My Dad died last week, a month before turning 90. Please. Hold your comments of sympathy. I’m not writing for that (although I’m sure your intentions are kind). I’m writing to share what I’ve learned and to create discussion that helps us learn from each other.
Dad’s first “small” stroke, at age 72, was the beginning of a slow decline. A diabetic, he periodically lost his balance or fell due to the neuropathy in his feet. He hated and fought this loss. By his mid 80’s, he’d lost his reasoning and ability to hold a real conversation and had trouble walking. In the past 3 years, he was wheel chair bound and demented. (But he could still say, “I love you”, and give you his beaming smile.)
From his first stroke, while seemingly fit, he’d say, “‘Don’t get old”. But getting old wasn’t the problem for them — Mom had severe congestive heart failure from age 74. It was being ill.
Old age didn’t stop my parents from doing things. It was their failing bodies. As is true with all of us living with illness, they each approached this challenge with the same response they brought to the rest of life.
I often wished Mom could have worked until she died. I believe she would have felt better about her increasingly housebound life. Yes, her professional life had been demanding and tiring and it probably wouldn’t have been good to continue as she had. On the other hand, she didn’t feel as good about herself when she stopped working. I wonder, had it been different, would illness have been easier to accept.
Dad, on the other hand, was happy to retire. Work at it’s best was an ego boost but it was also a source of emotional aggravation. He loved just sitting around . The good news was that he ended his life in a facility with plenty of people with whom to talk who didn’t notice if he made no sense. He told his stories and was deeply loved by all.
So what have I learned from watching them die?
The focus of my coaching practice and my writing is on the value of work and why we should push ourselves to keep working even while living with bodies with diminishing capacity. I realize this isn’t true for everyone. But my goal is to give tools and support to those who want the choice — to help them develop their capacity to make this happen.
Work should give us purpose and a sense of being valued for what we can offer. We all need this, whether sick, old or both. It’s not easy to make it happen but I’ve grown increasingly clear that it’s worth putting effort toward creating it. I believe that work has made living with illness an easier experience for me and many others. I also believe it will make growing “old” easier to bear.
What have you learned?