Onwards Towards Death and Dying:  Part Two on Aging

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This is the second part of a blog that I wrote a few weeks ago.  Part one dealt with the issue of death.  I was surprised by how many reader comments noted that people do not usually talk about this subject.  I realized from listening to several remarks that not only do we face death inevitably as we age but that there is a “journey” to death that we all take.  It is the final years of our lives.  These final years are perhaps the most important years for many of us.  They will certainly be the most difficult.

In this second part, I would like to discuss some ideas for making these last years or twilight years of our lives as happy and successful as they can be.  By success, I am not talking about making a lot of money or winning the lottery.  Being successful in old age is about living our final years with dignity and integrity.  It is not about recapturing our youth, but it is about capturing the maturity that many of us (myself included) never captured when we were younger.  There is no merit to the comment that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.  I know too many older people who are continually learning and growing in their twilight years.

Letting Go versus Giving Up

Many people confuse letting go with giving up.  I know many people who cannot quit work, hobbies, sports etc., that they are no longer capable of doing.  A woman friend of mine (who is my age) has recently bought a new motorcycle after crashing her last one.  She has for many years had difficulties handling her bikes, but she still insisted after her last accident on buying a new two wheeled bike.  Many older people who do not want to give up the sport finally realize that they will be better off with a trike or a three-wheeled motorcycle.  They are not giving up the sport, but they are letting go of something that they can no longer do.  You are all familiar with the adage of the aging boxer who cannot give up his dreams of becoming a champion again.  It is a dangerous dream based on not being willing to let go.

There are going to be many things that we once did as we get older that we either can no longer do or that we cannot hope to do at our former level of performance.  Giving up is to quit.  I am not advocating quitting.  Quitting is a formula for simply accepting death and waiting patiently for it.  I have no desire to share such a counsel.  I am advising that we realistically appraise our abilities and decide when it is time for us to hang up our spurs or gloves and perhaps pursue some other activity.

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I have been running for nearly fifty years now.  I know that it gets harder to run each year, but I am still able to comfortably continue my outdoor runs.  When the time comes that it becomes too dangerous or too hard, I will either buy a treadmill, switch to bicycling or simply go out for long walks each day.  I will let go of running but I will not give up exercising.  Not letting go is generally motivated by too much pride and in the case of old age, pride definitely goes before a fall.  Witness the number of elderly people who still insist on climbing up on their roofs or getting up on that ladder to fix something.  The outcome is too often sadly predictable.  As Pete Seeger sang “When will they ever learn.”

Coping

When we were young, we did not put much effort into coping.  As we get older, it often becomes more difficult to cope with life.  We can become burdened by physical problems, problems with our loved ones, monetary problems, or many other social issues.  We need to have ways to cope with these issues as we get older.  I have found that we can break coping strategies into two categories:  Mental Fitness and Physical Fitness.

  • Mental Fitness

Perhaps the most difficult mental challenge we face as we age is to stay engaged in life.  Once we are no longer employed, it can seem that life has no meaning.  Suicide rates among the elderly are very high and attest to this loss of meaning and purpose as we age.

“Many associate suicides with young people, like troubled teens or twenty somethings who never quite got their lives off the ground.  In fact, it is much more common among older adults.  According to new figures just released this week from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the highest rate of suicides in America is among people age 45 to 64. There were more than 232,000 suicides in this age group from 1999 to 2016.”  — Forbes, 2018, Older Adults at Greatest Risk For Suicide

I believe that there are three keys to mental fitness.  We must stay interested in life, involved in life and active in life.

Staying interested might involve becoming interested.  Perhaps when you were working, you were so busy that you had no other outside interests.  You now have time to go to the library and find some area of knowledge that you are excited about.  The best way to stay interested in life is to keep learning.  It might mean continuing to read the paper or read some books or write some papers.  Write your memoirs for your family.  Too few elderly leave anything behind when they die except a box of lifeless pictures.  What about telling your children who, what and why you did the things you did when they were growing up.  Chances are they never went to work with you or really understood what you did when they were growing up.

My wife Karen has taken up playing the dulcimer.  She plays with a group of other dulcimer players (mostly retired women in Tucson) who go by the name of the Tucson Dulcimer Ensemble.  They play at churches, festivals, nursing homes and assisted living centers.  I have attended many of these sessions and I can safely say that Karen and her group are deeply appreciated by the older people at these centers who may be too frail to get out to concerts anymore.

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Staying involved might mean finding a charity or volunteer group to work with.  It might mean taking more time with your family and grandchildren.  A good friend of mine who is 86 has become quite involved with several groups including the Rotary, SCORE and a Marine Corp Honor Guard.  He told me this past week that he has participated at 451 funerals for former Marines.  Lou is involved in life and still making a difference in the lives of others.

