August 21st, 2013


Last month, the American writer George Saunders addressed the graduating class at Syracuse University.


His theme was that, as we age we hopefully become kinder and more loving.




But he said we can fast-track that process by looking for the ‘kinder moments’ when we pay more attention to others, care more about them, act on spontaneous impulses to reach out, to be – well — kinder.




As he points out, the acts of achieving and succeeding, of establishing ourselves in the world may or may not work out.


For me and countless others, what has worked out, of course, is the dumb luck of being born Canadian. Even more is timing. I came of age in the 60’s, in the glow of the second wave of feminism, when we women grasped for a new egalitarian ideal and saw our potential as unlimited. So achieving and succeeding has come easily in this beneficent land. Still, as we grow older, the world reminds us that we aren’t unique, separate, or permanent. Even having children, as Saunders points out, overwhelms our sense of our individual importance and is replaced with wanting the best for our kids.


It’s true that aging rewards you and especially in retirement it frees up time to start reaching out – with time, money or elbow grease.  Here is one small example.


My husband and I recently organized a group of friends to go hiking in the Rockies with a company called Canadian Mountain Holidays.


Aside from the camaraderie and the good times, everyone had to overcome lots of fear about whether they could do some of the challenges that the trip presented. Succeeding and achieving dogs us for a long time in our lives.


But everyone succeeded and needless to say, the hiking was a breakthrough for many of them. It was also profound in giving them new insights, and in that intense experience of bone-deep terror, they found new ways to reach out with care and kindness to friends suspended on a rock face or stuck on a suspension bridge 1000 metres above a gorge.


Not trivial!


One of our friends, as a thank you, told us she’s going to buy a portable stove for one of the grannies in the mountains of Lesotho in Africa. My friend’s family has been helping a particular village for several years but this is her personal contribution, and it’s new.


Stephen Lewis started the Granny Movement when he was the U.N. Advisor for HIV/Aids. A group of B.C. grandmothers heard Lewis speak and decided to help grandmothers in Africa beset with raising a generation of children orphaned as their parents succumbed to HIV/Aids.


When the International AIDS conference was held in Toronto in 2006, my sister-in-law from Kamloops BC attended as one of the founders to meet with a group of African grannies that had been sponsored by the Foundation to attend the Congress. Her recounting of their group meetings was one of the most profoundly moving stories I’ve ever listened to and brought all of us to tears.


So I’m pleased to know that the Granny Movement remains vibrant and continues to support families at the most basic level of caring for children. It is a response to a need that preserves the dignity and independence of these grandmothers who have both lost and acquired children.


Many of these women, minding five or six offspring are younger than me, (I’m still awaiting the arrival of even a first grandchild) and in their lives they will never know what retirement is. Proud women, they have risen to an almost impossible task with courage and moved on from tragedy. They warm to the kinship of their granny counterparts in Canada and abroad. The acts of kindness are stoves and sewing machines — personal tools that help them support of their own kin, tools to sustain and nurture them.


What do the grannies of Canada do to raise the funds? The talent base is enormous and heartfelt. Trained in the halls of church basements, and in PTA’s, they quilt, sew, bake, paint. They gather families and friends and peddle their wares to support a personal passion about caring in a way that counts, much as George Saunders has pointed out.


In fact, George Saunders is absolutely right. The older you grow, the kinder you can afford to be. It’s a life lesson that’s often lost on the young, but I’m grateful to him for opening their eyes to its possibility and reminding us, at the other end of young, that reaching out can be so up close and personal.


Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.