During my lifelong practice of geriatrics, I observed many people reaching the end of their lives. Truth is, what I’ve seen is a mixed picture. The two patient stories I describe here are really a blend of hundreds of experiences.
Ms. A is in her late 80s, walks two miles every day, mostly outside but inside a wellness center when sidewalks are icy. She eats a balanced light diet and is connected to many friends. Ms. A is spiritually connected, and life has been and continues to be meaningful to her.
Ms. B is also in her late 80s, has never been much for exercise and now is unable to walk without the help of her walker. She lives in an assisted living center and has made some friends there but remains rather critical of them. Whenever her kids visit, she asks them to take her home. Ms. B had some tough times and some happy times during her life, but now, she remains rather bitter.
At age 82, comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who had studied the relationship between sexuality and longevity said, “I’m at the age where food has taken the place of sex in my life. In fact, I’ve just had a mirror put over my kitchen table.” Reading that made me laugh out loud, but I see Dangerfield’s comment as both funny and sad. Indeed, this thing called growing old is a mixed picture. Should we celebrate it or fear it? Does it give wisdom and meaning or just aches and pains?
I suggest we embrace both sides of the picture. Let’s choose to live as long and as well as our luck and genetics allows. We would all do better with regular exercise, eating less, connecting with both the earthly and the spiritual. Let’s also choose to kindly accept the fact that someday we will reach the end of our lives. We can take healthy steps by creating an advanced directive, by understanding the kinds and causes of dementia and facing the inevitable death of the ones we love. Embracing this mixed picture helps us in accepting aging processes we cannot change, avoiding suffering and savoring things that matter.
Bottom line lessons from Ms. A and B: Like any piece of art, we can choose how we view the picture of our own aging. Those who live with misery, anger and vengefulness will likely die that way. Those who glean meaning and joy from observation, giving to others and opening their hearts to the spiritual will find aging a grand masterpiece.
Richard P. Holm, MD passed away in March 2020 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He is founder of The Prairie Doc®. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc®