When I was in college I would take whatever I was driving and offer it and $50 to a used car dealer for anything that ran on his lot with a current inspection sticker. Within the first few weeks, something would inevitably fall off. As I age, I feel as if I’ve taken on the personality of  my clunkers. If I’m lucky, nothing of importance will drop off.

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I often hear discussions of aging at both ends of the continuum. At one extreme are those who have successfully aged and have found great comfort in their maturation. They often feel fulfilled in what they have accomplished, who they are living with, and satisfied with amenities they’ve spent their lifetime accumulating.

And at the other end are those who fight aging as if it is the antithesis of living and something that can be avoided by shear will, denial, a nip and tuck, and sometimes a younger partner.

But for the vast majority of those of us who are straddling middle age and what follows, things aren’t quite so black and white, nor tragic or joyful.  We live in that gray zone where things aren’t quite as they should be, nor as bad as they can get. It’s the real world of illness, limited finances, competing priorities, and changing capabilities.

I believe those of us who are struggling to age successfully can get so enmeshed in our losses and unclear future, the strategies we develop become distorted by what we are experiencing and our visions of an impossible future. Sort of like the “Heisenberg Theory” in science that maintains the introduction of an observer changes what you are observing.

So how do we eliminate the contaminating factor? How do we start clearly seeing a way of incorporating aging into living? The answer for me came from the words and actions of the people I’ve served in hospice.

Daily, sometimes hourly, some experienced and accepted changes they knew would continually progress until they died. Those who had problems walking knew that shortly they would be confined to a wheelchair. Patients who occasionally required oxygen quickly realized that the flow settings would need to be increased. People in pain understood that morpheme dosages had to be increased so the pain wouldn’t become intolerable.

But there were other patients who couldn’t adjust to the rapid changes. For them, it was important to hold on to abilities that no longer existed. The emotional upheaval they experienced almost daily, made their journey more difficult. When I play handball and an opponent steps in front of me as I’m going for a shot, he’ll concede a “block,”  which means, that he acknowledges his position prevented me from hitting the ball. When that happens, I often say, “Yes, that was a block 10 years, but not now.” It’s not only the honest thing to do, but more importantly, it’s a recognition that I’ve changed and I’m willing to accept my new limitations.

As we age, it’s almost inevitable that many of the things we were able to do in the past, we can’t do now, or if we can, we do it with less competence or vigor. My patients’ lessons on the importance of “acceptance” has allowed me to look at the gradual deterioration of my physical abilities, not as an affirmation of moving closer to dying, but rather the need to accept moving thresholds of what I’m able to do.  It’s seeing aging without being contaminated by memories of what I was once able to do.

So on those days when your body feels like a 1960 Edsel, remember, its purpose is to get you from one place to another, not to race in the Daytona 500. And if you can remember that, maybe nothing will fall off.

14 Responses

  1. Joey Robertson

    Hi Stan,

    What a wonderful piece you’ve written; acknowledging what is happening to us, as well as what you have learned from Hospice.

    I’m 54 and became disabled with RA, OA and other issues when I was 44. I was no longer able to work or drive. After going through the whirlwind of anger, self-pity and loathing, I’ve found that I have become somewhat of a butterfly these last few years. Each new day is an adventure for me. The small things are so important now.

    I think that being a caregiver for Mimi who had Alzheimers and went to Hospice the last week of her life taught me how beautiful life and dying can be. It was very difficult at the time, but I wrote about the experience as we went through it.

    I met many patients and families there and prayed for them and held them as they cried.

    God bless you, Stan. I’m glad I found you.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks for your kind words Joey. As much as I preferred not to have cancer and other chronic illnesses, I realize that each crisis taught me something about myself. But you know, I could use a bit of calm now. I’ve learned enough!

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  2. Mary Hamilton

    I imagine I have a “little engine that could” in my head with lots of tiny box cars that are full of my life experiences going around a track. I always hold tight to the ones that make me happy; but the ones that bring old painful baggage, I quickly try to find something else to replace them with. When a positive jumps on board a negative is tossed off. It keeps me upbeat and surging forward toward what can be if I let it be and always youthfully anticipating what is just around the bend. It’s a simple concept, but that’s the way I like to live. Simply. The good Lord will never give us more than we can handle. And like you said, ” what we are capable of doing usually far exceeds what we think we can put up with.” I believe this with all my heart.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Mary,

      I think the way you approach life is marvelous. What I’ve witnessed is that often getting rid of terrible memories doesn’t always occur when something more positive is in a position to replace it. I’ve been with highly successful and well-loved people who close to the end of their life resurrected something that was horrible they hadn’t thought about in 40 years. For many people knowing the folly of holding on to terrible memories doesn’t prevent their emergence, often at the worst possible times.

      Take care,
      Stan

      Reply
      • Mary Hamilton

        Thank you, Stan. I’m sure at my youthful age of 65 I’ve much to experience yet. Your work must be so gratifying and enlightening. Thank you for sharing with us!

  3. Alan Gettis

    Hi Stan,

    I’m still middle age (67), but very much identify with this. Noticing changes regularly and trying to do my best. Only a matter of time ’til something falls off. Thanks for the reminder. Hope all is well with you.

    My best,

    Alan

    Reply
  4. Katharine Dupre

    Keep me posted on those novels. They sound very interesting and worthwhile. I looked up the current book and did find it on Amazon.com. It was even available for my Kindle. Hurray!

    Reply
  5. Katharine Dupre

    Enjoyed the article Stan. Love hearing your point of view and am interested in seeing how you’re growing and changing over the years.

    I’m at the point where I’m past 70 and wondering what the next falling off thing will be. I can deal with everything sagging but falling off concerns me. 😉

    I’m just glad that I can still function relatively well and am in good enough health that I can still babysit my youngest child’s children. They’re expecting a new baby, probably their last because of advanced maternal age considerations. Personally, I don’t consider 40 as anything but still young. My son thinks otherwise.

    Wish I could go to your book signing. Is the book on Amazon.com?

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Katharine,

      Always good hearing from you and thanks for the kind words. I only get concerned when something falls off and someone is there to watch. Yes, the book is available from Amazon. As for the future, look for a series of novels that address issues that tend to get ignored in our current “writing mileu.”

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  6. Kalpana Mohan

    Hi Stan-

    Beautiful piece for all of us to read and ponder. I think of my dad who epitomizes the positiveness of aging and enjoys the process with a lot of wit and humor. What bothers me about it, especially in this country, is the loneliness of old age. What I also appreciated is the recognition and acceptance that things are only going to get worse, not better. A few weeks ago, I started having to deal with sciatica and imagining that I’ll have to live with it from here on was the worst. I got better, thank goodness, but I’m also having to realize that there may come a day when I’ll have it day after day. That’s tough to reckon with.

    Thanks for writing this. It must be shared with everyone.

    Reply
    • Stan Goldberg

      Hi Kalpana,

      We should all look on aging as your dad does. I think you are right about the way our culture views aging. I think that will change as more of us enter those “golden years,” and all of a sudden an aging population overwhelms those who are younger.

      Your fears about being able to handle constant pain are well-founded. But I’ve found that what we are capable of doing usually far exceeds what we think we can put up with.

      Take Care,
      Stan

      Reply
  7. Ronee

    Well said, Stan! And I have also learned many valuable lessons from my ‘Patient Friends’, on how to accept the inevitable, and die with dignity.
    Recently one of them told me her “Edsel” story…and smiled.

    Reply

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