“Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
This advent season I’m thinking about aging. It’s not just because my middle-aged body and mind are both tired these days (I find myself getting really excited about sleep, in ways I never used to!) but because we recently visited our parents.
My husband’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this year, a diagnosis we’re still not entirely sure about, though one thing is clear: her memory and physical strength have both plummeted alarmingly in the past year and a half. Although she is a little stronger now than she was in late summer, before the family had her current care situation in place, it is still very difficult to see her so frail and easily confused.
My own mother, five years older than my mother-in-law but always constitutionally more vigorous, fell two days before Thanksgiving and broke her hip. We spent our time there mostly in hospital, as she was recovering from surgery. She’s spent the weeks since in a rehab facility, learning to walk and carefully handle stairs with her new hip, and Lord willing, she’ll be home in just a couple more days. She’s worked hard, determined to get back on her feet, but she’s battled anxiety, depression, and loneliness too. This has been the longest time my folks, married for 60 years, have been separated from each other for many years. Probably the last time they spent this much time apart was over 50 years ago, when they made a move from Tennessee to Virginia with two little ones in tow, and my father had to move ahead of the rest of the family to find a place for them to live and to start his job. He’s visiting her every day, of course, but they still miss each other a lot.
Observing all three of these people (so dear to me) handle huge challenges has been encouraging, worrying, thought-provoking – and more besides. I am amazed by their courage. I don’t use that word lightly. Just getting into your 70s and 80s with the will to get up each morning, to keep moving in spite of pain and discomfort, to keep a sense of humor in the midst of growing daily frustrations, takes a tremendous amount of courage.
I love these people. They have so much wisdom and experience, and they’ve poured so much of their lives into ours. And right now, they all face so many daily challenges. Physical faculties have begun to fail them. Mom doesn’t hear as well as she used to, Dad’s eyesight is challenging him (night driving has become a real anxiety, reading more of a chore) and my mother-in-law’s vocal strength is failing her, so it’s almost impossible for her to be heard. Both moms struggle with balance issues. My dad has to monitor his pace or his blood-pressure drops significantly (he has congestive heart failure, from which he has recovered wonderfully, but still). They have more aches and pains and their bodies need more rest.
The friends and loved ones of their youth have begun to die, and there are fewer people left who share their memories and can connect with them on deep levels of heart and soul. I’m not sure I’ll ever forget my mom flourishing a newspaper open to the obituary section (while she lay in her hospital bed) and saying with total snark: “Every once in a while we like to check in to make sure we haven’t died yet.” Then my dad, a few minutes later, in a much more sober frame of mind, telling me that “some days when I read the obituaries, everyone listed there is younger than I am.”
I’m sure there are times when they feel overlooked or dismissed because they can’t “keep up the pace.” They’re slower on their feet. New technology passes them by. Popular cultural trends seem more inane and faddish and lightweight to them (I already get that, and I’m only 46). Yet they’re still susceptible to the fear and anxiety pumped regularly through the media, just like everyone else.
I appreciate seeing the ways they handle their growing infirmities and frustrations: sometimes with panache, sometimes with humor, sometimes with anger and defiance. I’ve begun to realize that no two people handle the arduous hills of aging quite the same way. And I’ve begun to see that there are certain things I not only hope and pray I have in place if I ever attain to eight or nine decades of living, but certain things I want to actively work to have in place if and when I get there. Not that I’m banking on these attitudes or attributes necessarily and always making things easier – unexpected challenges will arise, and the likelihood of D & I ever having the level of care our parents are experiencing is slim.
Still, here are a few things I want to begin to put into place for myself now as I think about those years to come. They are good life skills and attitudes to have in the here and now, not just investments for old age.
· I want to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, the kind of gratitude I see in my dad when he tells me that every day he still enjoys is a gift.
· I want to keep my mind as active as possible for as long as possible: with reading (including slow, thoughtful reading of material that challenges me), with prayer, music, creativity, and even occasionally tackling new skills. I want to try to be open to the new as well as the old for as long as I can.
· I want to remember that “activity” does not equal value. A ministry of presence – even if it means, in the end, simply being kind and loving to caregivers (who may or may not always be kind themselves) is still of value. A ministry of prayer matters. There may even be times when I feel I have nothing left to give at all, but I pray that I will still somehow know, deep down inside, that I am always a beloved daughter of God. That starts with me remembering it now, and treating others with the respect and dignity and care with which I hope to be treated one day.
· I don’t want to be afraid to ask for help or to show I don’t have it all together. I want to stay open to receive. To me, this is huge. My parents have been givers, do-ers, caregivers, their whole lives. It has sometimes been very hard for them to be on the receiving end of care. I think this is a tough one for all of us actually. We all like to be the strong ones who give. But it’s been dawning on me lately that as Christians, our whole (healed, whole, saved!) lives are due to having received grace upon grace we couldn’t have ever earned or scraped up or managed on our own, and that needs to mark our inner disposition in other ways. We need to be open to receive what we can’t possibly do for ourselves, and to see it not as a sign of weakness, but a blessed part of God’s economy and the communion of the saints.
· I want to view even the really, really hard stuff in life as part of the adventure God has me on, remembering that I am in his hands and in his care.
· I want to savor simple gifts. And laugh more.
· I want to get to and maintain a healthy weight, as well as maintain better exercise routines and healthier eating habits. I’d like to stay as flexible and limber as possible for as long I can!
“Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” Isaiah 46:4