Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Grasshoppers Took the Sunshine Away

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While visiting my 87-year old Uncle and going through boxes of old pictures, we came across a letter that my Great Uncle Adolph dictated to his daughter, my mother’s niece. The letter spoke of their trials and tribulations and the hope and promise of migrating from Germany to Nebraska.

He spoke of trading one set of hardships for another. In Germany they were poor and had little hope of improving. In Nebraska, they had more opportunity to improve their lives but times in the 1930’s were tough. There was famine, poverty and for a while, the grasshoppers ruined the small crops that had survived.  He told his niece, “The grasshoppers took the sunshine away”—a poignant comment that stuck with me because it says much about the overall state of the struggles we all face in this life.  There are desperate, dark days when we think we will never see the sun again.

I think that aging for many is one of the toughest trials we face. The good news is that nearly all of us have survived and learned from a lifetime of difficult and sometimes devastating times. These challenges may be painful but they do leave us with tremendous coping skills that will serve us well when the going gets tough as we lose some of our independence through cognitive or physical loss.

Last week I met a woman in an assisted living facility who was confined to a wheel chair and her sight was nearly gone. Her hearing was marginal.  Yet she was a joyful, lovely person. I asked her what brought meaning and purpose to her at different times during her life and she said, “Oh it doesn’t change. I may not be able to dance a jig but my purpose was never about how I looked or what I did. It’s about enjoying every day the Lord gives me and realizing the beauty of this world.”

I pray that I that I use all my gifts and skills to help me age as gracefully as she is aging.  I doubt if the grasshoppers blocked her sunshine for any length of time!

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Ten Minutes

Tired from a turn-around trip that began with a 6:15 am flight out of Portland, I waited at San Jose Terminal B, gate 23 for my return flight on Southwest. I had spend much of the past week preparing for the new business meeting that took me to San Jose. As I sat in the terminal following the meeting, I contemplated business, the slow economic recovery, money and retirement. Looking up from deep thoughts, I noted an older man, somewhat disheveled walking unevenly and tentatively toward the gate counter. With shaky hands he withdrew his ticket from his shirt pocket handing it to the gate agent, “Am I in the right place?” She responded automatically, “Yes” and offered nothing else. He looked around and walked towards the empty chair next to me. Knowing he was uncomfortable, I wanted to make up for the insensitivity of the gate agent.

I began, “Hi, are you flying home to Portland or visiting someone?”

“I’m going to visit my son. I haven’t flown in a very long time and I feel so unsure of myself.”

“It’s fine. Together we can listen for the boarding call and then I can show you where to line up. Has it been a long time since you’ve seen your son?”

Tears filled his eyes as he replied, “No, he and his brothers and sisters have visited me often recently. Their mom died three months ago after being on life support for too long.  It’s an awfully hard decision to know when to say “it’s time’ after more than 60 years of a life together. I just couldn’t let go and I think I made her suffer too long.”

 

Filled with his pain, I offered what seemed like empty platitudes, “There’s no way to know when the time is right and no one can guide that decision. It’s something you worked though, and when you were ready and you felt she was ready, you let her go.  There’s no timeline for letting go of the person you’ve loved so dearly.”

His smile of appreciation felt undeserved.

“I’m John.”

“Hi John. I’m Susan. It’s so nice to meet such a brave man.”

With a weak chuckle he said, “I’m not brave. In fact, I know this will sound bad but I’m not sure I will choose to stay around much longer. That must sound awful to you, but each day when I begin to wake and reach over to the empty place on the bed, I can barely breathe. I lay in bed sometimes till afternoon. Just waiting for the pain to leave, for her to talk to me, for something…I don’t even know what. I’m so empty inside.”

Frozen in grief I couldn’t find words, and I knew that nothing I said could answer his need.  Still the energy connection gripped me. His heaviness was now mine as well.

Slowly and painfully I offered, “I don’t judge you. I have told my children that I when I’m done, I’m done. My father died recently—he was 95 and he very much wanted to die for the last two years of his life. It hurt me terribly to watch him. He even asked me to help him die and I could do nothing.  He thought he wanted to die when he was about 85 and my mother died. The first year was the worst.  After that he began going back to church, getting out a little more, and he found he had more life to live. Meaning and purpose may shift for you too.”

