Workshop explores attitudes toward aging, spirituality

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To Roberta Maisel, a bottle of Clairol's Medium Warm Brown isn't just hair dye. It's a symbol of conflicting approaches to aging.

"Some people think their gray hair is beautiful, a sign of wisdom and experience," she points out. "But other people want to keep their original hair color and don't want to look older than they feel."

Maisel has created a workshop called A New Paradigm for Aging, to help people grapple with the issues surrounding their feelings about the so-called golden years. The workshop is part of Kehilla Community Synagogue's adult education program.

"I don't have any easy answers," Maisel admits. "We all have to wrestle with this: How much about aging do we simply accept, and how much do we try to push back the grim reaper?"

Maisel, a Berkeley resident who has a master's degree in sociology from U.C. Berkeley and has taught classes through U.C. extension, hopes to attract between 10 and 15 participants to the four-session workshop that begins Wednesday, Oct. 25.

She was inspired by two recent events: her 60th birthday party and the Jewish Renewal conference in Colorado in July.

"I've been widowed two years, and my birthday party got me thinking a lot about transitions, about moving on," she says.

"At the conference, I was introduced to many inspiring new approaches to Jewish practice, and to life in general."

Among her inspirations there was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, co-author of "From Age-ing to Sage-ing," which she will use as a text in the workshop.

The workshop will include journal-writing sessions, and Maisel will pose questions to stimulate the assignments. "There's a therapeutic quality to journal writing," she notes. "It can be very freeing and self-revelatory."

But the workshop will also address more practical aspects of aging. Maisel will discuss subjects brought up by Ken Dychtwald in his book "Age Wave," which examines "all sorts of down-to-earth issues of aging," including occupational changes, life in convalescent homes and the demographic shift that is increasing the average age of the U.S. population.

Recognizing elders' needs for legal advice, particularly in dealing with Medicare, insurance and wills, Maisel hopes to have a lawyer or paralegal speak at the workshop.

On the last day, Maisel will introduce the group to two people she believes are exemplary elders: her 88-year-old mother, Henrietta Rosenberg, and her mother's 95-year-old boyfriend, Myram King. The couple met in the retirement home and have been together seven years.

Maisel says their relationship has, "without question, had a rejuvenating effect on both of them. One of the things I want to do is to talk about the whole issue of sexual viability of older people, and the relief it brings from loneliness and depression.

"But," she adds, "we'll talk about the other side of that coin, the whole notion of, 'Does one need to be in a couple to get over depression?'"

Maisel says her goal for the workshop is to get the participants "into a place that is as positive and forward-looking as possible regarding the movement through time to our own death." Passages from the Bible and other cultures' attitudes toward death — such as Latin America's Day of the Dead celebrations — will be examined.

Maisel also would be open to continuing the group past its final scheduled meeting on Dec. 6.

"After all," she says, "the subject of aging goes on forever."