During the past twelve years I have had the opportunity to view what life can be like for those over 80 years of age. I do not speak from the experience of growing old itself — I have yet to be 80 years old. I have yet to experience a serious health problem. I have yet to experience what it is like to be at the end of one’s lifetime. Rather, I speak from my experience in working with the elderly. They have been my teachers. And from them I have learned a great deal. I have had the privilege of hearing about good times and the not-so-good times. I have also learned that life is not always fair. I have been wisely advised that ‘the first 100 years are the hardest — after that life gets easier.’
During the past twelve years I have come to know many people and become familiar with some of the issues which confront older people today. Now I’d like to share some of my learning with you.
- I know an 85-year-old gentleman who strongly believes that God saves the hardest part until last. He views his life as a journey. The hardest part of his journey is right now — coping with his limited vision and his arthritis. Hanging on the wall in his room is a sign which reads “Old Age Is Not for Sissies.”
- I know a 92-year-old woman who continues to purchase Estee Lauder’s Age-Controlling Creme at $40.00 a half-ounce. She continues to purchase dresses which she describes as ‘stylish’ and cost an average of $100 apiece. She also prefers the company of men as she finds it easier to trust them.
- I know a 93-year-old woman who likes to recall her active social life of years ago. Going out to dinner or entertaining at home was always special for her. Even though entertaining no longer plays an important part in her life, those good memories are still with her. And whenever she talks of the past there is a noticeable sparkle in her eye.
- I know a 95-year-old woman who experienced the death of her only daughter this year. The grief is still felt — she hasn’t figured out why God did not take her instead. This has become a real struggle for her.
A little over a year ago I delivered a birthday card to a nursing home resident who was turning 96 years old. It was right before Christmas. I told her it was hard to believe her age. During our visit she began to tell of family holiday gatherings. She spoke warmly of the people in her past — her mother, her father and her sister. This particular Christmas she would be alone. And then, acknowledging the beginning of her 96th year, she remarked “…nothing ever stays the same.”
Nothing ever stays the same. How true that is for all of us. Just think of how many changes we make in our lifetime. Think of the many hellos and goodbyes we say. As a young child we say goodbye to mom and say hello to the kindergarten teacher and fellow classmates. As a family we may leave one neighborhood, saying goodbye to friends we have made there, and move to a new neighborhood or city where we say hello to new ones. As a young adult we say goodbye to mom and dad to live away from home for the first time.
When you think about it, so much of life involves changing, letting go, moving on. Making changes often involves at least some sense of loss. Loss is part of life, part of being alive. Loss plays a far more encompassing theme in our lives than we realize.
When we think of loss we usually think of obvious instances, such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, a separation or breakup of a romance. Other not so obvious losses may include the loss of youth, health, money, job, childhood dreams, hair, even our teeth. Then there are the innumerable ‘mini-losses’ that add up during the course of a day, a week or a lifetime: an unexpected dent in the car, an argument with a friend, losing the car keys.
Knowing we all experience loss, beginning at birth, it becomes a fact of life itself that the longer we live, the more loss we will experience. Age will burden us profoundly before we are done.
Thus, learning to live with loss becomes a predominant theme of old age. Society in general does not value its old people, and as a result older people too often do not value themselves. A low self-esteem, combined with recurring losses, will leave anyone vulnerable to depression and grief.
The purpose of grief is to let go of what has been and is no more. Grief is hard work. It is important to the healing process that we be with the pain and feel the hurt. Feelings need to be expressed. The sooner we allow ourselves to be with the pain, the sooner it will pass. Still, the process of healing is neither orderly, predictable, nor smooth.
But given time, healing does occur — the pain does lessen. One does survive. When the pain decreases, the understanding grows. The higher understanding that tells us change and separation are a natural, inevitable and necessary part of life.
Because indeed nothing ever stays the same.