We all have this in common. We’re all getting older, day by day, month by month, year by year. What we witness, regardless of our age, are the changes that take place and some of those happen rapidly on both ends of the continuum. The early changes in child development and adolescence are generally related to growth while the changes on this end are most often seen in decline. These latter changes are the ones I want to address and offer some strategies for dealing with the decline. Many people seem to think there’s not much we can do to slow the onset of disease, disability and eventual death. It’s true that we will all die some day but I believe that there are ways to live more fully until that time, whatever the circumstances. It is also true that various diseases take their toll but there are some creative approaches to dealing with the challenges of declining health and issues associated with that experience.
At age 82, Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer in January of 2015, and he decided to write some essays, and in them, he shared his thoughts about how he wished to live out his days as well as his feelings on dying. The collection was published posthumously in August of 2015 in the small volume, Gratitude. He found positive ways to think about everything, including his growing frailty: Perhaps, he suggests in the book’s final pages, he was in the Sabbath of his life, “when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.” His thoughtful and tender book leaves readers with a similar sense of tranquility and, indeed, gratitude
In mid-November of 2016 I attended a social event in Boston. I was one of three of the oldest of the seventy or so people who were there. All things being equal, I will celebrate my 80th birthday in June. The oldest person was a 92 year-old, long-time friend of mine whom I had met in 1959. I have known his two sons, now in their 50’s, since they were born. They were also there, invited by my daughter who is 54. She and her husband hosted the event, an engagement party for one of their daughters, the oldest of their three children. Numerous friends and neighbors and some of their children, friends of my granddaughter in earlier years, were in attendance. I have known many of these people for more than 30 years so it was easy to reconnect and put some missing pieces in place. Many conversations were an update of either what had happened since we last met or what was currently happening in their families.
A number of guests at the party, either out of kindness or generosity, expressed surprise that I appeared to be in relatively good shape for my age, very active and engaged and enjoying a life of travel, work and leisure. For this event I had flown to Boston from Mexico where we spend several winter months traveling about to various places of interest. Many of their parents were apparently not doing as well, and I was saddened to hear of their declining health. However, the realities of aging are not only challenging for those of us in our waning years but also challenging for our children too. It is to them. as well as to my aging contemporaries, that I offer the following observations and recommendations.
I want to begin with a tribute to my 92 year-old friend whose health is now in obvious decline. He is losing his vision and his mobility is decreasing physically. I made it a point to sit down with him earlier in the day and have a catch up conversation. He shared his frustrations and discouragement with his situation that is unlikely to change for the better. We also talked of positive memories of our children and times shared in the past when he was more vigorous, active and engaged in the world. We don’t see each other frequently but we manage to stay in touch. He and his wife are close to my daughter and her family due to a long time relationship as well as proximity in northern Vermont. He retired there in 1989, 27 years ago, and has enjoyed most of the years since except for the past two or three as his conditions begin to challenge his vitality and activities.
I spoke to one of my friend’s sons about his father’s health and what kind of plans they might have in place for the months ahead. I was surprised to learn there weren’t any plans in place except for being able to respond immediately “if something happened” to either of their parents. Those are often code words for an accident or worse. Many of the people with whom I spoke that evening did not seem to have a plan for their aging parents or they were scrambling to put one together because a serious issue was now demanding attention. Since change is inevitable we can plan for it. However, both aging parents and their children do not necessarily want to come to grips with the inevitable and think about a design and a plan that addresses the quality of life.
Many of the conversations that I had with my daughter’s friends had to do with their parents who were contemporaries of mine and most of whom I had known in earlier years when our children were younger and were either neighbors or school friends. I listened to their concerns about their parents, many of which had to do with health issues and situations in these so-called later years. The reality of these years are filled with many changes, not all of them desirable or welcome.
As I was talking with one of the guests, a close high school friend of my daughter and now a neighbor of hers in Boston, her friend told me about her mother’s health and her and her sisters’ concerns. My response was to inquire further about her mother’s physical condition, but also to ask questions about her mental, emotional, social and spiritual resources. She responded with genuine enthusiasm regarding my comprehensive analysis. One reason she expressed interest in my commenting on her mother’s condition in a more holistic way was that she and other family members were meeting the next morning to discuss what they needed to do to put some kind of plan in place. My approach, which follows, sounded more creative, comprehensive and hopeful than any she had known about previously.
A pattern of mine for many years probably began in graduate school with my studies in human development at Penn State University. The interdisciplinary program there focused on the physical, mental, psychological and social aspects of individual and family development over the life cycle. Academic subjects were not explored in silos, in isolation, but rather in concert with one another. Research studies in early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and gerontology were examined in detail with many of the results being tested and applied in various centers around the country. An entire college devoted to a developmental and educational approach seemed to be a novel idea in the late sixties, early seventies.
Thus my work, as well as my life, has often focused on the inter-dependence of various factors in an equation for success rather than isolating something, giving it a label and concentrating mostly on one dimension. I believe we miss many opportunities when our attention is narrowed rather than broadened and deepened to be inclusive rather than exclusive. In Part II, I will examine how this works, consider five dimensions of aging and see how we might ameliorate some of the inevitable decline and how we might draw upon multiple resources on behalf of the aging individual. For me to have this opportunity is a gift in and of itself.
PS – I receive regular notes from our high school class scribe whenever one of our classmates dies, most often from one of the top ten causes as listed by the CDC (Center for Disease Control). A recent such notice also included this information. Out of a class of 167 who graduated in 1955, “by the time of our 50th class reunion in 2005, 25 classmates had passed. 10 years later at our 60th reunion another 27 had passed. Since then yet another 5. Time waits for no one, enjoy the day.” This is one reality we all face and how we decide to live until we’re taken out of service may be one of the more important decisions we can make. In spite of those numbers that might seem discouraging to some, there are 110 still alive, in various stages of activity and/or decline. Choose how you wish to live!