Benefits and Liabilities of Aging

Sunfloer bowed downWhen I was little my grandmother used to take me with her to visit her friends. Among them were two sisters who had never married but lived together in a pretty home with a nice porch. They used to give me cookies and cambric tea–milk, sugar and a wisp of tea in a delicate china cup. My own mother was physically strong and after my father passed on lived alone and drove herself between Florida and Maine even in her eighties.

These and many elders of my early years presented an image of healthy, hearty behavior. My grandmother used to do fancy dives into the swimming pool of the beach club she occasionally took me to. My great aunt played golf and tennis and had silver cups to show for it. I had teachers with white hair who were wise and good natured. My life has brought me many examples of vital elders who carried on their lives energetically.

Just recently I attended a small reunion for my high school classmates. I was impressed with their fortitude and vigor. As we visited together I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with theses women with whom in our teens I had shared time, space, and teachers. It was quite special to be with my contemporaries. I found that even after all these years we still had much in common besides our age and the school we had attended.

The life paths we had taken had varied widely, yet we all shared a dedication to improving the world and being of help when needed. Born when we were, we had grown up with different mores and rules of behavior than those of today. As a result we have had to make many adjustments. When people do not grow with the changes that accumulate around them, they become bitter and crabby. It seemed to me that none of us had.

No doubt we all had our share of aches, pains and limitations. At our age some of that is to be expected. However I didn’t hear anyone complain about their health even though one of us used a walker and another had both vision and auditory issues of a serious nature. One of the blessings of age can be the ability to deal creatively with one’s limitations. Patience can come more easily when one has lived a long time.

The benefits of accumulated years are a kind of grace that can make up for the increasing changes that as we age limit activities, not to mention movement. Speaking for myself, I would say that patience tops the list of these benefits—not only patience with others but also patience with myself. In addition, being able to wait out a difficulty, the knowledge that time helps heal as well as facilitate, and the ability to listen to and soothe those who live with greater immediacy and impatience are some of the benefits I cherish as I grow on in years.

Being of a Saving Nature

Kathy's Kitchen BasketsYankee thrift originated long before the pilgrims arrived on these shores. Being of a saving nature is a key to survival in tough times no matter when or where they occur. In today’s opulent, throwaway society times thrifty behavior isn’t very fashionable, however, I am happy to practice my version of it. My mother, though not a Yankee, certainly was a great example of that kind of behavior. I try to emulate her, though I do not go to the extremes she did.

For example, the presence of my mother’s linen sheets from her wedding trousseau, still tied with their original pink satin ribbons was an intriguing mystery, first in her cedar trunk and then later when the house got added onto, the hallway linen closet. They had never been used and apparently were not supposed to be. My father used to say jokingly that she was saving them for her next husband. I never got an explanation about them from her.

In the same cedar chest in her bedroom at the foot of her bed she also kept a costume she had worn for some classes in Spanish dance. The exotic, colorful skirt and top, sprinkled with bangles, fascinated me. In one of her dressing table drawers she kept a wonderful collection of small, decorative evening purses she seldom used. I loved looking at them. My father would tease her about the several little cardboard bureaus in which she kept an assortment of things. She seldom if ever threw anything away.

My mother trod a fine line between saving and hoarding. I once was helping her tidy up the contents of a closet in their summer home. As we emptied it I teased her about the number of toasters and irons she had stowed away there. She informed me rather sternly that she had bought them at yard sales and was keeping them in case the one she was using failed to work. Her behavior may have been a result of her World War I childhood in Germany.

If you define hoarding as holding onto useless items for some reason that seems logical to the hoarder, she might be said to be one. When I visited her in Florida, after my dad had passed on she had a plethora of small shampoo and conditioner bottles from her travels with him lining her washbasin, along with empty cardboard toilet paper rolls stacked by the toilet. She never explained why she kept them.

I did inherit some of her saving nature. However my version of it is tied to what will prove useful in the future. I save leftovers and seldom have to throw them away because they combine nicely to make new meals. Small boxes that are good to hold gifts, padded envelopes that can be used again, tissue and wrapping paper, and more jostle one another for room in my hallway. When Christmas comes, or the birthdays of dear ones I don’t need to go to the store for packaging. However, I differ from my mother in one significant way: When my collections impede progress in the hall, I recycle to our local thrift store.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Pay attention to the Message

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I well remember trips as a young child to the A&P. The smells of the small supermarket in our town intrigued me. The fresh food in bins from which my mother would carefully select her vegetables and fruits gleamed with an allure that reflected my curiosity. In addition, the workings of the body have always interested me. As a child I used to mix up the medicines in my parents’ bathroom cabinet and feed them to my teddy bears. Beginning with my childhood I have had a lifelong fascination with food in general, our needs for it, and how we nourish ourselves or don’t, depending on what we eat and how.

So many of the ads I see on TV are for medicine, both prescription and over the counter. It makes me wonder if we are all really that ill or in need of fixing? Perhaps we are, yet I wonder too whether if instead of trying to alleviate symptoms with medicine, we might do better were we to pay more attention to how and why the symptoms have arisen we might do better were we to pay more attention to how and why they have arisen. I am speaking about digestive issues in particular, though others are equally as important.

Of course there are serious illnesses that require intervention and the use of various prescribed medicines. However there are other conditions that will respond well to changes in lifestyle and most especially to changes in dietary habits. I well remember how when I was only in my forties, someone a decade older told me how important it had been for her to reduce food intake as she aged. She told me she got by on two meals a day. Different people will do better with different plans, however reducing intake is key to helping us be healthier.

The symptoms of the acid reflux so many experience are often a result of overeating, eating foods we do not digest well, or eating poor food combinations. As we age, the production of our digestive enzymes diminishes. Many comfort foods we once enjoyed become at best indigestible or at worst dangerous to our health. Yet many of us continue to eat as though we were in our twenties and still growing. While trends in eating come and go, for instance (carbohydrates good, fats bad now reversed), one truth remains: what and how we eat are irrevocably connected to our physical, mental and emotional health and well-being, not to mention our weight.

What can we do? Chewing is vital. Busy with our lives and impatient of meals perceived as mere interruptions in our busy lives, many of us swallow food half chewed, washing it down with liquid. This does not allow for the incorporation of digestive enzymes, not to mention roiling the stomach with acid from feelings of haste. Instead we could slow down and taste the food as we chew. TV ads counsel taking this or that medicine. By so doing we are effectively killing the messenger: the symptoms that tell us we are doing something harmful to ourselves. When we pay attention to the message we can learn how better to treat our bodies and prolong our good health.

Saying Goodbye Gets Easier with Time and Experience

Peace Village Bridge Reflection Most children have no concept of time and little to no understanding of loss, not to mention the concept of “goodbye.” Ironically however, one of the first things a mother teaches her baby is to wave “bye bye.” When we put them to bed for the night we are teaching them about leaving and being left. The first skill a child learns in the high chair is to drop things over the edge. At one level the life of any human being from birth onward is one long saying of goodbye.

          We leave childhood behind and with it many of the beliefs and rationalizations with which we grew up. As we grow older and seek out knowledge for ourselves, we often abandon our old ideas and perhaps even our cherished beliefs. We move away from old neighborhoods and old friends, we meet new situations and learn new ways to cope, saying goodbye to old ways and old situations. As we grow on in years, over and over we find ourselves, sometimes happily, sometimes sadly having to say goodbye.

Recently Stephen and I attended a graveside funeral for a long time friend. It was a lovely occasion with many in attendance, some of whom had entertaining stories about him to share. He was well loved and had traveled the world; he had lived his life to the fullest. This may be why before he died he could say to at least one friend: “I’m looking forward to the next adventure.”

