Monday, November 15, 2010

The Darker Side of Aging

"You really need a sense of humor to deal with the so-called Golden Years!"

Aunt Molly's words ring true for me on a daily basis these days.

I dreamed of dancing into retirement and taking up where I left off years ago with ballet and tap. Dream on.  I have severe arthritis in my knees and feet and struggle through a gentle Zumba class every week. Who knew that one would tire so easily but that sleep would be so difficult? And that it would be so hard to lose weight at this stage of life --even with daily exercise and a variety of healthy foods? And that  friends you thought would be there forever are starting to die?

Today Bob and I took a class taught by a physician and nurse practitioner on end-of-life decisions and documents. All but one of the class participants had lost both parents and so the planning was for us, for our own last days. Bob squeezed my hand under the desk. This is the dark underside of our new life here: everyone is close to our age and we're facing the prospect of reaching that final life transition sooner than we ever imagined.  So far, it is something we're discussing but not yet experiencing.  All of the people on our street are intact couples. In rare moments between the parties, the laughter and the playful kidding, there are moments of painful truth -- one neighbor tells me she nags her husband to eat a healthier diet and lose weight "because I don't know what I would do without him." and another, battling cancer, gives me a watch "you can remember me by." Death is a presence in the midst of our active adult community life.

And yet there are so many moments to enjoy and to celebrate, perhaps because we know life isn't forever. It puts a certain perspective on the complaints on aging: so I'll never dance on pointe again. Oh, well. I'm here and alive and laughing as I stumble through Zumba.  And even though serious illness and disability has already hit some neighbors, I'm inspired by the courage and joy in living that I see all around. Yvette, for example, has a life-threatening pulmonary condition, but she's everywhere: working out at the gym, swimming, line dancing and heading the theatrical society--  all of this with her oxygen tank in tow. She radiates humor, joy and total engagement with life.  Phyllis hasn't let cancer slow down her travels and her party spirit: she's hosting the neighborhood for Thanksgiving dinner and delighting in the coming of another  holiday season.

To varying degrees, we're making peace with the inevitable. So we'll never be young and lithe again, but we can enjoy being active nonetheless.  So we're not up to hiking 10 miles, but maybe we can enjoy hiking two miles.  Maybe we won't have our beloved spouses -- or they won't have us -- for many more years, but we can certainly savor each day, each moment, we have together.

As Aunt Molly used to say, a sense of humor sure helps. Randi Gunther, a psychotherapist I interviewed years ago for an article on grief, told me that overcoming depression or grief was like giving birth, that the pain could be intense, but most of the time, it wasn't constant. She said she tried to help her patients learn to laugh between the pain and that learning to enjoy life in between life's painful challenges would make one stronger when the pain returned.  I think of the concept of laughing between the pain quite a lot these days -- whether it's while navigating on knees that creak or watching a friend deal with serious illness or another contemplate the losses that are down the road for her -- for all of us -- and I'm in awe once again of its simple wisdom.  Our laughter doesn't preclude the pain we may feel physically or emotionally as we face and anticipate a myriad of losses.  But laughter and finding joy in each day helps us to celebrate and live fully for the rest of our lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment