I 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.