished that people didn’t have birthdays; that they would mature gracefully for as long as necessary, without having birthdays to constantly remind them of their age.

I was lying in bed the other morning, thinking about this, and it came to me that you could approach aging like you’d approach a good wine. You’d have a vintage year — the year you were born. [Laughs] Then the wine would be bottled up and would pass down through the years, getting better and better and better. Maybe aging, like wine, could get better and better and better.

* * *

Tom and his friend Briah in 1998.
Briah lived at Light Morning as a child.

* * *

A shorter version of this interview first appeared in the Winter 1995
issue of Communities magazine. The theme of that issue was “Growing Older in Community.” You can learn more about Communities magazine here.

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