I don’t to think about it…getting old. Like Scarlett O’Hara said in “Gone With The Wind”, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Well, tomorrow has arrived. It’s here. I’ve been catapulted into my nineties and I’ve landed on a lot of uncomfortable and thorny questions, some of which I can’t answer—not just yet, anyway.
Are there any joys in growing older? I could stretch a point and say, “Oh yes, one joy after another.” But you and I both know that would be “fake news”. And there’s no “joy button” that everyone can push when they reach old age. It’s a matter of perspective. What it takes for one person to be fulfilled is not necessarily what it takes for someone else. It’s a matter of looking at what satisfies you or helps you to feel like a human being rather than some dried-up prune from outer space. So, I can only speak for myself.
First, I’ve had to make peace with “solitude”, which has never been to difficult in some ways. Meditation, peaceful music, quiet walks, watching animal life on a bayou, and this sort of bucolic living appeals to me. I also enjoy being with kids playing and making noise (for about five minutes).
“How do you want to spend the rest of your life?” Or, “What really matters to you now?” are concerns that have escaped me. Rather, I’ve listened to comments about being careful, not falling, not driving, etc. Lots of advice about taking care of myself and doing the “safe” thing. I can appreciate all of that, but I had ten times rather take a few risks than sit in an easy chair, watching football games that seem just like the ones I watched last year, and the year before that—yet, I still enjoy the Saints and LSU.
I have a wonderful grandson and family (Wesley, Misty, Eli and Michael Watkins). They’ve all been struck by the marathon bug. Wesley and Misty will drive all the way to the top of Arkansas to bike on a dirt trail. Don’t they know they might get hurt? In fact, Wesley has had to have surgery from just those kinds of biking and hiking injuries. What were they thinking? Safety? No. Crazy kids; they were doing it for fun! (Geaux Watkins!)
Sara Simmonds was surely not thinking “safety” when she jumped out of a plane at age 98. But, really now…who wants to be safe all the time? Prisoners are safe. As a pastor for 70 years, I’ve visited so many in safe nursing homes full of safe and sterile older people, but who are simply miserable with boredom and dying of loneliness. And I have never had one person who said they were “assisted in living”. They were assisted in being safe, fed institutional food, and given meds on schedule. Now, this isn’t a “put down” of nursing homes or assisted living, not at all. They do have a purpose when people can’t take care of themselves. Newer models of taking care of the elderly are here and they point towards “in home care” models that help aging people to find meaning and purpose right up to the very end.
So, there’s joy for me when I get the creative juices flowing in my home art studio, or when I’m struggling with an article like this one, or even when I’m driving to the grocery store. I want to live life, not watch it go by. And I plan to do that as long as there is a modicum of mobility and sanity in me.
Another joy for me is experiencing life through the eyes of children. I’m thinking now about this past Thanksgiving when I was with four great-grandchildren as they witnessed a real train that had stopped on real tracks. The sheer excitement was so contagious that I wanted to jump up and down with them. It was purely an exemplary time.
A “must read” is a book by Atul Gawande, MD, titled, “Being Mortal—Medicine and What Matters in the End”. It is the most powerful and moving book on the subject of what really matters to older people that I’ve ever read. I believe he is a real harbinger of things to come and champion of the things that are already here. The big emphasis now, of course, is independent living in the home as long as is possible. In case you don’t read it, here are a few pertinent quotes:
“Home is the one place where your own priorities hold sway. At home, you decide how to spend your time, how you share your space, and how you manage your possessions.” (Page 54)
“The world stops for them (older people) for no other reason than they are old. Rather than fight it, they adapt—or, to put it more sadly, they give in.” (Page 94)
“Guess what gets the attention from the people who run places for the elderly: whether dad loses weight, skips his medications, or has a fall—not whether he’s lonely. Most frustrating and important, assisted living isn’t really built for the sake of older people so much as for the sake of the children.” (Page 106)
“It’s a rare child who is able to think, ‘Is this place what Mom would want or like or need?’ It’s more like they’re seeing it through their own lens. The child asks, ‘Is this a place I would be comfortable leaving mom?’” (Page 106)
So, what matters to me now? How do I wish to spend the rest of my life? I have a devotional book by Caitlin Matthews: “Celtic Spirit”. I will paraphrase one of her statements:
“The things I want, no department store can supply: time to stop and enjoy life, in a space of quietness and contentment. Space to give and receive love from family and friends. Grace to seek and find our spiritual joy. Freedom from the tyranny of others’ expectations. And, acceptance of ourselves as we truly are.” (Page 54)
“There’s a time to dance and a time to stop dancing…God has made everything beautiful in its time.” (Ecclesiastes 3). Amen.