Staying active.  I am not talking about physical activity here, but activity aimed at exploring the world.  Activity aimed at opening your mind to the world around you.  One way to stay active mentally is to go someplace you have not been before.  Go to a meeting of your political party.  Go to a church.  Go to a new restaurant.  Go to a park, museum, zoo or famous tourist sight.  Go anyplace, just don’t sit at home.  Become an explorer of life.  It is never too late.

Mental health experts will tell you that the best way to fight depression and thoughts of suicide is to stay active.  I know many people my age who are finally getting out to see the world.  They are taking Senior Classes at their local college, going on cruises, joining hiking clubs or other clubs that help them get out and explore the world.

Karen and I have been to thirty-three countries.  We are planning to go to Russia next year.  I know neither of us has the energy for the trips that we took forty years ago, but I cannot imagine my life without exploring some new places that I have not been before.  We cannot afford to go as frequently as we used to but with some foresight and planning, we can still manage to make a trip every few years.  By the way, almost every time we have planned a trip, someone has said “Don’t you think it is dangerous to go there.  What about the terrorists?”  I assure you that I would rather be shot by a terrorist then die a craven coward in my bed.

  • Physical Fitness

There are three components of physical fitness.  These are Exercise, Diet and Discipline.  I do not have to tell you why physical fitness is important.  I doubt if anyone in the world denies the importance of fitness.  However, let me tell you a story which I think (sadly) exemplifies the American approach to exercise and diet and discipline.

I walked into a Circle K one morning (Very typical for me each day) and poured a cup of decaf coffee.  I walked up to the cashier.  She was in her late twenties and quite obese.  She must have been following a protocol because she asked me (as all cashiers at Circle K usually did) if I wanted a donut.  I replied that “Yes, I wanted a donut, but I did not want the calories.”  She answered very solemnly “I used to care but I don’t care anymore.”

The gyms and athletic clubs joke each year about the New Year Goals Effect.  Right after New Years (every year) the parking lots at the gyms will be filled to overflowing with new members.  Newly minted exercise addicts who have decided to lose fifty pounds, build fantastic muscle and look like Supergirl or Superman.  The joke among the fitness crew is that this will only last about six weeks and then the parking lot will return to normal as the new members go back to watching sports and eating potato chips during the “big game.”  Every weekend there is a big game.  Americans have become the fattest and (dare I say) physically laziest people in the world.

  • Exercise:

It does not matter whether you are eight or eighty.  Physical exercise is good for you.  A good physical regime includes:  stretching, strength, balance and cardio.  An hour a day, four or five days a week for anyone over sixty is enough to keep you feeling fit and looking fit.  The problem you are going to face is that too many regimes are designed for younger people.  The idea of “exercise goal setting” is highly overrated for anyone over sixty.  I have written a blog on this aspect of fitness which has a great deal of useful information on setting up a realistic exercise program when you are over sixty.  Go to How Can We Set Realistic Exercise Goals as We Age?

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  • Diet:

Moderation and common sense are the two keys here.  Every other day some expert or study is telling you that something is good for you or bad for you.  Today, eggs are bad.  Tomorrow eggs are good.  Today gluten is bad.  Tomorrow gluten is good.  Today alcohol is bad.  Tomorrow alcohol is good.  Today butter is bad, tomorrow butter is good.  The conflicting studies, reports and information are enough to drive anyone crazy.  What I have found over the years is the adage “All things in moderation” is generally a good way to go.

True, some things are definitely bad for some people, even many people.  Smoking has no health benefits.  Excessive alcohol consumption is not going to do any good for your health.  In fact, though, excessive anything from donuts to beef to fish may not be good for you.  Our bodies seem to thrive on a balanced diet.

I am a calorie counter.  Every day, I enter my calories in an online software program called “Fatsecret.”  This program allows me to research calories for thousands of food items, enter them in a calorie spreadsheet and at the end of the day, it tells me how many fat, carbs, proteins and total calories I have ingested.  It is easy to use, and I find that when I use it faithfully, I can keep my weight and body measurements in acceptable ranges.  I use a weight scale at home which measures about six different body factors to monitor my health.  These scales are cheap to purchase and easy to use.  I calculate my body indexes about every six months or so.  It takes less than one minute on the scale and then I enter the data in an Excel Spreadsheet.   As of this month, my latest data is:

Body fat: 18.1

Muscle:  29.9

Bone:  4.6

TBW:  67

BMI:  24

Weight:  Average for this month – 149.42

I enter the following data from my annual physical into my spread sheet as well to help me track trends and to see whether I am maintaining, declining or improving.  Trend data is much more relevant for determining health priorities than single data points taken once per year.  Few if any doctors routinely track trend data for their patients.  My latest annual physical gave me the following data:

