When my youngest was in preschool, she pointed to a picture on a book cover and asked if that was the kind of outfit I wore to school when I was little. The cover was Laura Ingalls Wilder in a prairie bonnet. I was old to my daughter, and that was OK.
After letting my hair turn naturally gray, strangers sometimes assumed my children were my “grandkids,” and clerks invariably told me about the store’s senior discounts. I never took exception to these comments. In fact, in some small way, I think they helped me accept and not fear aging.
At one point, for about nine months, I also cared for my mother. But it took a lot of persuading before she loosened her grip on the house where she raised a family. The memories were beautiful to her, but during frail years, those memories had become a noose around her neck, binding her to empty days amid walls filled with deafening isolation.
One day she fell and lay on the bathroom floor for hours. My brother found her and, out of fear, she finally surrendered to our pleas. Eventually, she moved into my house and was once again in earshot of children’s laughter and tears, and all the chaos that defines family. Months later, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, my mother and I sat outside and talked about her first fears – the fear of letting go, of change and of burdening those she loved the most (her words, not mine).
It’s been 13 years since my mother died, but I pull from those conversations and experiences as I face my apprehensions. What do I want this part of my life to reflect? How do I live out my days with meaning? And as I age, how do I allow myself to lean on others when necessary?
Of course, having a support network of family and friends in place as we age is a great benefit. If you are an older adult, begin the conversation now with family members about your wishes and your fears. If you don’t have a safety net to shore up your needs as you age, do the homework to map out available programs for elderly in your area. Know your rights and understand what’s available in terms of assistance and resident living options. In either of these circumstances, the time to make decisions is not when lying on the bathroom floor.
Through the years, while talking with elders who sold homes and downsized, both anxiety and relief riddled the culling process. Once complete – when the house was empty, and they could walk away with only necessary items, as well as a few sentimental ones – the heavy burden disappeared. They realized the very thing they feared, the relinquishment of stuff, was the one thing holding them down. They now had time to just be.
I leave you with a beautiful reflection by the late Mary Oliver titled “The Gift”:
Be still, my soul, and steadfast.
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.
So be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as you once loved deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful.
That the gift has been given.