Aging Well

Beginnings and Endings: 10 Lessons Before I Step Down

As Kate Bowler says, "Life is beautiful. Life is hard." Here are some lessons I've learned over the last three years about savoring the beauty and weathering the hard.

Posted Updated
Liisa Ogburn, Aging Well
Liisa Ogburn

As the year closes and a new one begins, so, too, will end my regular posts here on Aging Well. It is time to focus the time I’ve spent on this endeavor on other efforts. Over the last three years, I have written nearly 360 posts with the hope that by sharing what I’ve learned working with the challenges that arise in the last year of life, I could alleviate some of the suffering. While my posts tackle practical topics (like how to get a handicapped parking sticker or change your Medicare plan, or get COVID tested), they also have focused on the most common emotional potholes (like handling dementia care at home, how to take away dad’s car keys, move mom into Assisted Living, or wisely accompany someone who is dying). These common situations push many into “the red zone.” (We’re human!) While talking openly about these can’t solve them, it can perhaps normalize them, as well as provide some concrete ideas and resources to tackle them.

What have I learned about navigating the red zone?

  1. One can’t plan for everything; however, ideally one can put in place the most important documents -- a will, a Durable and Healthcare Power of Attorney, and healthcare wishes -- in the event of the most common medical events, especially if one is an “elder orphan,” without a spouse, nearby involved adult child or family, or close friend.
  2. Investing in mental and physical health is critical. Bad habits accrue and ossify over time. Obesity, alcohol or other substance abuse, social isolation, poor emotional coping strategies... While we can’t control everything, more is within our control than we often admit. It’s much harder to come back from a heart attack, memory deficit accelerated by alcohol, or other common aging-related malady than adopt the lifestyle practices now that might prevent that.
  3. Be realistic about what our needs might be. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, two-thirds of 65-year-olds will need long-term care services at some point in their lives, for an average of 28 months, and more than 30 percent of older adults need help with activities of daily living, which include walking, feeding, dressing, grooming, bathing, and toileting. Nearly a third of people older than 85 have Alzheimer’s, which vastly increases the need for long-term care. Plan accordingly.
  4. Keep in mind Harvard Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor's research finding: An emotion passes in 90 seconds, unless you feed it. (This brings to mind writer Anne Lamott's quote, "My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone.")
  5. Identify five people you can call in the middle of the night. (Local wise pastor Art Ross taught me this.) Update them on your health and financial picture annually. Be a realist about who would be a wise team member. Make sure to include some younger team members or risk everyone on your team needing help at the same time you do!
  6. Acknowledge what you know and don’t know and seek guidance from experts and reliable sources, when needed.
  7. Death, like birth, is a part of life. Familiarize yourself with it so it won’t be as scary.
  8. Sometimes you have to call 911--literally. Or figuratively. (We can't always do everything ourselves. Again, remember, we're human.)
  9. Be generous towards others—for no other reason than that it feels good.
  10. Know that no one has a perfect life, though Facebook might tell you otherwise. Shame and embarrassment can keep you stuck. Doing something different, like asking for help, can change the trajectory. The silverlining might be that you find intimacy in a community of new friends struggling with them same hard stuff. Connection and interdependency is powerful medicine.

It seems apt to close this with the words of writer and Duke Divinity professor Kate Bowler, “Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.”

Savor the beautiful.


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