Who’s getting old? We all are. From the moment we’re born.
If you’re looking for a new-agey sort of everything’s-a-blessing attitude, you can stop reading right now because aging isn’t a walk in the park. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic things about getting older and even getting downright old. But let’s keep the honesty level at painfully brutal. We’re all getting older; we’re all getting old; we’re all going to die, and the process can be downright horrible.
Buddhism tells us those are facts we need to be mindful of. Expect the sufferings of life; understand life’s impermanency. Even meditate in a charnel ground to bring the point home.
But, as you already know, our Western culture fights every step of that path. The aging and the sick find care away from families that are not trained, or able, to deal with them, by going away to assisted living or nursing home facilities. The critically ill go to sterile hospitals and the terminally ill welcome hospice care. (Yes, those places are necessary, most of the time, and even welcomed by the aging. I understand that part.)
Then there’s death itself. Death used to be—still is in some places—a friend. Death got us out of suffering from nasty illnesses and traumatic injuries. Death came to the bedroom upstairs, stayed while the body was in the parlor and didn’t leave until the burial. Death needs to have its voice back because it visits every single one of us. Yet, the average Westerner knows almost nothing about death and dying.
Once people of any age become aware of their own mortality chasing them down the road, they think about it. They want to talk about it and explore what it means.
So why can’t we? Because, ironically, we are surrounded by non-Buddhists, living H.H. The Dalai Lama’s advice: “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others, and if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” When Granny struggles to her feet and says, “I’m getting old; my time is getting shorter,” the well-meaning and “kind” response is “Oh Granny, you’re not old…you’re not going to die for a long time…” If Granny didn’t want to talk about it, she wouldn’t have brought it up. Granny probably doesn’t want to be shut up.
“Oh, Pops, you’re memory’s just fine!” Right. If Pops knows his memory is going, it’s going. Non-Buddhists, and some Buddhists too, trying to be helpful and supportive, will try to minimize the problem. And, in the process, leave Granny and Pops out there hanging all alone.
All that this misdirected “encouragement” tells us is that some people don’t want us to face aging. And facing aging, suffering, and eventual death is the first requirement for dealing with it, for adapting, for enriching our new states of life. We need to find equally kind ways to tell them to stop it.
Even long before before the obvious death process, there can be a lot of loss and grieving we are not encouraged to face honestly either. We might grieve for our lost looks, lost physical abilities, lost friends and family, all irretrievably gone.
There’s also the grief of “losing” people that are still very much alive. That is also a taboo feeling to have, never mind talk about. You no longer have the babies that were yours 40 or 50 years ago. Those babies and the sweet times with them are things of the past. You no longer have the children they grew to be. And the young adults they became are gone too.
You’re suppose to love and enjoy the wonderful (or strange) people they’ve grown up to be. So does that mean you aren’t supposed to miss those babies and toddlers and children they used to be when you were the center of their world? Apparently so. “But I’m (they’re) here with you right now!” Yeah, well, so is the beautiful winter snowfall but it doesn’t mean I don’t miss summer.
Then, like any grieving process, with age we can go through all those stages. Especially with our bodies that have turned against us.
Denial: I’m not old–I can still still run a mile or two.
Anger: Damn! Why did I do that?! My legs are in gridlock and I can’t walk! How stupid of me!
Bargaining: If I just start slowly, I’ll be back in shape in no time.
Depression: Dang. That didn’t work.
Acceptance: The body is going to hell. So what can I do with my mind?
Instead of requests for denial, it would be nice to hear, “Oh wise and ancient sage, what pearls of wisdom do you have to offer me?” Nice, but not realistic. Not in this culture anyway. So what about letting those around us know we would like a simple acknowledgement of the truth? Model some better responses.
Pops says his memory is going? How about a simple and caring, “Well, let’s figure out how bad it’s gotten and then figure out what we can do to help out. Maybe lists, phone calls, reminders, sticky notes? When did you notice it was problem for you?” And, “Let’s see if your doctor can figure out what’s causing it and offer some suggestions.”
Mom says her body has turned traitor? “Is there anything that would make it easier for you?” And, “So have you discovered any pleasant surprises about aging?” I’ve noticed folks trained in hospice care are already good at this sort of caring honesty.
Personally, it’s been an interesting transition. I’ve often thought about a time when I will no longer have a “good quality” of life. But, by trying to stay more aware, I’m redefining what it means to have quality in my life. It isn’t just being able to be a yoga freak or jog.
For one thing, I’ve turned to writing. It takes little physical dexterity and I can do it in my pajamas while sipping my favorite forms of caffeine. Not just articles and essays like this, but whole novels! I sort of channel them. Who knew?! Now, at this time of aging, writing is a strange multi dimensional place. I can choose people to be and places to go, all in my head, limited only by my own imagination. And I never had to lift a suitcase or wear uncomfortable shoes.
So spread the word to those kind and caring non-Buddhists. It’s okay to get old, and even decrepit. So let us talk about it. It might help both of us.