The Waterside Cemetery in Upton where his physical presence on earth will rest in a plot overlooking the pond where he used to fish, is a lovely, peaceful place. There, together with his other friends we said goodbye to the earthly remains of our friend and then went to a nearby function room to celebrate his life and share our memories of him. An important part of a funeral and afterward is to share stories about the deceased that help recall his life with love and joy.

Saying goodbye to someone I’ve known for a long time, though perhaps not been close to feels strange. When I haven’t seen a person in some time and then they pass on, I have trouble remembering they’re gone. Just the other day when I drove past the former address of a dear departed friend I was almost persuaded to stop and ring her doorbell. I had to remind myself that no, she no longer lives there, and no, I can’t visit for a cup of tea.

As I gain in years I find myself saying goodbye more frequently, both to people and to certain aspects of my life. My bucket list has grown shorter. There are things I once thought I wanted to do that I now do not wish to, like go up on an air balloon. I once believed it would be fun to go on a three months ocean cruise. Not any longer. Vigorous gardening is a thing of the past. Still, as I miss all to which I have said goodbye, I am reminded to cherish all that still remain.

Judge Not or be Judged by your Judgment

Rocks and Flowers with ShadowsMy parents taught me much by their example. My father served in many capacities as a volunteer. He was generous with his time, talents and energy. He read for a radio station that served the blind; for many years he held the position of treasurer for a non-profit orchestra; and he helped out in various capacities at the church to which he belonged.

My mother was a careful provider and very thrifty. She was also a fine artist who valued creativity and encouraged it in others. She tried hard to do the right thing as she saw it, and did the best she could to take care of her family. However, both my parents also provided me an example of something else that I had to unlearn: they frequently passed judgment on others.

My father would point out mistakes of any kind with unkind statements like “You ought to know better than to do that,” or “How could you be so stupid as to…” usually in a scornful tone. My mother was very apt to point out faults in the appearance of others. I believe she had learned this from her own mother who was extremely focused on how she as well as her family appeared.

As a result I grew to adulthood with a judgmental attitude both about any perceived weakness and any deviation from a traditionally attractive appearance whether that of others or of myself. These attitudes of mine seemed normal to me until I began to notice that not only was I being unduly critical but also that my prejudice kept me from seeing those I judged in a more positive light.

Furthermore I realized that this habit also said something about me as well as about how I viewed others. There is a saying to the effect that if you point one finger at someone else you are pointing three back at yourself.

When I began to observe myself as I interacted with people, I also began to understand how unkind it was to look at others in a judgmental way. After this realization I began to learn to be merciful in the way I viewed others, and also the way I viewed myself. As I grew less critical and more forgiving, both of others and of myself I found I now was able to perceive previously hidden virtues where before I had seen only faults.

It is truly said that mistakes are given us as ways to learn, and that the only bad thing about mistakes is the failure to learn from them. I rejoice that I was able to discover and then unlearn these harmful attitudes. I am grateful that instead I can practice a more merciful way of perceiving both others and myself.

By its very definition a judgment closes the mind. It prevents any change in how people and their behavior or appearance can be seen. Being one who always wants to continue learning and growing I try to make sure that in the event I do find myself judging anyone that I immediately look beyond my original thought to become more open minded, less critical, and more merciful in how I am perceiving them.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Beach Reflections

My parents occasionally visited friends who had a swimming pool. It was surrounded by tall trees and was seldom warmed by the sun, so the water was invariably quite cold. However I was used to swimming in the ocean, which as any New Englander knows, is considered warm if it gets into the 60’s. My parents did not swim in the pool. My mother did not like the cold water and my dad was more interested in conversation with their friends. I swam and played in the water to my heart’s content and only reluctantly left the pool when my lips had turned blue with cold.

My grandmother belonged to a swim and tennis club situated on the ocean. In addition to providing access to the beach it also had a saltwater pool. I loved that pool as well and was always thrilled when my grandmother invited me to go there with her. They had very good club sandwiches too, crusts removed—something my mother never served. In addition she insisted I eat my crusts, telling me they were good o me. What a treat it was. Also I felt elegant sharing lunch with my grandmother in the rustic clubhouse. It was probably these two pools that implanted in my mind the desirability of owning one.

One day Stephen and I came to Grafton to find a home and the real estate agent showed us a lovely house with a pool. While we both liked the house and the land around it, I was particularly excited to actually have a swimming pool of my own. My unstated yet nevertheless real wish had come true. My childhood memories of swimming and playing in the water had morphed into an opportunity to bask in the ownership of a pool I could swim in whenever I wished to.

Little did I know then the outcome of that wish fulfillment. At first the pool seemed wonderful. I could swim in it to my hearts content. Then I discovered that it needed daily maintenance, together with chemicals. We purchased a device that helped clean the pool, yet it still had to be skimmed and occasionally vacuumed. The reality of how much it cost to maintain and how much work that was began to emerge. There was so much we did not know about pools, especially old ones, and how to keep them in pristine condition.

People swam with seawater still in their suits. Difficult to eradicate black mold grew in the pool. The sides began to crumble. We patched them as best we could. The finishing touch came when friends brought their teenaged sons over and the resultant hours of cannonballs loosened the old, outdated concrete lining until it flapped back and forth. We inquired about repairs and were told it would cost as much as a new pool: in the tens of thousands. Faced with that we opted to eliminate the pool, filling it in. Thus ended the dream, resulting in a lesson learned. Needless to say I became less eager to make wishes. However, when I do, I am very careful to consider what their fulfillment might entail.

The Preciousness of Remembering

When I was a child Little Tasha 4and death or even disaster was to be spoken of, someone would say, “Not in front of the children.” The subject would be changed or I would be told to go off and play so the adults could continue their discussion. Yet because we had animals, death and change were part of my life. I witnessed the drowning of baby ducks and the demise of baby chicks. It was hard when a dog got into my pet rabbits’ pen and maimed them. My aunt’s gardener had to–as I was told, “put them out of their suffering.” Death was no stranger to my childhood. I am neither uncomfortable with it nor afraid of it.

Still, it does have an effect. The recent passing of a dear friend has brought a sense of immediacy to my relationships, and prompted a renewed sense of attention to my way of thinking about life. She and I used to speak each morning except Sundays. More than once I said to Stephen, “One day the phone will not ring at 9:30 every day.” Then indeed that day did come. While I miss my friend, I know she is in a much more comfortable and happy place than she has been for some time. Though I do miss her calls I also rejoice for her.

I am happy to have pleasant memories of our time together. That is the saving grace of partings. It is also a reminder to focus when I am with a dear one and to be present in order to have something to remember. More and more as I get older I have come to realize that endings come whether we want them to or not. We have no way of knowing whether or not any given conversation, meeting or interaction with another may be our last. I do not say this because I have a morbid fear of endings but rather as a reminder that any time we spend with another may be significant.

When we are children we have no understanding of how it is that things change or perhaps end. That ignorance may even be important to children’s comfort and sense of security. Most adults grow accustomed to change and learn to flow with it. It may be an aspect of maturity in human beings to be able to do that. In my life there have been many changes I could never have anticipated. Being able to adapt to them has been crucial to my happiness. Developing a sense of detachment to an anticipated condition of permanence has been not only valuable but also essential.

When I was a child, I could buy an ice cream cone for a nickel. Now even the smallest one costs 50 times that. The decor in my parents’ living room changed once in my memory. Today many people redecorate frequently. Then divorce was rare, people stayed at the same job for most of their lives, I could go on and on about how it used to be. My point is that change is more than ever a constant in most lives. For our comfort it is important to be able to deal with all forms of change, whether of décor or of circumstances. When I make the time to focus my attention and to appreciate what is happening, whether with a relationship or an experience, I have much less regret when it ends.