Category Archives: Aging

We’re All Mortal Here

Being Mortal, Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

is what I’m reading right now. It’s a fabulous, humane book that looks at what the medical field is missing when all it focuses on is extending our lives. I highly recommend it if you happen to be mortal. Hmm. Any takers?

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you’ll no doubt have already figured out that I have a fairly intense interest in the subject of death. Usually this shows up in the grief arena, but it’s not just the “after-effects” of death that I’m concerned with. I’m sure my nearest and dearest have wondered often enough why I seem to be wired this way. But really, why is it that something that every single human being has in common with each other is so taboo? Nothing comes close to the level of shunning that death gets as a cocktail party conversation. Like most of my colleagues in hospice, bereavement, and other death-focused professions, I’ve often received comments like, “wow, you must be really wonderful to do that kind of work, bless you!”  It’s as if dealing with death and grief is somehow reserved for saints and the exceptional, rather than being as common and un-exceptional as – well, dust – to which we all return. This comment often comes right before the person’s eyes slide off of mine and start to look for the wine table. For some reason it’s not a very lively conversation opener.

Despite the fact that we’re ALL going to die, very few of us live as though that is true, and very few of us spend much time at all talking about it. Yet I don’t believe for a minute that no one is interested. Given a quiet room, some privacy, and a listening ear, I find that most people will engage in the conversation, and even eagerly, when they realize that I’m not going to turn the other way.

Let’s talk about being mortal for a minute

You’d think that the awareness of our inevitable death would create some kind of urgency in us to do something meaningful with our lives. And on an individual basis, sometimes it does. You probably know people in your own life, or not very far outside your circle of family and friends, who don’t need the added incentive of a terminal diagnosis or a serious accident to get them to focus on what’s important. But on a day-to-day basis, really, we let an awful lot get in the way of living our lives fully. It takes letters like the one Holly Butcher wrote  before she died at 27, to give most of us a kick in the motivational muscles to think about or talk about how we want to live our mortal lives, or how we want to approach our deaths.

As I age, stepping ever closer to my own death, and watching friends and colleagues care for their aging relatives, I find that I’m less frightened of having these conversations. Or maybe I’m just less patient with the fear that I do have! In what turned out to be one of the sweeter moments in my relationship with my parents, I invited them a few weeks ago to talk with me about what they thought would be important to them at the time of their death. We talked about what did and didn’t frighten them, and what kinds of support they’d want to have, and what felt unnecessary. I hope the conversation continues. It’s not a one-talk kind of subject in any case, and I need to tell them of my own thoughts and wishes – there are no guarantees that we will die “in order,” after all.

Despite that conversation, and all the others I have with clients, I occasionally appall myself with the realization that I still let the fear of death, or of the injuries and accidents that remind me someone I love is mortal, control me. Just yesterday, after our thin-skinned greyhound bounced Tigger-ishly into a sharp corner of our wooden banister, I held my hand over what I was certain was a deep gash in my dog’s side, afraid to move it in case seeing it would mean that he needed stitches. Seriously. I watched myself think this ridiculous thought, feeling the reluctance to move, even while I knew that I was being completely irrational.

My fear of what might be stopped me choosing to be aware of reality.

If it had been a more serious injury, my delay would not have been helpful. Luckily, the skin held, barely. That episode humbled and reminded me that it’s not all that long ago that I was avoiding conversations around do-not-resuscitate orders and medically assisted dying. I’m no stranger to the “If I don’t talk about it, it’s not real” phenomenon. Along with our uniquely human consciousness of our own death, we seem to be blessed and cursed with an almost limitless capacity, in our fear, to deny it.

Certainly we have more fun on the zip-line rides and bungy-jumps of life when we indulge in a little reasonable denial. And awareness, without acceptance and taken to an extreme, can invite terror and anxiety. But is denial what we want for ourselves, or for the ones we love, when it comes to knowing what we really want out of our lives and how we want to meet our deaths?

Here is what I wish for myself. In all mystical traditions across the globe, there seems to be an understanding that becoming more fully aware of and accepting of one’s own death enriches one’s participation in life. I want to commit myself to this practice of open awareness once again. I don’t want to keep my hand over the wound, to blind myself to what is necessary.

Life and death are of supreme importance.     

Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.    

Let us awaken

awaken….

Do not squander your life.

