Life. No one gives us an instruction manual for it. Sure we can read self enrichment books or “how to’s” on any number of things. But the reality is we experience it ourselves–make our own choices with our unique set of consequences. To use the paddling metaphor, what one set of rapids is easy for a paddler might send another swimming. The reality I’m processing right now is not the journey of life, but the part where you’re–mathematically speaking–getting to the end. Even if you’re healthy and active, averages tell us that the older you are, the closer you are to the inevitable. It’s not something I’ve personally agonized over but the idea seems to be really relevant, very present in my life right now.
I’ve spent over 20 years working with an aging population and the one thing I hear repeatedly is that your mind feels the same but your body is different–it doesn’t “cooperate”. I can believe this. I’m not “old” but I’m not “young” either, and have enough time under my belt to say I commiserate with this statement. I don’t feel my age, even if I DO chronically drink hot water and lemon and go to sleep at 9pm but I’ve done that since my 20’s and I run circles around many teenagers I know. I wouldn’t consider myself a “senior” yet. But aging is hard, even in the most ideal scenarios.
My father is one example of a “worst case” scenario. He was a man who was very athletic in his middle age, plus sharp witted and intelligent. The signs began in his mid-60’s. Alzheimer’s was a huge fear of his and he resisted the diagnosis. Intellectually I’ve known he will decline to the point of not recognizing me and needing round-the-clock care that only professionals can provide. But in my heart, I guess I never believed it would happen. HE was larger than life. Stronger than that. Except he isn’t. Now, when I visit my dad, if I’m lucky enough to get a response that appears he recognizes me, I’m not sure he recognizes me as “Sue, his youngest daughter” but perhaps someone he is familiar with. Side note: I want to clear something up for those who haven’t experienced someone with Alzheimer’s. It isn’t a quaint disease where the patient becomes a little confused or forgets things. Yes, they DO get confused and they DO forget things . Please move from your mind that softened, almost “sweet” version Hollywood has displayed for us, thanks to movies like The Notebook. It’s ugly. It stinks. It’s degrading for both the patient and the survivors. It changes the person immeasurably and it’s incredibly hard to deal with. Knowing you will decline has got to be one of the worst fears a person can experience. You will lose control on so many levels.
I believe loss of control is the biggest fear we have as we age. Truly, we want to be in control our whole life (and it’s somewhat of fallacy as we can truly control so little). However, as our faculties fail us we have to depend on others for so much–sometimes everything. Whether people come to our homes to care for us full time, or we eventually move into a facility we are at the mercy of those caring for us. I have seen both first hand. I’ve seen the pluses and minuses first hand.
The interesting thing about getting older is that, even if we don’t feel we’ve aged, our interests and wishes might change. Like moving from our teens and 20’s when we partied non-stop, constantly socializing and (for some) “clubbing”…and then got pretty bored with that scene to the point where it sounds absolutely horrible….well I imagine it’s the same as we move past middle age. Our day-to day, moment-to-moment interests might change? I don’t know…I imagine so, right? I kind of hope it because I never want to stay stagnant in one mindset. But also I believe the universe matches our brains with our bodies. We’re truly just a bunch of energy matter and hormones running around anyway, right? As these things evolve I wonder how the mind does too. I can say I’ve spoken with friends who are approaching their 70’s and they’ve admitted to me they’re kind of scared. I don’t blame them.
And then…part way through writing this post which was based on the realities of aging and mortality, the Coronavirus hit. I won’t go into the wildly varying opinions and reactions to this pandemic, from political to personal approaches. What I’m wondering is how it would feel to watch this unravel and I were not in my 40’s and healthy. I wonder how the public would react if this disease targeted everyone equally…if age WASN’T a factor. In other words, the mortality rate associated affected everyone equally. I believe our society disregards the aging population frequently, which is a shame. It can’t feel good to watch this go down and hear some of the community make statements like ” everyone is over-reacting” because…y’know… it “only affects the elderly and compromised”. Side note, along with “social distancing” I’m also “social MEDIA distancing”….except to post this post! (hahaha).
I’ve watched people age with grace, dignity and selflessness. And I’ve watched others do…well the opposite. Not a judgement, but I hope I’m a person that doesn’t behave poorly and treat people–especially caretakers, like crap. There’s clearly anger and fear surrounding these behaviors but it seems like age is like money…it embellishes our truest character. I remember both my grandmother and our longtime friend Ray Carl age together (literally in the same care facility). I would love to say my grandma was a peach. She was not, but then she didn’t treat folks all that kindly when she was young. She was tough on them and somewhat like a child wanting attention. Not Ray Carl. He seized life with zeal until he was without breath, and treated everyone around him, quietly, compassionately and as humans. He still said please and thank you. He had lived a good life, experienced sorrows and challenges–like all of us…perhaps more– and did his best to maximize every moment. I really respected that guy.
However, I can only surmise and ponder. Facing your own mortality has got to be really, really difficult. All I can do is make good choices for myself today and maximize the time I have now.
Thanks for listening.