Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Learning To Live As We Grow Old

Aging is like a traffic accident. We are walking, whistling probably, and as we cross a street we are blindsided by a truck. The truck is old age; silent, invisible, lurching up at us in the midst of our still youthful stride, amid our sweet thoughts that are a million miles away from anything as banal as reality.

Weren’t we supposed to live forever, to finally learn the secrets of success, to satisfy dreams and resolve the festering wounds of youth, adulthood and middle age? Don’t we get some reward for all the pain, self-pity and passionate denial of a life, which requires the inevitability of sickness, sad endings and death?

Probably not, we realize, as we watch us pick ourselves up in the middle of the speeding days of our metaphorical life. You mean, there is, really, an end to it, an end to us, somewhere out there? Is this all there is?

Yes, life’s blinking traffic light tells us. This is all there is.

So maybe, just maybe, you … we … every one of us who are now older than we once were; should begin to stop, look, and listen, or at least pause a little and think. Let’s consider the consequences of our inability to clearly see, and maybe think about, where we are going, and why? Maybe, we will begin to realize this; by trying to ignore the absolute fact that we are, indeed, going to be dead any day soon, we are also ignoring and certainly not appreciating the precious days we have remaining.

Have we really been living these last many years, and days, and hours? Or have we simply been sleep walking, dreaming instead of doing, eating and drinking but not tasting, listening but not hearing, losing touch by not reaching out?

Make friends by being a friend, even though it’s often difficult finding that special heart connection. Volunteer your time instead of wasting it. Laugh more. Make others laugh. Relish the passing, precious moments. Help others, as well as yourself, to learn to live and love every day. Get on board of that old truck and learn to live like you’ve never lived before.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fading Memories

He: “We met at nine.”

She: “We met at eight.”

He: “I was on time.

She: “No, you were late.”

He: “Ah, yes! I remember it well.”


He: “That dazzling April moon!”

She: “There was none that night.”

“And the month was June.”

He: “That’s right! That’s right!”

She: “It warms my heart to know that

you remember still the way you do.”

He: “Ah yes! I remember it well.”


He: “You wore a gown of gold.”

She: “It was all in blue.”

He: “Am I getting old?”

She: “Oh no! Not you!”

“How strong you were,

how young and gay;

A prince of love in every way.”

He: “Ah yes!” I remember it well.


n I Remember It Well, by Lerner & Loewe

We, who are fortunate enough to have reached “that certain age” – when memories begin to fade, when we finally have to admit that many of those old hopes and dreams are never going to come true; that this, this present moment, is the only life we are ever going to have – then maybe, if we’re lucky, we will decide that what we have accomplished throughout our life; who we really were and have become, is enough.

This, indeed, is the beginning of the final end. This is all there is and ever will be, and there isn’t going to be anything else to make us smarter, happier, luckier. We have finally spun out our life’s personal dream. No god, no special diet, no self-help book, or new love in our life, will rescue us now. This is the beginning of the end, indeed, for us and for all those we hold dear.

But this moment, this final moment, can become a beautiful new awakening in itself. Even as our memories fade, we can continue to hold onto all them – the good and the bad – and truly accept the value of our past life. The essential meaning of our actions in our life will live on in the others whom we have touched.

And if we are lucky, really lucky in this world of chance and chaos, we may still have someone by our side who can help us remember the good times (and the bad!), to help us feel truly alive until that very, very last moment.

Then we can whisper to each other:

“How strong you were,

how young and gay;

a prince (princess) of love in every way!’

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Vitally Important Conversation

Dear Richard,
Earlier this spring, Stephen Wallace of Benton City, Washington received a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer. With an estimated month to live - and having watched his wife suffer in agonizing pain as cancer overtook her body years earlier - Stephen was adamant about his wish to use the state's new Death with Dignity law.

But when he talked to his doctors at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland about accessing the Death with Dignity law, he found none would support his decision.

Even though the hospital board had voted to allow its doctors to participate in the law, none would. Nor would any of the other area doctors that Stephen and his family desperately contacted in subsequent weeks.

Last Tuesday, Stephen did, in fact, die in excruciating pain. His cancer had spread to his kidneys, liver and lungs, making him unable to speak, stand or eat - precisely the fate he wished to avoid.

Stephen's story is far from uncommon.

Countless Americans discover far too late that their doctors will not honor their end-of-life wishes. They're left with the distressing need to find a new doctor to care for them, or subordinate their rights and wishes to the belief system of a doctor they have trusted for years.

