A few weeks ago, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. It was a happy day, particularly for my mother, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has been feeling its negative effects particularly keenly in these last few years. Struggling daily with difficulty walking, speaking, and even eating, she had been looking forward to this anniversary celebration for more than a year.
My mother was a choir director for most of her life, and so for this anniversary, which also coincided with her 79th birthday, she wanted to organize one last concert. The participants would be her children, siblings, and other close family members and friends, who would perform any musical or artistic number that they felt comfortable sharing with her. As her daughter, I can vouch for the increasing level of anxiety we all felt as we struggled to come up with a performance that was worth being seen.
For the last weeks prior to this anniversary concert, my mother agonized over all the little details, such as what kind of food should she serve, and how much? How many tables needed to be set up in the community hall? What decorations would be needed, if any? As the number of days we had to prepare gradually dwindled, my mother, her sisters, and I were all feeling increasingly overwhelmed. I, for one, wondered if all the anxiety and effort would be worth it.
Now that it is all over, I can say most emphatically that it certainly was. I had forgotten how a community can come together to support one of its own, despite age and infirmity. I had forgotten this because my own community has always been so much smaller.
My mother grew up within the Mennonite church community, and her social bonds within that group are strong and long-standing. When the day of her birthday/anniversary party finally arrived, a big crowd of her old friends and relatives somehow managed to press themselves mans health into the small hall. They brought gifts, and hugs, and touching memories from the past. They were unfailingly kind and showed great empathy towards my mother, who sat hunched along the side of the hall, unable to stand up by herself without help. My father, suffering from his own health complications, sat quietly beside her, craning his neck towards her to better hear her comments or instructions throughout the program.
As I sat amidst this great crowd of well-wishers and looked over at my mother, who looked happier than I had seen her in months, perhaps even years, I appreciated anew the value of a strong community. My mother has had this all of her life, and has never known a day where she couldn’t share her cares with one of these friends and well-wishers and feel the warmth and protection that a sympathetic ear can bring.
According to numerous studies, being involved in a strong community like this one extends your life expectancy, for reasons that are not yet entirely clear. However, as I sat within that caring group of people I could feel the emotional bonds between them so strongly, as if there was a network of arms around my mother and father, lifting them, supporting them, and taking away the weight of their cares, if only for this one afternoon.
Researchers speculate that any supportive group environment can provide these kinds of positive health effects; it doesn’t necessarily have to be religious. If you aren’t yet part of a social group, you would do yourself a lot of good if you can find one. It could be a dance group, a martial arts group, a yoga group, or a reading group; it really doesn’t matter what reason you use to bring yourselves together. The only requirement is that you meet regularly, and you learn to care for one another. The emotional and physical benefits you reap could be enormous.