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Lessons from an Old Friend

Lessons from an Old Friend

A few days ago, a special friend celebrated a milestone birthday.  A big milestone. 

She turned 100.  I am so lucky to have her as a friend when she got that far.

Ruth is not “one of my parents friends” or the relative of a former spouse of whom “I got custody.”  We met four years ago when we were both involved in a nonprofit vintage fashion show guild that raised money for Goodwill programs. 

No, she was not licking envelopes.  She helped us get in and out of the vintage clothing at shows all over the region.  (She also made sure we were careful with it, often picking up things models had dropped on the floor in haste to get into the next outfit ASAP and hanging the clothing carefully so it could be safely stored.) 

She still lives in her own house—thanks to a heavy commitment from her daughter (who ran the fashion shows when we were doing them).  Up until a year ago when she had a bad fall, Ruth lived alone.  She’s still functioning in that home (with ongoing help from her daughter now)–gets up every morning, dresses, and participates in the day. 

Her heart rate is something like 31.  Yes, that’s her pulse.  How she has the energy to do anything more than breathe is a mystery to me.  But she is still very much alive and involved.

We love stories about centenarians who are still full of life.  We pass along the YouTube posts of older adults doing young at heart things.  Celebrating that pluck gives us a more upbeat sense of where we are all going.  But my chance to get to know Ruth has taught me far more valuable things about how to travel the route as we near the “end of the road” with dignity and grace.  And a good sense of humor.

After the fall that triggered some health problems, I started visiting with Ruth every few weeks so her daughter could get some time on her own without “worrying about Mom.”  I asked to do that to offer Nancy needed respite from caregiving.  But my time with Ruth very quickly became something I personally benefited from in both obvious and subtle ways.  My bond with Ruth was easy to build and means a lot to me.

Ruth has taught me so much about how to live well when living becomes tenuous.  Every day, she gets up and goes on.  She’ll keep doing that until her body gives out.  But it’s how she does it that has made it such a rich experience to know her.

She’s fun to talk to.  Since she hasn’t heard them before, she finds all the crazy stories of my life entertaining.  But we also talk a lot about her family and her heritage and things she’s done with her life.  Even though she is starting to slow down in major ways, we still have two-way conversations.  (A lot of us don’t get that with our teenage kids…or spouses in their prime!)

She is grateful, especially for all the good people who have come into her life.  She notices them and appreciates them.  (And as one such person—at least in her opinion—being appreciated by Ruth makes you feel pretty dang special.)  She has told me again and again, that the reason she has lived this long was all the good people who came into her life along the way.

She embraces the age she is now.  She certainly didn’t expect longevity.  Her mother died when she was seven and her dad died when she was sixteen.  She doesn’t lament “being old,” and she doesn’t whine about what doesn’t work.  She finds the good, the upbeat, the interesting and pays attention to it.

She engages.  When I visit, she’s happy to see me.  When I tell her about something I’m trying to do, she encourages me.  She builds me up in so many little ways….by asking about what I have been doing….by laughing at my “creative catastrophes”.…by inquiring about my kids and grandkids.  She is still part of life in how she lives her day.

She’s patient with herself.  It’s so easy to get sucked into the “injustice” of no longer being able to do things you used to be able to do for yourself.  She does what she can and then accepts help. That’s not easy, but she does it with grace.

She has kept her sense of humor.  On her birthday, I asked her if she was going out dancing that night to cap off her big day. She put on a thoughtful look and then said, “Not tonight.  It’s been a long, busy day, and I’m a bit tired.  I’ll do that tomorrow.”

But even all of the things listed above in total don’t capture the magnitude of what she’s given me.  She’s taught me not to be afraid of extreme old age.  You can still be the timeles you that you are at your core then.

She does that beautifully.  And I have learned so much for time with her. Thank you, Ruth.

When the wheels fall off…dealing with decline

When the wheels fall off…dealing with decline

The last 24 hours have given me a front row seat on something none of us want to think about: decline.

Photo by Jacob Kiesow on Unsplash

Yesterday afternoon, I visited a dear friend who is dealing valiantly with the limits imposed by a 99 1/2 year-old body. Her ability to continue to be engaged is inspiring. She remembers that I have granddaughters, asks about my time with them after I last visited her, tells me about her family, sees me to the door at her home, and makes me feel about ten feet tall in her opinion of me. She is definitely a gem. But there’s no denying that it’s getting harder and harder for her to be alive physically.

Last night, my son and daughter-in-law were over for dinner. My daughter-in-law is in the unenviable position of having to manage her dad’s finances when he still believes he’s capable as an investor but has reached the point of making mistakes. So far, she’s been able to mop up behind him. She doesn’t want to deny him his identity as a savvy business person, but how many mistakes is too many?

This morning, a good friend is starting a “tile job.” He has done this work for friends for a long time. This time, he needs to do it with one hand that doesn’t work very well because of the combined mess of falling off a ladder and too much delay within the healthcare system. He’s been resilient his whole life. Can he figure out a way to do it again?

These things don’t look similar on the surface, but a closer look reveals them to be the same thing: how to keep on living the best you can when life smacks you with some kind of “disability.”

In other words: What do you do when you can’t do what you used to do the way you’ve always done it? Especially if that activity has defined you as a person?

We need to see it differently than we see it as a culture now. Decline…becoming less able…isn’t some kind of personal failure. It’s a normal part of life and deserves respect. It’s also not “the end.” It’s a turning point–a change in direction. As with all turns in the road, it’s diffcult to see what comes next until you’re through it. You still need to keep going. You may need to slow down to get a sense of what this curve can tolerate, but stopping entirely isn’t even safe, much less interesting. And turning around isn’t an option at all. This is where you are and forward is where you need to go.

You can still have a life, you just need to figure out how to accomodate this new reality in how you go about it. That’s not easy, but after about thrid grade, most of life is not easy. Believe or not, we’re back to Nike time: Just do it.

Start by figuring out what was most satisfying about what you were doing before. It could be the competence you felt. Or the interactions that effort involved. Or what you created. Or one of a million or more other things. What did it give you?

Then work at coming up with other ways, that are more feasible in the new reality, to give yourself that same kind of satisfaction. Choose one and try it. If that does it, great. If not, choose a different one. Keep going. Period.

Not being able to do what you used to do yourself also means you have the chance to learn something most of us never get good at: Asking for help. This critical skill is not taught in our society. We mature either expecting someone else to do everything for us or refusing to admit that we need help at all. Ever. Learning how to ask for the help your really need–and only that–takes skill. And skill takes practice. This is one we’d probably all do well to work on our entire lives. Later in life it’s mandatory if you want to thrive.

Decline is inevitable. But there is a choice in how to deal with it. What you do when you can’t do what you used to is a chance to grow into someone new. Someone more skilled. Someone who’s moved to a higher level on how to gets things done. This is not a bad thing. Unless you decide it is.