Being Mortal Yet Aging with Dignity
It’s a bright sunny day outside, the end of summer. As she turns her gaze from the window, she announces, “You know, I think about dying every day.”
“Do you not feel well,” I ask?
“No, I feel fine. But, it’s important to think about death. It helps me keep a perspective. It’s strange turning 65. I don’t feel any different. I’m still taking yoga four times a week. It’s just that too many friends have died lately. It was different when someone who was close to me passed away when I was forty. It was a shock, but it was also an anomaly. Now, four people I know very well died over the summer, my age or younger!”
“Yes, you’ve had your share of grief lately.”
“It’s more than that. My whole perspective on life is being altered. I see the richness of life, but these recent deaths bring up all of the losses from the past, like linking memories that weave my life story through my relationships. I used to think that I had all the time in the world, but now I realize that’s fool-hearty. I feel a sense of urgency. I want to do something with the next twenty years, something that will make a difference and connects all of me – mind, body, and spirit. I want to give back. I don’t want to change the world, but I do want to make a difference.”
This is a familiar story, one I hear from people regardless of age; perhaps it is your story too.
It’s no small challenge to remain optimistic and purposeful in the face of aging and loss. How do we gradually accept the inevitable reality of death (no matter how much we wish to avoid it) and simultaneously hold onto a belief that we have value at every stage of life?
Aul Gawande in his book, Being Mortal directs our attention to what he calls a troubling and skewed shift in our perspective on aging. He states that because of the success that medical science has experienced in the past 60 years, a concomitant acceleration in our expectations and demands of what medicine ought to deliver has increased as well. Although advances in the treatment of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, coupled with joint replacement surgeries, and better pain management have prolonged longevity, they have also contributed to a belief that if things fall apart, doctors can fix it.
Yet, the reality is at some point most of us are going to need some form of assistance or support as our bodies wear out. Although aging is a normal process, Gawande states, we have come to believe that the eventual need for reliance on others is a weakness, something to apologize for. This avoidance or embarrassment around aging often leaves us ill prepared. Gawande warns, “More than half of the very old now live without a spouse and we have fewer children than every before, yet we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone. ”
Denial of aging is a huge, shared blind spot in this country. Our worship of youth eclipses the opportunity to prepare for aging, to discover the accrued wisdom that life experience brings. Precious time in our 50’s and 60’s that could be spent on reflection and preparation for the second half of life are squandered on worrying about looking younger. At the mid-point of life, if one is to continue to live well (defined by seeking a continual mode of growth and vitality), a shift must occur.
That shift begins with asking critical questions such as,
• What needs to be cut?
• What parts of my old identity have I outgrown?
• How would I behave if I felt I no longer had anything to prove?
• Where can I use my life experience in the service of making a difference?
How can the quality of my life remain interesting and growth-filled when physical limitations gradually take their toll?
Anticipating both the opportunities and the losses that are a part of aging is what allows us to create a “refreshed identity”, one where redefined purpose, reliance on community support, and giving back from a place where we draw upon our wisdom and experience can make a meaningful difference in the quality of our remaining decades.