Avoiding this hardship is the goal of Compassion & Choices' spring communications campaign. We call it,"Getting Your Health Care House in Order." We urge everyone to simply talk with their doctors aConversationbout personal values, wishes and questions about end-of-life care ... and find out where they stand.

Having that conversation now is the best way to avoid a disturbing surprise or difficult transition later. Unfortunately, your doctor is unlikely to broach this subject with you. It's almost always up to you, the patient.

You might wonder how to begin this conversation without seeming morbid. I humbly offer a few openers for your consideration:
  • "I just read about a study that found all that high technology at the end of life doesn't work and just causes suffering. Do you know I wouldn't want that?"
  • "My relative (or friend or acquaintance) had a terrible death, hooked up to tubes and machines. I think I'd just want to be home with my family. What do you think about a decision like that?"
  • "I love so much about my life - being active, loving my family. If none of that were possible anymore, I'd like to go out peacefully, without a lot of heroics. Does that fit with your medical philosophy?"
A Letter to My DoctorIf the conversation reveals a physician seriously out of sync with your values and beliefs, find another whom you feel you can trust to honor your wishes. As we often say, "When you're dying is no time to find out your core beliefs and your doctor's are incompatible."

If you're uncomfortable having this conversation with your doctor in person, broach the subject with a letter. You can download Compassion & Choices' free "Letter to My Doctor" here and mail it or hand-deliver it to your doctor at your next appointment.

Call us at Compassion & Choices (1-800-247-7421) if you'd like to report on how your conversation went. We'd love to hear from you.


Barbara Coombs Lee
President, Compassion & Choices

P.S. May we suggest forwarding this email to a friend or loved one? Spreading the word about the importance of talking to one's doctor about end-of-life choice is one of the most important steps that anyone can take to protect their rights and secure their peace of mind. You'll be doing someone a favor by sharing this message with them today.
Compassion & Choices is supported by contributions from people like you. Your gift today will help us provide consultation services free of charge to terminally ill clients and their families, educate physicians, lawmakers and the media, and advocate for improved patient care and expanded choice at the end of life.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Stop Thinking of Yourself As "Old".

We often live a self-fulfilling prophesy. As we age, we start unconsciously to begin mimicking the other older people around us. And often, those older people unconsciously begin to mimic their aged or already dead parents or grandparents – they slow down, shuffle when they walk, become bent over and stop doing the activities they used to love. They become “old” before your eyes, and suddenly you find yourself following them, slowing your own rhythm and walking away from a more vigorous life.

Of course, our body does lose its resilience and energy as we age. But scientists are finding that our brain need not grow “old” as fast as our muscles and joints. We can continue to “think young”, try new things, find new experiences; and surprisingly, this helps our body to create a new life of its own as well.

As everyone should know by now, the basis of good health are diet and exercise. Just because we are aging, this does not require us to stop (or even slow down) our everyday need to eat right and exercise as much as we can.

To help us keep up with these two life-giving necessities of our own life, maybe we need to search out younger friends and groups of younger (or younger-thinking) people who will help us keep up a littler faster pace in our daily existence.

And we also need to keep our brain in tip-top shape as well: by reading the books we love, by participating in discussion groups and going to the theater, by finding friends who enjoy discussing the topics of the day, and yes, by discussing how we all can learn, through our body and our mind, to continue to “think young” even as we grow older.

The ancient statement, “You’re only as old as you feel”, is still true. As you look around your world, seek out those older folks who seem to stand out among the crowd because of their positive attitude and bright spirits. Get to know them and follow their example. There’s a good chance that through their own healthy diet and exercise – and healthy outlook on life – they have found what you are looking for.

They have stopped thinking of themselves as “old”. They are now thinking and working on squeezing every bit of joy out of every minute they have left.

What better way is there to pass the time you have left?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

“It’s Only A Few Degrees From Perfect.”

You walk into a room for a meeting or a party. You exclaim, “Oh, my gosh, it’s so cold in here!” Then, you either walk out or you spend the rest of the time feeling miserable, cold, and unhappy.

What if a friend next to you had smiled and replied, “Why, it’s only a few degrees from perfect.” What could you do then? Could you borrow a sweater, ask to have the thermostat turned up, or really listen to what your friend has just said and realize that your momentary discomfort need not spoil the experience you are about to have, destroying the comfort and enjoyment with your friends or colleagues, these precious moments, this never-again-to-experience-day?

Or, how about the rest of your life?