Glucose:  92

Total Cholesterol:  211

HDL:  71

LDL:  128

Blood pressure:  115/70

Resting pulse rate:  60

  •  Discipline:

 The last factor in staying physically fit is discipline.  You might think that some of the above is “overkill.”  What you need to remember is that you do not have to enter data every day.  If you manage to do two out of every three days in the month, you will still have plenty of data to manage your diet and health.  There are many days when Karen and I are traveling, when I forget, when we are busy with friends or when we are at someone else’s house, that it is difficult to chart any data.  I do not worry.  Just like you do not have to exercise every day to be healthy, you do not have to chart data every single day.  If you manage to get sixty percent of your days charted, you will be doing great.  I set my goal at sixty percent for the month in terms of charting as well as days to exercise.  If I miss my goal, I simply try again next month.  The secret is to keep trying and not to give up.  If I have a bad month, I get up and try again next month.

Thinking back to the joke about health wannabees on New Year’s Day trying to get fit in less than six weeks.   It probably will not happen.  Some will make it to fitness, but it is not a six-week project, it is more likely (depending on your present level of fitness) a two to three-year project.  What will separate the winners in this battle from the “wannabees”, is simply the factor of discipline and determination.  Can you get up today and go to the gym?  If not, can you get up tomorrow and go to the gym?  Can you manage to go to the gym at least 35 percent of the days in this month?  Can you manage 25 percent?  My goal is sixty percent.   Many months I do not make this goal.  I try again the next month.  Goals are not etched in stone.  You need to be determined and disciplined but you also need to be flexible and fallible.  We are all only human and we will fail, time and time again.  It takes discipline to keep trying and not to give up.

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There are two more segments to aging that I would like to cover, but I fear that this blog has become too long.  In part three, we will look at what I call “Facing Reality” issues as well as the problem of “Economics.”  This latter issue will address money problems, budgets and finances as we age.  I specifically want to deal with those of us who are not rich and did not set aside enough to simply live happily ever after with no worries about money.  I for one need to be concerned about money every day, but I do not use the term worry since I generally have some things under control.  I want to share with you some of my strategies in these areas next blog.

Time for Questions:

What did you find helpful in my blog?  What ideas will you try?  What strategies have you found that you think help you to age gracefully?  Can you share your ideas in the comments section?

Life is just beginning.

“Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. Think of love as a state of grace, not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega. An end in itself.”  ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Death of a Loved One.

I have been asked to write a blog dealing with the death of a loved one. As I have grown older, I have suffered the loss of many a friend and relative. That is a price that we pay for living too long. There are other prices but perhaps none as steep as this one. A friend of mine has joked about my rather cavalier attitude towards death. She has summed up my comments as “Well, we are all going to die sometime.” I realize that my comment and attitude is not very consoling. However, for me it has been a convenient shortcut to simply acknowledging death and moving on. I have also noted that it seems hardly a week has gone by in my last twenty years that I have not witnessed the death of someone who has been a friend or relative. I doubt whether my life is much different than others unless I am a more astute observer of death or unless I am simply less caring.

I read the book “On Death and Dying” many years ago. The stages of grief that were identified as something we all go through upon the loss of a loved one are perhaps interesting and even useful but in some ways are very similar to my comment in that knowing the stages may not be very consoling. It is one thing to have an intellectual knowledge of death but an altogether different thing to have a personal emotional experience of death. For instance, despite all the deaths I have witnessed including my parents many friends and most of my relatives, I have never experienced the death of a life partner. I have gone through a divorce after 16 years but a divorce is not the same as death. True, it encompasses a degree of pain and loss and suffering but I cannot quite equate that with dealing with the loss of a close personal partner that one has lived with for most of their life. I think this would be a very different experience. Whether or not it was expected or unexpected would have some influence on how one dealt with it but maybe less than one would think. The aspect of “expectedness” is another intellectual concept which does not deal with the emotional relevance of death.

One day I was coming in to see Karen, my spouse who loves to sleep late. She is normally a very late sleeper and I am not usually too concerned when she sleeps in. However, it grew quite a bit later than usual and I decided to “peek” in to see how she was doing. When I looked at her prone body, she did not appear to be breathing. I immediately put my head to hers to see if I could detect any breath. I could not. My immediate reaction was to panic and shake her. I started crying. Suddenly she turned over and asked “What was wrong.” I was beyond relief. In that single moment of thinking she had passed away, I had experienced a degree of pain, sorrow, suffering and loss that I have never emotionally experienced before. Karen and I have been living together since 1989 and going together since 1983. I know that someday we will part and on an intellectual basis, I have accepted the inevitability of it. However, I suddenly found that I have not accepted the inevitability on a personal emotional basis and I wonder now if I ever will be able to.

