Growing Old Gratefully

Walking beside the river yesterday, I was thinking about my February column, and that I might write something on the topic of “love,” this being the month of Valentine’s Day and all. Then I remembered that February is also the month of my mother’s birthday, and that my favorite photo of her was taken at the Mack’s Canyon boat launch when she was about the age I am now, about to start a float trip to the mouth. It’s been fifteen years now since she died, and as I continue to age, I become ever more grateful for the lessons I learned from her words and example of how to embrace both the challenges and opportunities of old age (or, as my mother insisted on calling it, “older age”) with courage, humor, and joy.

In her seventies, mom became active as a volunteer in a community mental health program that worked with older adults. One year, she was invited by OHSU to give a talk about aging to first-year medical students, as part of the school’s effort to help physicians-to-be become more respectful and aware of the needs and experience of older adults. Happily, my mother kept the text of that talk, which I re-read pretty much once a year. So for this month’s column, I decided to let my mother, Jan Henderson, do the talking through a shortened version of that talk, below.

 

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I read a lovely story once, written by someone who watched an older woman as she was about to walk through the door into a room where a dance was being held. Thinking she was all alone and unobserved, when the band struck up inside the woman began to do a little dance. Then she reassembled her dignity and stepped soberly through the door.

 The story reminded me of the time, in my early older years, one of my daughters sent me and article entitled “Growing Old Gracefully.” a few months later, the same daughter sent me a book entitled “Growing Old Disgracefully.” I kidded her, “Make up your mind, Bonnie! Which do you want me to do?”

 I know what it is to be young. When I was a mere youngster of 40, I didn’t really think I’d ever be old. Then along came my 50s and the 60s , and I began to be depressed. But I was handling it. The trouble was, I was handling it like I had handled other things I didn’t like to face: I drank. I had been working up to being a problem drinker for some years, and when the children grew and left home, I became a full-blown alcoholic. Finally, my family helped me face the fact that my drinking had gotten out of hand, so I quit. Went to AA, got some counseling, used some self-discipline, and decided to trust what a close friend had told me: “Once you stop drinking, everything in your life will get better.” As it turned out, she was right: everything did get better.

 Someone once said, “The happiest older adults are those who let go of the past and reinvent themselves.” Successful aging begins with a realistic assessment of our current life situation and the challenges we face. It is important that we responsibly choose which parts of ourselves we’re going to cultivate and which parts we want to release.

 I’m sure you are all familiar with the Serenity Prayer: the prayer to be granted the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We cannot change the aging process, but we can change our attitudes toward aging.

 And just for a laugh, here’s the variation on the Serenity Prayer that someone sent me: “God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”

 I try to remember that each day is a gift to me, and from that I make a life. And may I add that I love having the excuse that old age gives me not to surf, hang glide, rock climb, or even drive my car on icy roads!

 Older age is what we are stuck with if we live a long life. If all of you youngsters are lucky, you too can grow up to be older adults some day. And I hope that as you age, your doctor will listen and talk honestly with you , and that those younger than yourselves will look beyond the grey hair and wrinkles and respect your long life experience, recognizing that you still have a 5-year-old and a 16-year old-and a 30-year old inside you. And that when you are alone, you’ll dance.

Well, what do you know: I guess I wrote about love after all!

Thanks, mom.