As we grow older, we gradually realize that it’s no fun venturing onto the other side of 50, 60, or 70 years. Our bodies grow more sensitive to changes in temperature, our spirits yearn for comfortable old experiences, old foods, old friends which are already inexorably slipping away. We find ourselves more and more uncomfortable with the vibrancy of youthful people, styles, and activities. We begin to feel cold, pain-ridden, and more and more alone.

Are we being isolated by old age, or are we isolating ourselves? A recent study found that 20 percent of all Americans are, at any given time, unhappy because of social isolation. As we age, this percentage grows, as we physically, emotionally and spiritually allow ourselves to grow more isolated.

Most of those negative feelings of “I’m too cold,” or, “I’m too old” – the feelings of who we are and what we are that diminish ourselves and our lives -- are what some call “habitual consciousness”. These are bad habits that we can change, because we are holding onto learned misunderstandings of our human fragility which have a potential self-defeating futility that can easily plunge us into the sad slide of aging despair.

We are better than that. We know better than that. We are more resilient than that. We can change this habit into something positive, healthier and more constructive. We can listen and learn from the friend who exclaims, “It’s only a few degrees from perfect!” We can realize that it’s up to us, each one of us, who have the power, and the imagination, and the creativity, to turn even the most uncomfortable situations around into a new realities of self-affirmation, self-empowerment.

Whatever situation in which you find yourself, realize that this is you now, this is where you are now, and this is the single most important instant you have in order to make yourself feel better, be a better and stronger person, to celebrate who you are and why you are here.

You are here now, you have come all the way to here after all those years, because you have really been perfect from the very beginning of your arrival on this planet. Whatever the temperature at this moment, however way you and your body feels at this moment, you – your essential and eternal self -- are only just a few degrees from that stage of perfection which has always been the fundamental “you” all of your long life.

Listen to your friend. It isn’t so cold. It isn’t so bad. It doesn’t hurt that much. You aren’t really alone. Everything is actually so close to perfect – because you are!

Now, go tell a friend.

Find a friend.

Be a friend.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ready For The Genung Syndrome?

     Many thanks to Dr. Jennifer Soyke of Eugene, OR for finally putting a catchy name on that process which nobody wants to think about, much less talk about – death and dying. In her recent essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association, she recalls a visit with  an elderly patient who was dying at home, surrounded by her friends and family.

         “She looked patrician, elevated and transported, and then was gone. When the family discussed what she had actually died of, they decided her end of life couldn’t be summed up in a medical diagnosis, which seemed incongruent with her whole long life and spirit. They finally decided that she had died of “Genug Syndrome”, a word in Yiddish meaning ‘Enough!’, or usually, ‘Enough, already!’”

         When you look up the phrase on your computer you will find dozens of references to Dr. Soyke’s new quasi-medical phrase. Even the august Chicago Tribune’s blog has written about it and published readers’ responses to it.

         One response especially struck me: “Can we start to educate ourselves and others to say ‘Genug’ when life becomes too difficult to sustain? Can we help each other grow up and accept the reality of death? We need to talk about these issues while we are still active and well.”

The Denial of Death

         Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, “The Denial of Death” was Dr. Ernest Becker’s brilliant and impassioned book, the culmination of his life’s work and philosophy. In it he calls for humankind to celebrate everyone’s impending death by enriching every moment throughout each person’s life.

         Dr. Becker confronts the universal aversion of thinking or talking about the absolute inevitability of death, of ceasing to exist, of the end of our consciousness, our being, our ego. This denial of our ultimate demise takes an enormous toll on every day of our lives. The denial of this ultimate reality can effectively kill an essential part of what makes us human. As a result, we lose our ability to fully accept our gift of life; this reduces the courage required to do the work and take the risks of a fully-lived life.


         A Fully-Lived Life

         What does it require? Shall we allow our denial of our eventual death to mar our rich and deep complexity, our unlimited potential for living life? This denial reduces who we are and relegates us to a mere medical diagnosis at the end. Even as we take our last breath, we are indeed more than just the breakdown of multiple organ systems.

         We can be the satisfying culmination of a rich life and a proud legacy. We can be, even at the very last moment, elevated and transported, and then be gone like a whisper… leaving the sweet music of a fully lived life, eternally reverberating in the minds and hearts of all those that knew us and loved us.

         When we are finished, may we, each of us,, and all our dear friends and loving family, say “Enough, already!”

May we all die of ‘The Genug Syndrome’.