When some temporary glitch in the body snatches us from the active duty roster to the bench, we’re given a preview of life as it will be someday if we keep breathing in and out.
We live in a culture where denial is rampant, and for some, thoughts of becoming a frail elder are quickly smothered under the activities of the day, civic duties or sports. Others seek oblivion in high risk behaviors and booze while some simply zone out in front of a TV. Nobody wants to admit it, but the mortality rate is the same here as everywhere else — 100 percent.
Since there are fewer deaths from work-related accidents and more from the inevitable ills of a sedentary lifestyle, many of us will spend some time as frail elders. Unless we want to spend that time simply waiting to die, we’d better develop a passion we can pursue when our minds work and our bodies don’t.
I thought about this a lot after turning 50. Since no other family member had done so, I never considered getting old an option. But there I was, toppling off the scary side of middle age. It seemed important to make choices while I still had the power to do so, but I had no idea how to start.
So I quit working in the woods and became a caregiver for frail, elderly women. I confessed up front that I was taking “old lady lessons,” learning what challenges might loom and ways to face them as gracefully as possible under what might be trying circumstances. I don’t do powerless well. I loved my work and quit only when I could no longer lift people.
I learned a lot, and a few broken bones are providing what amounts to a preview so I can tweak my preparations. I’ve spent a few years making life physically easier. In the yard I’ve replaced labor-intensive crops with native plants that take care of themselves. In the house I’ve replaced heavy old recliners with sleek, lightweight lounges meant for outdoors.
Humans need creative expression, like art or music that we can do actively now and study, if only on CD, all our lives. As I cast around for some artistic discipline, a piano fell on me. Thanks to Barbara, I started piano lessons at 58 and began studying music theory and history a couple years later. Between playing and studying, I should be able to enjoy music all my life. Currently I’m having a very good time learning how expressive one can be at the piano with only a left hand. And it’s great physical therapy!
We need a reason to get up or life won’t be fun and we’ll become a pain to those who take care of us. The time to choose our roles and develop passions to study, whether birding or bingo, painting or physics, is now, while we have the power to make our own choices.