In later years we find rapid acceleration of the challenges we dealt with (or didn’t deal with) in midlife. How well we’ve established sound decision making skills determines the level of ease or difficulty in surmounting the challenges ahead. Midlife challenges are spelled out in some detail in my book Becoming.
Control over what happens can decline rapidly, whether health, sight, hearing, mobility, bladder or teeth, limiting our ability to communicate with relevant others as freely or as confidently as usual. Keeping our memory and marbles are yet other challenges. Limited finances in later years with no further capacity to earn present constraints that override many other factors.
At the same time, adult children can step in, kindly or bumptiously, to take over management of our affairs, whether we like it or not. Without being asked, a friend recently removed from her home into residential care by her daughters, has found difficulty adjusting to her new living environment, the move accelerating confusion. Her present residence will be her final one: it will see her out.
Passing in the fast lane
Today we enjoy the privilege of living a long life of 70, 80 or 90+ years, around half a life more than our forebears a hundred years ago. The privilege has not been free: it has been built with gratitude on the sacrifice and efforts of soldiers, scientists, engineers, parents and cleaners, who have respectively serviced our freedom, health, housing and sanitation. As we’ve learned over COVID, failing to wash our hands may see us out.
Longer and better quality of life does not absolve us of the responsibility to doing the best we can with the privilege with which we have been endowed. Appeals to active physical and social life for Omega3 charged elderly attests that many are taking up the opportunities. Cruises and fun to see us out! Hopefully, we’ll die quickly and peacefully in our sleep, without having to think much about it.
The biggest issues to deal with may be changes in relationships with adult offspring, struggling in their relationships with partners and children (grandchildren), dramatically different values and beliefs, as well as disparity in power and financial positions. Choosing a relatively carefree lifestyle amongst peers in a purpose built retirement village presents as an attractive lifestyle to see us out.
Passing in the slow lane
Few get to choose the time of passing, which “comes like a thief in the night”. For many of us in this longer life, the end, or indicators of the end, may come slowly. Even a comfortable, relatively healthy life can become a drag for those in later years who have exhausted family goodwill, finances, and/or desire to continue. Death seems welcome.
Having cared for an elderly relatively till he was 101, I know how zeal for life can fade, along with spirits and bodily functions. People at that point don’t need convincing otherwise, no jollying up, just patient pacing, reflecting quietly on memorable moments to be plucked from memories surfacing from the shrunken frontal lobe.
A similar approach needs to be taken when a terminal health condition is diagnosed, meaning life will be finite in a number of weeks, months or years.
When my husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness over twenty years ago, we were fortunate to have the support from my sister Kathy, fresh from a couple of months in a Buddhist monastery in Dharamsala India. Buddhists, she said, practise dying first thing in the day, as no one knows whether they will die this day. Then they get on with living. It’s a pretty good philosophy for anyone.
Kathy was instrumental in soothing the grief of my husband and me, his family and friends, by assuring them that Evan was at the right place for his stage of his life. Keeping the patient comfortable, fresh and in quiet company was all that was required.
Our bodies die from the extremities: food loses appeal; entertainment becomes passé; and company previously relished is all but over, barring quiet patient pacing to the end. Like many diabetics, our mother loved her food. Death came once she missed lunch. Best intentions of one of my husband’s friends nearly killed him by taking him out on an excursion for five hours. Knowing what to expect and how to accept graciously the inevitability of the death of someone close, are valuable aptitudes that will see us out.
Our limited conversations about death extend to limited understandings of grief. For everyone, the experience of grief is personal and different. Put aside chemical solutions to feel more fully how grief affects the mind, body and soul, in order to attain meaningful recovery in due course. Only by acknowledging the loss and mourning it, can grief be processed. Then we can emerge enriched by the crisis and change.
Following Evan’s death after 34 years of marriage, grief affected me as bone weariness that no sleep could resolve. Instinctively, I felt that basic routine would help. Consequently each day began with a exercise, shower and dressing for work, getting on with the necessities of the day, as if I felt OK. Eventually, months later when grief passed almost without knowing, I was ready to move on productively. Faking it till I made it.
Mind you, I am no expert on palliative care, dying or grief. What’s on offer are positive thoughts that might help those presently facing difficulties, or likely to be confronting the end of life, in the hope they might draw some value from the thoughts.
In the meantime, be of good cheer as possible. Make the most of every day of this privileged life in this privileged country, with gratitude to those who’ve paved the way for us, yet who did not live long enough to suffer the pangs of later years.
Jesting “that’ll see me out” is a light hearted, yet serious quip, which at once acknowledges the finitude of life for me, while asserting I’ve done the best I can with what life has gifted me.
Easter is about new hope from the death and resurrection of Christ. We will rise again in the spirit of our children and grandchildren after enduring the vicissitudes of this life.
May the blessings of Easter come to you all.