Friday, January 11, 2013

How, Then, Shall We Age?

"No one ever tells us what happens when you get old."
The sweet, white-haired woman seated in the wheelchair before me clung to my hand and looked searchingly into my eyes.
"I never knew it would be like this- that my world would get smaller and smaller, that there would be fewer and fewer things I can do."

There she sat in her lovely, red, wool sweater, gazing out the windows at the chill sunshine outdoors. "I made it, you know, quite a few years ago," she responded when I complimented her on the cheerful beauty of what she wore. "I used to knit quite a lot, and I still can, but my hands get cramped if they are in one position too long, and I have a little more trouble keeping track of the rows and the stitches."

A lovely woman, a sweet expression on her countenance, but I could hear her frustration, her longing, for what could never again be.
"We lose many things as we get older, don't we?" I mused.
"Oh, yes," came the reply, "so I guess we just have to be thankful for what we still have."

It is a refrain I hear over and over again as I walk the halls of our care and caring facility in Winston-Salem, NC. Aging carries with it so many, many losses, and perhaps most significantly, the loss of the image of ourself we had carried with us throughout our life. Who are we, I hear their voices ask again and again, when we can no longer do the things we once did, when so many of the people in our lives are gone, when our world becomes confined mostly to the four walls of our room?

And as I look in the mirror and see the reality that I am no longer young, I find myself faced with the same questions. Oh, I would like to believe that I will never find myself in the position of being unable to go and do as I wish, but the dear people who surround me day by day remind me that life often does not go the way we had planned and that I- we- none of us, can predict where and how our paths in life will take us.

I can remember telling my children- then teen-agers and me a forty-something- that until I turned ninety they were not permitted to refer to me as "old". At ninety- should I be granted that many years- they had my permission to refer to me as "an old lady". Makes me chuckle to think of that now, as I see the many faces of aging, of being elderly, of being "old", some people truly old in their sixties while others remain pepetually young- at least in attitude and perspective- well into their late eighties and even into their nineties.

I am learning that, for so many elders, the most important thing is to be seen and heard by someone...to be touched and hugged and kissed on the cheek or forehead, to be listened to, even when the stories are the same over and over again. I sing the same hymn with one 87-year-old woman whenever I come into her room because she loves it and, taking my hand, she sings along in her somewhat shaky voice and then thanks God for my singing with her. With another, I simply sit and listen as she talks about her concerns for her daughter, though I have heard them many times. There is a man on one hall who always tells me how beautiful I look- and he means it. And another greets me- and everyone else- with, "Have a blessed day and all that good stuff." What I have to offer- ALL I have to offer, I have come to realize- is my presence. But that seems gift enough...and I am truly humbled by that fact.

Back to my red-sweater-wearing friend...no, Louisa, no one tells us about how to get old, any more than they tell us how to be a teen-ager or young married or new parent. Life, it seems, is about learning as we go, a kind of "on-the-job training", if you will. And I guess all we can do is live each day as fully, as wisely, as openly, as joyfully as possible, aware that those days are numbered- and to be thankful for what each day brings. And if that includes being hugged, and heard, and loved, hallelujah! Thanks be to God!

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