“I don’t know. I can’t see beyond today. I don’t really want to visit my son although I love him. It takes so much energy and I’m exhausted. I’m hoping that if I force myself, I might find some relief.  Traveling is hard on me. I’m uncomfortable asking for help or directions. I feel like people look at me like I’m just a helpless old man. I’m getting forgetful—happens when you are old.”

“John, I’m forgetful and I’m 63. I don’t know when this “forgetfulness” started for you but it started for me in my 20’s when I had four children!  It’s not exclusive to being older. It comes about because we accumulate years and years of to do lists, of birthdays, of 85 years worth of schedules and memories we want to hold onto.  People think so many things are old age related when in fact aging begins the day we’re born.”

He laughed and his hand grabbed my hand and he simply said “Thank you.”

The gate agent called for A boarding—my group. I asked John to move closer to the lines and told him that when they called for B boarding he would line up in the first column pointing to where he should stand. Noticing a seat near the line I suggested he sit until it was time to line up. As we walked together, I noticed a young woman making her way toward the seat. Touching her arm I asked if she’d mind if John sat. She nodded to him and said, “Of course not.”

John looked at her slyly and said, “Or I could sit and you could sit on my lap.”  Pleased with himself he lit up and we all laughed.

I was hopeful as I boarded the plane that his momentary joy might be a brief peek into a life of renewed purpose. He is such a beautiful soul and to have him leave this world early would be a loss for all those whose life he touched, including me. Ten minutes with John and my life is forever changed.

Susan Cain, Sometimes weary but recently enlightened life course traveler

Enjoying the Gifts of Aging

 

In our last blog, we wrote about the challenges of aging that can include significant loss but also comes with important gifts. In this blog, we explore how to find those gifts through reflection.

Reflection in older years, for most, is more than reviewing an event or a lifetime of events—it is an integration of all that one has experienced, of moving beyond the labels of “good” or “bad” and into a sense of comfort that, overall, we are complete.  In Aged by Culture, Margaret Morganroth Guelette’s beautifully speaks to the process of integration and the gift that comes:

If, in telling our state-of-being, we find some co-identities disliked but admitted; some discarded or defunct;    some unchanged; some improving; some in flux of new importance; some about loss and some about gain—all in all, the storied identities feel like possessions. Mine. Achievements of my telling and of my aging. Such achievements deeply and rightly matter to people.

English: Portrait of old woman sitting by a wi...

So if this “gift” is so available to all, why might older adults miss this opportunity? It’s not an issue of training or education—researchers have found that the desire to spend solitary time in reflection happens naturally for most. Yet, the compression of losses that often accompany oldest-old years can create a barrier to thoughts of anything beyond the very present pain and sadness that can accompany physical, emotional and cognitive decline.

As a loved one, friend or care provider, you can’t force anyone into seeking or walking the path toward integration. However, you can help create opportunities to connect with the deeper more soulful self that can lead to renewed spirituality and purpose.

It’s important that quiet time older adults spend reading, reflecting, and praying is respected as growth and not disparaged or seen and referenced as “living in the past” or labeling the older adult as depressed and withdrawn. Allow as much time as desired for the older adult to review, reflect, and rest in the quiet of contemplative thought.  If the older adult is open to talking about their past, ask questions and listen, listen, listen. If you are close to this older adult, your memory of an event may be different—avoid telling your version or offering any contradiction or correction, and instead embrace the process and the potential.

Some older adults connect to their integrated self through a more active participation with friends, relatives or others exploring and recording their autobiography. This can be approached informally by taping or writing either by the older adult or the stories can be told to someone who can transcribe the interview. Additionally, there are experts who can help create this opportunity including personal historians: http://www.personalhistorians.org/tell/find.php and Guided Autobiography (http://www.guidedautobiography.com/ ), also known as GAB. Some senior centers offer “narrative aging” groups. The Q Center in Portland offers such meetings led by fellow gerontologist, Susan Kocen.

elder kondeli yogi

Whether quietly reflecting over ones life or writing or telling one’s life story, the end result is often the awareness of one’s wisdom that comes from an accepted, honored, and integrated life. Recognizing wisdom that comes from a long lived life is not only a healing process leading to renewed purpose, but sharing that wisdom creates good will and connects generations that are often separated.

~ Susan

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