Life Lessons from our Elders #1: Be Present for Your Life

istock_000005171011xsmallI love old people. Two of my best friends are eighty-nine. I never understood it, but for some reason I’ve always been drawn to older people much more than children. I have such fond memories of sitting with my grandfather before he died in his early 90′s. Our family protocol was for us all to troop down to his house once a week, talk to each other for an hour or so, then leave. This was called a visit. At the suggestion of a very good friend, I started going to see him on my own. I so value that I was able to hear his stories and share mine. When I announced that I was getting divorced many years ago and my family was giving me a ridiculously hard time, the words of my grandfather helped to pull me through. He said, “I don’t know why you’re doing this, but I support you.” That’s really all I needed to hear.

Later on, I worked in a hospice and many nursing homes and retirement communities. I have seen it all, believe me. I have absolutely loved this work. When you get old, you get real. It’s almost impossible not to. Everything is taken away – roles and identities, the functioning of the body, memory and cognitive agility, people you love and have known forever, your home. I’m not saying this to scare anyone – I’m simply telling it like it is. Whatever we hold onto with a tight grip, whatever we think we are…it all eventually goes. And what are we left with? This is the essential question that old age invites us to consider.

Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet, tells us to not “go gently into that good night.” And I say, it depends on whether or not you want to suffer. You can “rage, rage against the dying of the light” all you want, but nature is going to take it’s course. After all, we don’t really own our bodies or the circumstances of our lives. Can you stop a river from flowing? Can you hold back a baby when it is ready to be born? The more we allow ourselves to relax into the changes that are happening, the easier the journey for sure.

Growing old is definitely not for sissies, so it’s never too early to learn, and begin to practice, the lessons from our elders. In fact, these are lessons that anyone, at any age, can benefit from. I so appreciate them now, and only wish I had known them earlier.

Lesson #1: Be present for your life.

There are no two ways about it, the only life we have is right now, this moment. It comes and it goes, and when it’s gone, it’s over. Parents realize this when they see their children growing up so quickly. Time seems to be moving too fast, and they want to relish every wondrous miracle. So, too, with our own lives.

I have seen people close to death in disbelief at how fast the time went. They exclaim, “How could I possibly be at the end of my time?” What do I take from these experiences? Slow down…do things mindfully…be present to what is happening…and don’t miss one single moment of it.

I knew a woman in her 60′s, Mary Jane, who had already spent a few years in a nursing home disabled by a stroke when I met her. She was my teacher. She would look out the window and notice so many nuances about the clouds, leaves on the trees, and fluttering of the birds. She took absolute delight in these subtle happenings – you could see it on her face.

Slowing down may sound like a good idea, but to actually stop and smell the roses in the complex and pressured culture we live in might seem impossible. My words of advice would be to start small and get support. Consider learning to meditate – just 10 minutes a day can be effective. Read books that inspire you to be present. Notice people around you who are happy and be curious about how they do it. Realize that thinking about the past and future (ruminating, regretting, obsessively planning, expecting) is stressful and disorienting. Get in touch with what you really want for your life – how do you want to live?

You might want to try it right now. Look around you. Whatever you see, see it as if for the first time. Really hear the sounds. Feel yourself breathing. The next time you are in someone’s company – it might even be in the checkout line – take them in completely. Feel the life in them and know that that is the same life flowing in you. Be present for every single second of this precious existence.

Next in the series…Lesson #2: Appreciate what you have, but don’t be attached to it.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted October 9, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Hi, Gail -

    I really enjoyed this post . . . I have been teaching piano lessons to a few retired-age ladies (the eldest is 85) and find I really enjoy their humor and focus and patience. I get to learn about the stories related to how they came to desire learning how to play the piano.

    I had one student who had taken lessons in Germany for a few months when she was nine. Her lessons were cut short when she and her family had to flee from England during WW-II. The piano was left behind, but she kept her music.

    When she showed up at my house for her first lesson in 60+ years, she handed me the sheet music she had been learning at the time they fled her homeland. It was yellowed and brittle. She asked me to help her finish learning how to play it.

    She taught me a lot about life . . . with her stories and her wisdom. It was a joy to get to know her.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your post!

    - Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

    • Posted October 9, 2009 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      What a lovely story, Marie. There are so many tender moments when we relate to older people – and life lessons.

  2. avatar JKR
    Posted October 10, 2009 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    Gail – thank you for this – what great thoughts to begin my day. In just over a year I will be 70. A few years ago I noticed that I was becoming less interested in being with many of my older neighbors and friends because they seemed to be living the same boring years over and over rather than welcoming new experiences and thoughts.
    However, I also became more aware of several in their 80′s and 90′s that became ever more interesting, with stories and wisdom that is well worth my time to listen to. And, they seem delighted to share this with me. The difference is that they are living the life you suggest rather than just filling in the time until they die.

    • Posted October 10, 2009 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      We can all learn from that – living fully now rather than waiting to live, or waiting to die.

  3. Posted October 11, 2009 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Lovely post. I have recently finished reading Losses and Gains by Lya Luft which discusses the stages of life. It has certainly given me a different perspective of the ageing process. Being in the moment isn’t always an easy thing to do but I try. Now that my kids are grown up, I now have more time to do what I want to do. I certainly don’t want to waste it.

    • Posted October 11, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Beautiful comment, Arlene. Thank you very much for your wisdom and perspective. I understand your challenge about being in the moment. When we are present, we are happy and at peace. Maybe you can see what takes you away from happiness and peace. We can do this by investigating our reactions and bringing compassion and acceptance to difficult emotions that are present. Embracing what is happening eases the struggle, and then we are at peace. This audio might be a support for you:
      http://gailbrenner.com/2009/09/accepting-everything
      Sending you love…

  4. avatar Joel
    Posted October 11, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    I especially appreciate one trait that people over 80 share with children under five: they will take a total stranger by the hand and say, “Please come sit next to me.” Somewhere in the middle we lose this wonderful attitude for 75 years or so.

    • Posted October 12, 2009 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      Welcome, Joel! What an astute observation. We are too busy – or too guarded – in that middle 75. There’s a beautiful openness and spontaneity in children and elders that we all can learn from. I will really observe this in myself today – how do I close myself off? How can I be more open?

  5. Posted August 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this post my great grandma just passes away this weekend she was 92 years old. Had many great moments with her playing piano will miss her.

    • Posted August 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      I’m so glad the post spoke to you, Zach, at just the right time. I’m sorry for the loss of your grandma, but it’s wonderful that you have good memories to cherish. Missing someone shows how much we love them.

      Take good care of yourself…

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  • [...] the third in a series of posts called, “Life Lessons from Our Elders.” We’ve covered “Be Present for Your Life” and “Appreciate What You Have, but Don’t Be Attached to [...]

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