Recently, I commented on the post "Arianna On Aging," which featured a video from Arianna Huffington about the fear of aging. I'm a Boomer and most of my friends are as well. We like to think that with age comes wisdom. However, not all elderly people are wise or kind. Like all human beings, if you grow up with a negative attitude, are abusive to others, complain about everything, and are never thankful for the blessings in your life, then you probably are going to be a grumpy, mean 'ole cuss. It's all about attitude, no matter how young are old we are.
The fear of aging is about the loss of physical strength, mental acuity and the ability to be a productive member of society. And of course death. We all want to remain independent, with the energy to remain active and engaged in life to the very end, rather than deteriorating to the point of incapacity. Hopefully death comes peacefully, in our sleep. That's not the image most of us carry of our parents' or grandparents' generations, however, and thus we worry about becoming doddering old fools, a burden to our children, and incapable of taking care of ourselves. I don't fear death because of my spiritual beliefs, but I have had fears of physical and mental incapacity.
I turn 63 this year, so I'm in the senior citizen category myself, although mentally I think of myself as 30. My self-image is not of being an old person, but if I listen to blog comments from those a generation or two younger than me, I really should be preparing to die, because according to them I have nothing to offer to society except to be a burden. How is it that this could be? The secret we never learn when we are young is that our bodies may become less resilient and flexible as we age, our skin may become crepey and wrinkled, our hair may gray and gravity becomes our enemy, but in our heads we are 20, 30 or 40.
Why do I feel 30? I have a job that keeps me mentally active, I read prolifically, I have good friends I enjoy socializing with, and I stay current on what's going on in the world. I listen to the same music from the '60s and '70s that I loved in high school and college. I dance and move my body to those sounds, whether they be from the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Motown. I also think of myself as an open-minded, tolerant and compassionate person, so the eccentricities of younger generations don't seem much different than those of my era.
I've gained a new appreciation for how to live my life with grace and dignity as I've aged, based on what I observed while taking care of my mother and aunt in their last years. Talk about living fearlessly! My mother is my hero. At 70, she had an above-the-knee amputation due to a staph infection she developed after an operation. She went from traveling all over the world each year to being bedridden and going through months of rehab and learning to take care of herself all over again. There's not enough space here to describe what she went through, but I will say that her attitude was exceptional. She was fearless in her determination to not let herself become a victim of her infirmities. She was able to become self-sufficient again, despite enormous difficulties.
Eventually other illnesses took a toll, and my mother moved from independent living to assisted living and then to nursing care, giving up her home and most of her "things." She never complained. In fact, she said she was glad to let go of all the "things" and focus on what was most important, which was enjoying the moment and the gratitude she had for living. She could still get around and became good friends with all the staff, who loved her for her warm, loving and indomitable spirit. She often said that her body had failed her, but mentally she was still the same person she was at 40. My mother was never a doddering old fool. She was a powerful woman up until the day she died.
My aunt's health was more fragile because of her COPD. But she stayed engaged by reading, keeping up with politics and babysitting my dogs during the day while I worked. They became her project and it kept her young. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she accepted the news gracefully. I knew she had some fears, but she said life was too short to worry about the future. When it became too much, we moved her into an Alzheimer's facility where she was comfortable and treated like a queen. She died six years before my mother, but I ensured that she knew each moment that she was loved.
I feel blessed that I could provide both of these fearless women with love, respect, and dignity, and that I could make sure they received the very best care possible. First of all, I educated myself in elder care law and services. I spent several hours with an attorney who specialized in elder care law, and he referred me to a social worker who educated me on different types of care, what to expect, what to look for, and what to stay on top of. I researched their illnesses, made it a point to stay in touch with their doctors, investigated hospice organizations and every aspect of their care. I also kept my mother and aunt in the loop and in charge of their own decisions, wanting them to remain as independent as possible. Trust was essential.
The greatest compliment my mother paid me was to tell me that she felt safe and secure with me taking care of her. It brought tears to my eyes, and I realized that all the time and effort I put into her well-being had been worth every minute. Someone else might have said it was a sacrifice or a burden.
I was also blessed to know my grandparents, and to be very close to my maternal grandmother. I feel sorry that so many kids either don't get that opportunity, or visits are very short. I spent whole summers with mine. Doing so gave me tremendous respect and love for the elderly -- even for the GRUMPS! My maternal grandmother was born into a wealthy family but married a farmer who lost everything during the Depression. From that time on, they lived in poverty. My grandmother was a gifted seamstress and made a living designing and making clothes for others. In a different place and time, I believe she could have been a world-class dress designer. What I learned from her was humility, perseverance, unconditional love and acceptance. She had the most positive, loving attitude of anyone I have ever known. She loved everyone, irrespective of their status in life -- and that love was returned to her. Oh, was she fearless! She scraped by, but brought beauty into everything she created from scratch -- from her cherry pies to the cocktail dresses she made for clients.
There's even something to learn from the Grumps. My grandmother's youngest sister was a Grump -- or so I thought. She was taciturn, not warm or outwardly loving to others, and was abrupt in her speech. She rather scared me when I was a small child. As I grew older, my grandmother explained that my great-aunt had had a daughter who was born both mentally and physically incapacitated, and my great-aunt's husband had left her with a ranch, a 5-year-old son and this baby. My great-aunt had had to run a ranch to make a living, and took care of her children with little to no help aside from one ranch hand. She never asked for help and never complained. I remember the last time I saw my great-aunt. She was 97 years old, completely blind from macular degeneration and lived in her ranch house alone, except for a housekeeper who came in daily. She still cooked big country meals for guests, was lean and in great health. She still didn't suffer fools gladly. That last day I saw her, her teenage great-grandsons stopped by with doves they'd shot on the ranch, and she was cleaning the doves for them. Indomitable! Fearless! Strong! As my husband said, "You can't hardly kill off an old Texas lady!"
I have had several fearless role models in my life. Becoming fearless is about courage. It's a knowledge that no matter what life throws at me, I can face it, work through it and survive. It's about not giving in to loss, and not resisting change. Each one of my role models described above experienced loss, deprivation, and changes they didn't anticipate. They didn't whine or complain, bemoaning the past. I'm sure they worried, but it didn't stop them from moving forward. What sets them apart from others who lose themselves in grief and victimhood is Attitude. The traits they all had were embracing the flow of life, perseverance, determination, and viewing life as an adventure, not an ordeal.
For more by Barbara Melton Perkins, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.