Archive for the tag “spirituality”

At Disneyland with Tonsillitis

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Unable to sleep at night, anxious with anticipation, I was days away from my first trip to Disneyland at age 8. Then, a day prior, I woke up with tonsillitis. I didn’t tell my parents because I wasn’t about to miss out on the Magical Kingdom. Although my throat was on fire, the pain was more tolerable when I walked through the gates and into the make believe world full of characters I had only seen on TV on Saturday morning.

Pain—whether emotional or physical—is often with us throughout our lives and we often tolerate discomfort by focusing on something external similar to my childhood trip to Disneyland. As adults, this is often a materialistic reward—a new dress, piece of furniture, a vacation or a new car.

As we age into oldest years, both emotional and physical pain from illness, loss of independence and death of loved ones surrounds us each day. Tolerating these injustices by looking forward to diversions is more difficult as we are limited in what we can do or experience.  We can’t plan a day at the park or a visit to a friend if we don’t have transportation. We can’t “buy” our way out of pain if we are on a fixed income.

Yet, according to research, while most older adults will admit to multiple illnesses or physical limitations, they also claim to be happy and in good health. Why is that? Fortunately, for most, they have given up the false comforts of materialism and instead, they enjoy reflecting upon an inner strength that allows them to live in a state of hope and purpose that helps them tolerate pain. Many older adults and researchers refer to this inner strength as spirituality.

Spirituality for some is about a structured religious experience; others reflect on their inner strength that comes from a God that they have defined; others look to nature to provide meaning; and for others, their inner joy and healing may come from the experience of their creative selves.

In working with the oldest old and I am touched by the heroic efforts to mitigate the pain and loss that is present for most. Their simple, pure expression of spirituality gives joy, hope and purpose. We all have the opportunity to call upon this strength but it requires a conscious exploration of what spirituality means to each of us individually.

Often, we find the time to explore our inner strength only when the artificial diversions that come from a materialistic life are removed. No Disneyland, no trip to the mall, no trip to the Caribbean; just the quiet to explore the strength within.

~ Susan

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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!

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.

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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.

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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

Changing The Discussion From “Age As Loss” to “Aging With Gifts”

Aging into “older” years is often feared and imagined as a sad time primarily marked by losses. The losses begin slowly—for most in their late 40’s: The graying and loss of hair and development of hearing and vision issues; loss of our ideal body image as we lose muscle mass and gain unwanted fat; loss of roles in leadership and power positions within the community and workforce. These may seem significant yet they pale in comparison to the losses yet to come: Of loved ones who precede us in death; of independence as we give up our driver’s license; of dignity as we find ourselves relying on others to help us overcome limitations caused by physical and/or cognitive losses; of our image of “home” as people move into our home to care for us or we move to assisted living facilities. The Government and science dwell on these losses. The Government worries about how to address the wave of Boomers that will all too soon become “needy” for financial support. Science sees dollars and interesting challenges in improving and prolonging life.

Interestingly, at any age or developmental stage, we can measure life by losses rather than gains. Our 30’s—a time of infinite possibilities for many—often includes tremendous loss as we begin our families: Decreased expendable income resulting from the medical bills, day care and education; the concern of childhood illnesses; increased expenses, demanding careers can leave us worried and sleepless. In our late 40’s we are often “empty nested” and find ourselves financially struggling in order to pay for college; perhaps we must downsize our home. Nevertheless, most see this time not in loss but rather as new opportunities to travel, to re-engage with our spouse, to identify a new lifestyle, to get back to a healthy body.

Why is it we aren’t as willing to embrace the opportunities of late life as we are in our younger years? Perhaps because in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s we have so much life ahead to change our direction, to make new decisions, to experience “more”. Life abounds with external opportunities to prove our limitless selves. In our 70’s and 80’s and beyond, the runway is getting shorter and we become a science and we re bombarded with messages of “age as loss”. Nevertheless research has shown that there are tremendous gifts available to us in our older years that are unavailable to younger adults.

These gifts include the beauty of solitude: of a time when we can spend long hours reflecting on the meaning and purpose of our lives, explore our creative selves, participate in the joy and promise of spirituality. Older adults tend not to dwell on “what if” or “if only”, nor do they become stuck on the “not so good decisions” they made in younger years. Instead life shows itself as a rich integration of each and every experience—the good and not so good decisions. They come together to make us who we have become. This quiet time of reflection, of letting go of the materialistic and even power over our own bodies is a gift that can bring comfort and peace to guide us through the challenging terrain of aging into our final years.

As with any developmental stage of life, this path to an enlightened older self isn’t a direct path and it isn’t automatic or even easy. There is no denying that those experiencing older years will suffer physically and emotionally. However, as we give up control and power, we attain the ultimate gift: the wise spiritual self who is now freed to imagine and embrace that which is yet to come.

The older adult may need support in finding this time as “gift” rather than loss. But that is another blog. If you want ideas about how to support the enjoyment of being an older adult or how to support your parents’ opportunity in older years, watch for my next blog: “Enjoying the Gifts of Aging”.

~ Susan

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