I have to say I do not cry very much but I did that morning. I seldom cry at funerals but I cried at my Dad’s funeral, Sister Giovanni’s funeral and a few friends whose services touched me quite a bit. I have cried every time I have read or seen a production of the “Little Match Girl.” I have cried over the song “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” There is something that evokes sorrow in me that has more to do with loneliness than death. I have never seen any scales of loneliness related to the death of a loved one but I might assume that some correlation did exist. I have a 98 year old Aunt and God-Mother who is one of the most positive older people I know. She has lost two of her three sons and her husband of over 60 years. She continues to love life and other people. I asked her three years ago how she keeps such an attitude when she has seen almost all of her friends and loved ones pass away. Her reply was that she simply makes new friends. I am sure she loved her sons and husband as much as the next wife and mother but she simply chooses to move on. I contrast this with a comment that I heard about Thomas Jefferson who felt that at the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence he was no longer a part of this life. The following is a quote by Jefferson on aging:

1815 February 5. (to John Vaughn). “…nothing is more incumbent on the old, than to know when they should get out of the way, and relinquish to younger successors the honors they can no longer earn, and the duties they can no longer perform.”

I see a vast difference between Jefferson’s attitude on aging and my Aunt’s attitude (at least as reflected in this quote.) My Aunt has not gotten out of the way. She still performs duties and tasks to help others. Indeed, that Christmas when I was talking to her, she was leaving after dinner to serve meals to the elderly at an “Old Folks Home.” I jokingly asked her if she was not “Old” and she pensively replied “Why I guess I am, I just never think about it.” She lives in the present and maybe that is the elusive secret of happiness or satisfaction. Osho says that for too many of us the only thing that exists is the Past or Future. We are either so busy trying to recapture memories of “better” times or else we create possible futures that we hope will bring us “better memories” than we had. I have noticed that all of the great religious leaders have stressed the importance of living in the present. Jesus said:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:25-34

Buddha noted: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” I could give writings upon writings that speak of the need to live in the present but would this help you deal with the loss of a close personal partner? Good advice seldom deals with emotions. What then to say to anyone who suffers a loss of someone they have lived with, loved with and known for most of their lives? Perhaps nothing! Maybe this is just the time to be with this person. I would suspect that the feelings of loneliness would be almost overpowering. Is it any wonder so many people seem to die shortly after the death of a long term partner? What can you really say in the face of what this person is going through? Almost anything will sound cold or trite. Just feel for a second what this person must now be feeling.

Most of what we desire in life can summed up as: Fame, fortune or power. We strive to accomplish as much wealth, attention or power as we can. We think these three goals will bring us the happiness and security that we all seek. Deep down inside we are all insecure insignificant beings who feel that somehow money, fame or power will bring us the significance that assuages our sense of loneliness and inadequacy. But it never does. The nearest anything ever comes to doing this for us, short of an emotional and spiritual awakening is the love of a close personal partner.

I would not trade all the fans, all the Facebook friends, all the media glory, all the TV fame, all the money in the world or the highest office in the world for the love of my partner Karen who intimately knows me and cares about me. Karen brings me coffee, bandages my cuts, asks me how I am doing and what is wrong, cuddles with me for no reason, walks with me, consoles me when I am feeling inadequate, supports my stupidity, tolerates my quirks and even my sometimes meanness and poor dispositions. How many of the Rich and Famous have anyone in their lives like I do? Those of you who have or had had a long time personal partner or loved one know what I am talking about. How to lose such a partner and go on with life? I am sorry if I do not know the answer or the secret. Give up or trudge on? Can you make a difference for others? Can you help share the pain and help others deal with the pain you are now feeling? What can you leave the world after your partner leaves you?

If you have had a partner like I have, you have experienced the greatest gift in the world. That this gift will someday be taken away from you is inevitable. That it will cause you great pain and sorrow is perhaps also inevitable. In the end, we come back to the beginning. Life goes on. You were loved and you were needed. There are others who are not loved and who could benefit from your love. There are others who are not needed and who could benefit from being needed by you. The biggest gift we can ever give others is the gift of ourselves. When a gift has been taken away from us perhaps it is time for us to find a way to give a gift of ourselves.

Time for Questions:

What is your experience with death and dying? How have you handled the death of a loved one? How have you helped others who are going through this pain? What will you need when you lose your partner or a close loved one? Can you share any experiences with others who might benefit from your experience?

Life is just beginning.

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