A candle is lit. A chime sounds. conversations cease as we sit in silence for a few minutes. The Circle of Caring has begun.
For the past 15 years, a group on South Whidbey Island has gathered in homes twice a month. Over cups of tea and snacks, we explore how we can support each other as we age. We are all separated from family; some of us are married, others live alone. The group’s makeup has changed over the years as members have moved away, become involved in other endeavors, or died. New people have been invited into the Circle. Our commitment to each other remains the same: to better understand the process of aging and dying, and to care for each other—in whatever way we are comfortable doing—as we journey through that process.
The guidelines for our practice, based on the principles offered in The Circle Way for Proactive Aging: A Harvest of Years by Cynthia Trenshaw, are simple. We listen with respect and for understanding; crosstalk and interrupting the speaker are discouraged; confidentiality governs; leadership is shared; and we begin and end with ritual to mark this as a special space and time, separate from our daily routines.
The first Monday of the month is a time for members to check in, to share whatever what is happening in their outer and inner lives. We listen to understand; we don’t problem-solve, unless that’s the speaker’s desire. The third Monday of the month is devoted to exploration of a topic. These have included:
- How shall we live well, so we can support each other and ourselves as we get older?
- Writing our obituaries, values statements, and final wishes letters.
- What does caregiving mean? What do we have to offer someone in need of care?
- What makes us happy?
- What is grace? When do we feel it?
- For what do we feel gratitude?
Since the beginning of the Circle, we have had ample opportunity to practice these lessons. Members have suffered broken bones, stroke, cancer, Parkinson’s, congestive heart failure, and other ailments. We have held in love—and learned from—our members who have died, each in control of their final days.
Through our sharing of our lives, laughter, song, learning, and food, we bonded into a strong supportive community. We know we can turn to each other when we need help. And we have given each other permission to say “no, I can’t do that now.”
At the end of each gathering, we stand in an actual circle, hold hands, and remember those members not physically present. We have become like family for each other whose real families are geographically distant or otherwise non-existent. Perhaps even more important, we have become friends who, male or female, are willing to share our most intimate selves with each other.
Our practice is simple. It is powerful. And with intention, attention, and commitment, any group can become its own circle of caring. For resources to get started, see PeerSpirit.com.
Allan Ament is the author of Learning to Float: Memoir of a Caregiver-Husband, as well as other articles published in literary and academic journals and trade magazines. He is vice chair of the South Whidbey at Home board of directors and the past CEO and board chair of the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Allan lives on Whidbey Island with his wife, who is an award- winning writer, and their semi-neurotic cat.