As yet another birthday is approaching and I find myself going into another decade I have begun to pondering a great deal about aging and all the ramifications of growing older; job, health, retirement funds, dreams fulfilled, dreams lost, and that which I still hope to attain. Welcoming in a new decade is daunting and leaves me with a mixture of emotions. Thankfully I have had amazing mentors in my grandmothers, mother, and father! I did not get a chance to meet my grandfathers as they both passed before I was born.
I remember as a late 20 something spending a lot of time with my paternal grandma who was at that time in her late 80s. We discussed aging and she shared with me that she did not struggle with aging but accepted it as it came; without fear or reservation. As a young mother I grappled with that acceptance of approaching death. It was, and still is, beyond my comprehension. But as I enter my 60s, I take comfort in her wisdom and pray that I find the same peace and acceptance as the twilight years close in.
Working in long term care I often witnessed the negative side of aging. The failure of the body, inability to do that which once brought pleasure, and the loneliness. I don’t ever remember my grandmothers complaining about age or loneliness. They kept active and were able to enjoy their own company. My paternal grandma was rather outstanding. She determined in her 80s that it was time to close up her home and move into a retirement community. Once there she kept active and involved. She was never a social butterfly, but developed close friends and loved playing cards with the other residents. She was a strong woman; satisfied with life and blessed with a positive outlook. Always willing to take on new adventures; she would pack a bag and jump in with me on the spur of the moment for overnight stays and trips. I look to her as my teacher and mentor in this process of aging.
My father, although he lived into his late 80s, had his life taken by cancer. We also had those conversations about death. He did not want to leave his family but accepted his fate and stated that he was blessed with a wonderful life and was leaving with no regrets. He was in all ways his mother’s son! It is this legacy I so desire to pass on to my children and grandchildren. The acceptance of aging, the ability to do so with great grace. So many of the elderly I worked with were not selfless, did not accept aging with grace, and as a result lost the fruit of kindness; becoming bitter and full of complaint and anger. I want to make the choice to not become bitter and chase my family away by that bitterness. I will have regrets, I do now, but it is up to me how I process those and react/act.
As I reflect on the lessons I have learned from my grandmothers, father, and mother I find that the answers for a fulfilled life of contentment are really quite simple; family, faith, acceptance, humility, generosity, remaining open to new things and lifelong learning, hobbies, friendships, and gratitude for life’s blessings.
Both my grandmas and my father had strong faith. None were ever known to preach about religion or dogma, but all went quietly about their lives, being examples of Christ. They did not all share the same religion, yet they all lived the same values. At both my paternal grandmother’s funeral and my fathers, I was overwhelmed by those they had helped; quietly and without fanfare. I believe one essential piece of a happy life is to be humble and to live simply; to give and share what we have with others less fortunate. I lived those lessons through my father. Not that I believed in being humble until I gained wisdom myself and learned the true value and strength of humility. Humility was manifest in their happiness and contentment with their lives; not wishing to be elsewhere, have more, be someone else. I can never remember a time when I had ever heard my parents or my grandmothers say they wanted what others had or were dissatisfied with their lives. They did not yearn for the bigger house, car, more money, etc. They did not live in the land of wishing or regrets.
Both my grandmothers had hobbies, friends, and social involvements. These are gifts they passed down to their children my parents and to me. I’ve been extremely blessed to never feel lonely when alone as I have so many many things to keep me busy and engaged. Having friends and close family ties helps to sooth the bitter disappointments in life that are inevitable. Having hobbies allows a means to keep the mind active and time alone not spent in boredom or yearning for outside stimuli. I cannot imagine a life without my hobbies!
I think we tend to generalize and believe that the generations before us had it easier. They did not face the challenges and negativity we face in this crazy world and uncertain times. Yet both of my grandmas lost an infant to one of the many diseases that took young lives before the advent of modern medicines. My paternal grandma lived through the Great Depression, saw her only son off to war, and lost her husband while only in her late 50s. My maternal grandma saw all three of her boys off to war and lost her husband when he was in his 60s. My father fought in WWII and lost his father when he was still a young man. All had great challenges to over come and faced hard desperate times. But they accepted challenges as a part of life. Part of the answer to aging gracefully and accepting death as a natural part of life is in how we accept and process the challenges and disappointments in life. We are going to have them, it is inevitable.
I have a great distance to travel to obtain the peace, acceptance, and wisdom of my mentors; but I believe it is possible to attain that which is their legacy left for me. Each decade it seems I shed more of my outer shell of social conforms, worldly expectations, and pseudo masks as I follow my inner compass and live authentically. And with each step toward authentic living a deeper contentment bubbles forth. I have also discovered as I age that the things I thought were most important and the material things that I wanted have diminished to be replaced with things of true value; time with family, time for hobbies, time spend with friends. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with regrets and wanting more than I have. But those voices are getting less and less predominant as I focus on what I do have and live a life of gratitude.
I will be spending my 60th birthday with my mother. I cannot think of a place I’d rather be on the day of this milestone; and blessedly for an entire week! Life is short and yes as my kids always tell me YOLO (you only live once). For what I have left of my slice I intend to begin to build my legacy for my grandchildren; the legacy that was left to me…..the secret to a life of contentment and happiness.
In loving memory of my grandmothers and my father and in gratitude to my mother.