 –Zen night chant as quoted in Being With Dying, by Joan Halifax

 

Acceptance and the Unexpected

audreynov2016I’m pretty sure I owe you all some news. I’ve been asked off and on for the past few months, often tentatively and apologetically, whether my dog Audrey was still alive. I wrote some months ago about the expectation that she would die soon because of an inoperable cancerous tumour. It’s a funny thing, expectation. When a vet (or a doctor in human medicine) tells you that illness has taken hold and that death will come immanently, you tend to make plans based on the numbers given. “You have about six more good months; you should do what you can to wind up your affairs and make every day count.” “She’s close to the end, you should come and visit now while she’s still lucid.” Or in my case, back in March, “July’s a really long time from now, for her, I don’t think you will be needing a pet-sitter for that trip you have to take.”

July was four months ago, and while I still think in terms of “will she be here for (whatever the next holiday or visit is)?” I have become pretty used to Audrey still being here. We joke that she is “the dog that never ends, yes she goes on and on my friends…” like the children’s song that goes around and around (and never ends). Under the joke though, is the sure knowledge that one of these days we’re going to have to go through whatever her death will look like. I am reminded of a line in an obituary (and I’m not sure if this is a real memory, apocryphal, or from my own imagination) that says someone died “suddenly, after a long illness.” That’s what it feels like. We can expect the inevitable, but no matter what, somehow it still manages to sneak up and grab us by surprise. And so we waver, caught in that gap between expectation and acceptance.

So I’m writing this little piece to simply let you know, Audrey is still here. She’s even slower, has the same temper, and the same sweetness that lies just under her skin if you take the time to let her show it. I have to help her up and down the stairs, but she still seems to be happy to be a dog, despite her limitations and occasional limp. For whatever reason, she perfectly happily munches up her various pills without needing the bribe of a treat. We suspect she’s trying to make up for her old habit of snapping before thinking. Good dog, Audrey.

Therapy – Am I Too Old?

Art Therapy: Stops Along the Journey
“Stops Along the Journey” 2013, Wool

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mostly, I just want to jump up and down yelling “NO! Of course not!! Never! No No No!” when I hear this question, but I know that’s not really helpful, and probably wouldn’t come across as very professional either, what with all the jumping and everything. Maybe what would help is a quick discussion of what therapy really is (regardless of whether it’s the talking kind or the art kind).

What’s the Point of Therapy Anyway?

Do you feel like you’ve done what you wanted to do with your life? Have you been who and what you wanted to be? Do you believe that human beings are not only capable of growing and learning for their whole lifetime, but actually meant to do so?

Therapy is all about Growth, Learning, and Positive Change!

You’ve probably heard of several theories about stages of growth and development. But in all likelihood, you’ve associated them with childhood and adolescence, and haven’t thought of what happens after that. The reality is, we  don’t stop changing! Certainly, some of the changes associated with aging are in the category of loss, but that’s only part of the story.

We are developing (and that means AGING!) from the moment we are born!

A young adult struggles with defining themselves as separate from their parents, with finding a vocation, and possibly seeking a romantic adult relationship. The middle years of maturity may revolve around the dual roles of providing for one’s family (of whatever composition or size) and caring for children. From mid-life on, you may  be  preoccupied with efforts around your “peak earning years” at your job, possibly with launching children as adults, and increasingly with attending to the needs of an aging parent or other family member. Issues of identity and meaning come up again and again through each of these stages, especially if, along the way, you experience losses (of job, marriage, health, or from a move) that make a re-negotiation necessary. What often gets ignored are the continuing changes past what we think of as “retirement” age, which include concerns with spirituality, legacy, mentorship, integrity, and reminiscence.

Changing priorities and developmental transition can be daunting at any age.

In  my view, good therapy takes the whole person into account: their body, mind, heart, soul, community, culture, and environment. Keeping your eye on all those things isn’t easy, either for a client or for the therapist, but it’s vital to at least be open to information from all those areas. Willingness to be a witness to “the whole story” is something I see as a really important part of my job. Being truly seen and heard is something deeply needed, and deeply yearned for by many people during times of transition. Only by knowing our needs can we meet them. Only by knowing where we are can we choose our next direction.

Therapy is meant to be a safe space in which a person – of any age or stage – can freely explore their journey thus far, taking the time to find its fruits and heal the wounds incurred on the way. At its best, therapy can be experienced as a protected and sacred moment, outside of “ordinary” time, in which a person can meet themselves anew, with fresh eyes. The goal of this exploration, of this sacred moment, will be very different for different people.  It may be moving on to new plans and adventures; it may be the consolidation of your learning and wisdom. It will certainly be to create your best possible present, regardless of your age.

If you do find yourself on the older end of the developmental spectrum, here are a couple of links to sites that deal specifically with positive aging:

DISCLAIMER: This information is not a substitute for professional psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content provided by Frances Bryant-Scott, RSW, BCATR is intended for general information purposes only. Never disregard professional medical or psychological advice or delay seeking treatment because of something you read in this blog (or any blog for that matter!)