This picture was taken at the 100th birthday party of my godmother. She lived to be 102 years old. Throughout her life she was a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She was a gardener, potter, and artist. She practiced Tai Chi. She had a sense of humor and was generous. She shared her joy in life with everyone who knew her. She leaves a legacy of beauty and grace.
Living over a hundred years is no small feat. It is amazing and it is especially profound when a person can continue to share wisdom, humor, wit, and insight. There are some who reach such an age with minimal medical problems and require less care than others. I suppose we can compare quality of life and suggest that the less medical conditions and less care required could reflect a higher quality of life in these later years. There are probably hundreds of ways to measure quality of life. I think, as a picture paints a thousand words, the photo in this week’s post captures a measure of quality of life that cannot be denied.
When I performed the research for my dissertation, “Spirituality in Health and Wellness Practices of Older Adults”, I found that aging gracefully was supported by a strong spiritual orientation. For some this was based on religious practice, and for others it was not a religious experience, it was spirituality founded on wisdom traditions that are outside of organized religion. In either case, spirituality was a strong contributor to the way the seniors in my study experienced graceful aging.
For those who have been following my posts, you know that I am a strong proponent of incorporating some kind of spiritual practice in daily living. For those who feel the need to avoid references to spirituality, I would encourage incorporating practices of kindness, compassion, generosity, forgiveness, acceptance, and any other practice that promotes self-healing or healing between members of family and community. It is my opinion that the generation of positive influences in life, whether you call it spiritual or not, is a key component to producing wellness at any age; so much more so in the later years of life.
I believe this orientation will play a critical role in how we face our mortality. Those who had some type of spiritual practice related to death very differently from what I have experienced as the typical response. It seems that a strong fear of death and what may or may not lie beyond contributes to very powerful urges to prolong life. I am not so sure that it makes sense to prolong life when there is a diminished quality. If I know I have a terminal illness and will live for 5 years without treatment, or 7 years with a treatment that will make me feel more miserable than if I do not have the treatment, which choice would make sense? Would the extra 2 years in misery be a benefit? Or would accepting the 5 years, as it is, make more sense?
Not to say that I would “give up” on the possibility of self-healing. Maybe I would find a variety of personal practices that would boost my immune system. Maybe I would begin a regimen of guided imagery and other biofeedback practices that enhance the healing process. It is possible to modify yoga and tai chi to perform at any age and in any condition. These interventions do not have side effects, and many of them will promote wellness in the face of mortality.
Here is the idea: Aging with grace is all about facing mortality with a positive view, with the highest quality of life possible, and with a continued effort to promote personal wellness. It is possible to promote wellness as we are dying in the same ways that we do while we are living. In many ways we begin dying as soon as we are born. For some it takes longer than others, yet life is always a cycle from birth to death. As soon as we realize that we will experience our personal death at one point in the cycle, the fact of mortality settles into our awareness. Do we let fear rule our perspective going forward? Do we create elaborate rationalizations to deny the fear? Or do we face mortality with acceptance and grace?
The seniors in my study seemed to have a strong grasp of acceptance of mortality and this produced a grace that was so apparent in the way they experienced life. This is not to say that there was never fear or pain for these individuals. It is to say that they had a context for processing the fear and pain that allows them to resolve the experience in a positive light. I think it has been made fairly clear that when we have lost hope and sink into a state of helplessness, there are severe impacts on both physical and mental health. I am suggesting that the spiritual aspect I have described above can protect us from losing hope and becoming helpless. In this way, we can age with grace, even in the face of mortality.
The incorporation of spirituality into wellness is a key to aging with grace. We do not need to wait until we have a terminal diagnosis. We do not need to wait until we are “old”. We are aging from the time we are born. We have the opportunity to promote wellness within and without in every moment, with every breath. Our relationship to our mortality will affect our ability to find grace. If I remember correctly, I was aware of mortality by the time I was four years old. From this point forward, I had the opportunity to live my life with a positive orientation to this fact, or without a positive orientation. I think I may have achieved a positive relationship to mortality by my late forties. I am grateful that I got to that point when I did. There are some who never get to that point. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our culture promoted a better understanding and relationship with mortality from earlier in life? I think we would live in a very different world if we were all aging with grace as soon as we realize that life consists of the birth/death cycle. This would be a life of wellness; full of awareness, peace, and joy.