Aging is a state of mind, or mindfulness?

May 4, 2012 at 3:50 pm

It’s likely not news to anyone, but the world around us is changing at an ever-increasing rate of speed. For one such as myself, who is approaching the December of my career, and hopefully not of my journey on this planet, it’s occasionally daunting to contemplate what lies in front of me.

While still healthy enough to run 4-5 miles, climb stairs 2-3 at a time, dress and feed myself (although my wife might question the dressing component at times), and master the iPad, I’m fully aware that the future might hold for me the circumstances I often encountered on my rounds in nursing homes when I was in medical practice.

It was beyond sad to kneel next to a confused shell of what was once a vital, active person, reach out to touch their hand or shoulder, and gently ask how they were doing. Not knowing if they understood, or even acknowledged my presence, I felt it imperative for whatever dignity or sense of being still there, to get down to their level, make a personal contact, and try to reach through the fog which had caused them to become a part of the long-term care landscape. I am told I was beloved by many who worked in that environment for my caring and respectful attitude toward those whose lives I touched ever so briefly.

But it wasn’t necessarily just kindness, although I suspect that played a role. I think my approach was affected when I would contemplate that in 10, 20 or 30 years, that it might be me sitting there—apparently seeing a world which was often confusing, occasionally frightening, and with rare exceptions, foreign from that which I’d previously experienced. It was my hope that somehow, even if just for a minute, my “act of kindness” would cut through the fog, lift the mantle of confusion, and trigger a brief moment of presence—being in contact with the world in a meaningful and rewarding way.

We live with an aging population, and dare I say, I’m joining the ranks of those to be included in that category. Now consider the stereotypes that we apply, either consciously or unconsciously, when we discuss this aging phenomenon. We tend to see this aging population as more forgetful, slow, weak, timid, and often set in their ways.

Sadly, it’s not just the younger generation who hold those stereotypes, but it is prevalent in those of us joining that select group. In addition, as we know from reading about behavior, if we expect to see those things, they begin to become self-fulfilling. That magazine I forgot in the other room, that name which slipped from my memory, that inability to hit a golf ball as far as I used to—become prophetic of the decline that I should expect to see.

Now I know it’s inevitable that indeed I will decline. Given time, and the chance (by living long enough) we’ll all take that long journey into frailty. But what if we followed the tenets of Ellen Langer, as outlined in her book Counterclockwise, and practiced mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined in many ways, but to me it implies paying attention to the present, resisting the need to make generalizations based on our past, and projecting those expectations on others based on age, or any other infirmity.

Rather than giving up the golf game I love because I’ll eventually become unable to strike the ball as I once did, I find a new way to address the challenges presented by this opportunity afforded by age. Rather than giving up painting if that was my passion, due to arthritis, I consider how to use another approach to accomplish the same task. Rather than accepting that my memory is fading, in reality, it may be that I’m now choosing what is important in my life, and that many things previously important are now of no consequence.

I’m not an accomplished scientist like Ellen Langer and others, but I’m living the challenges we’ll all face. Let’s reexamine the criteria we use to evaluate the elderly—not imposing our view and experience but valuing their perspective. Let’s look beyond what we see, and consider the concept of change versus decay. Would not the world be a different place if we valued what we retain not what we’ve lost, take joy in what we’re now able to confront, not sadness at considering what once was, and not continue to look at any change in our behavior or physical and mental status as another sign of inevitable decline.

I’m not sure what has driven me to write this. Perhaps an upcoming significant birthday is causing a moment of self-reflection. The age I’m facing was one I viewed as “antique” in my younger years. Today, it seems much different, and I’m looking forward to enjoying what it offers. But while there’s a tendency to contemplate the future and fear the inevitable, I’m hoping to focus on the present, mindful of the wonderful situations today affords. Happy birthday to you, too. Isn’t it wonderful we have this opportunity to experience another part of this journey of life. Let’s be mindful, not mindless—and watch out as I run by you. I’ve got places to go…..

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