Find A Gain for Every Loss: A Lesson from our Post-Polio Wise Elders

Egads! This September 1st I am going to turn 70 years old. For me, that is an inconceivable milestone. Me, 70? How could that be? Seventy sounds so…well…”old.”

Turning 70 seems to be a natural time to pause and look at the big picture…to reflect and look back at important events. Rewinding through the years of my life…hmm…what do I see?

In 1952 I was just 4 years old, running, skipping through summertime sprinklers, then suddenly almost dying from “infantile paralysis”…

…then at the age of 12, listening and bopping in my braces and crutches to “Rockin’ Robin” on the record player…

…at the age of 17 in 1965, being voted class optimist at our fancy senior dinner and soon off to college…

…4 years later, having just turned 21, teaching English to my first class of very tall, very bright high school seniors…

…then just 31, becoming a college dormitory “housemother” trying to convince students not to get drunk and pull telephones out of walls or set off false fire alarms at 3:00 AM…

…then at 33, breaking down with the late effects of polio, soon to be working with with my newly found post-polio physician, starting my next university career teaching and  researching all we could about what in the world was happening to polio survivors 30 years after they first got it.

All those years and experiences are pretty long past now. But they are still part of me and my personal gestalt every day. They are not lost. I do not grieve for them since they remain in my mind and heart as wonderful experiences that shaped my life and the lives of those I touched.

My difficult losses have been the heartbreak of losing friends, lovers and family members to break-ups or death.  Can’t whale watch on the beach with the same boyfriend anymore. Can’t chat with Mom anymore over a long cup of coffee sitting side by side on the old screened-in front porch.

My toughest losses have also come as physical losses of strength and function.  Can’t hear as well. Gotta get a pricey hearing aid soon. Can’t walk anymore. Gotta use a scooter full time. Can’t sleep at night free from the entrapment of a respirator face mask. Uuf!

It’s true, the older we get, as nature takes its toll, the greater life losses we must gradually come to deal with. We must learn the fine art of grieving over and over.  It is a sad requirement if we really want to thrive during our late life years.

But how do we do that? How do we thrive in the midst of heartbreaking loss? How do we grieve well and then let go enough to forge ahead with grace and hope? It is not easy. But it is possible.

The only way I have been able to move forward after a life loss has been first, to cry my guts out and acknowledge my sorrow. Over and over.  Then, when I am ready, and sick of being so sad, I work to reinvent a new reality and perception of my life.  I look hard for some fresh gain in the aftermath of that debilitating loss.  It can be a large gain or a small gain. Doesn’t matter.  Just some gain. I work to reinvent my reality because I absolutely refuse to get stuck in the devastation which loss has the power to create, if we let it. Stomp! Stomp! That is not where I want to live every day.

About Loss From The Wise Elders

When I did a national study of fifteen “post-polio wise elders” in 2007, these role models for successful late life adaptation with a disability taught me about reconciling losses.   One hundred percent of the group expressed that adapting to losses had been a major life challenge, beginning with the termination of normal physical functioning at polio onset.   Loss of both function and the appearance of being an able-bodied (“normal”) person in society set off personal struggles from childhood until retirement.

Accepting early polio-related losses was difficult, and for some was still ongoing. One woman shared that she is just now dealing with her original polio losses: “I—it brings me back to seeing all those children in the ward that wouldn’t walk again. And I’ve never dealt with those images. [Sobs] Terrible!”  By contrast, another man said that he sees his disability now as simply “a speed bump (or pothole) on life’s highway.”

Everyone in the group was also dealing with mid to later life losses that were both physical and social. The entire group (all were over 65 years of age) reported having the late effects of polio–new weakness, pain, and disabling fatigue in recent years. Most of the group had developed at least one new physical problem such as high blood pressure, edema, high cholesterol, and/or circulatory problems.

One woman shared how losing her accustomed level of mobility was difficult: “I had to give up. I couldn’t defy nature anymore. It was harder than (after) the first battle with polio.” A combination of shame, grief, and relief was expressed at having to use new assistive and mobility devices.

The other losses that these polio survivors described as difficult to reconcile were social losses. It was the painful descriptions of social losses during the interviews that generated the most tears. These included the death of a spouse and/or friends, moving to new locations and leaving old friends and family members behind, and retiring from jobs.

In spite of major life losses, the wise elders, who are people with complicated physical disabilities from polio, have shown us that by using the powers of positive reappraisal, it is possible to reinvent ourselves. Turn the negative around and make it a positive. We can reinterpret life after loss. Shift our focus from what we have lost to what we have left.

About Gain From the Wise Elders

Believe it or not, many of the wise elders agreed that, in spite of new functional losses, life is somehow better now, than when they were younger and physically stronger. Perceptions have changed. There seems to be a new freedom that both an evolved, more positive perception of disability and not being in the workforce bring. When asked for a word or phrase that describes life for them now, their responses included:


  • Comfortable
  • Flourishing
  • Grateful
  • Excellent
  • Open
  • Wonderful, full, happy
  • Satisfying, good
  • Hopeful–filled with a sense of anticipation
  • Good, fulfilling
  • Better than expected–like a dream come true

They began to transform their losses into opportunities for gain. A woman from the east coast shared that getting older doesn’t always mean getting worse. A new flexible schedule in retirement offers her the freedom to do what she wants, like browse for a long time in bookstores, Even though financially life is a little more restrained. Several people shared that their perceptions of others who have a disability have changed in late life, due to their own greater self-acceptance.  They are more compassionate and caring toward others than in their more competitive earlier years, when they had to “push, push, push–use it or lose it.”  One man even revealed that he enjoyed flirting with women in grocery stores now. He said “being older with a disability can give one license to ask for help and hugs…I’m an old guy and everybody thinks I’m not dangerous!”

These well-grounded role models teach us that on the heels of life’s deeply felt losses, potential gains swirl all around us. It’s not easy to see them at first, but as we invite them into view, and claim them one by one, it is possible to find the excitement in life again. In the process, we gotta ask for help and hugs.

Then, when we suddenly catch ourselves spontaneously flirting with a fellow shopper amidst the carrots and rutabaga during our next trip to the supermarket, we’ll know we’re back up and running again! It’s what I call “a wise elder effect.”


Yup! Next month I turn seventy…time for a little levity…carrots and rutabaga, here I come!

I’d like to take this opportunity to say “Thank You” to the wise elders for their comforting words and for living humbly as such inspiring examples. Some of these polio survivors have passed away. Most are still going strong.

A Couple of Thoughts on Spirituality and Disability

Well, New Year’s Eve has come and gone and January rouses me into wintertime musings about life-Sun on river 22-past and present–as I begin to clarify my still-nebulous resolutions for the year ahead.

As imbibing in the spirits helped many of us ring in 2015, another kind of spirit comes into focus for me–a more important one–my spirit. Better said, my spirituality. It’s what gives me guidance and gets me through.

Spirituality: “the core part of us that gives us the power to transcend any experience at hand and seek meaning and purpose, to have faith, to love, to forgive, to pray, to meditate, to worship and see beyond the physical here and now. Spirituality is the inner force that animates human life.”

As we grow older, it seems that we have more life losses to grieve and be sad about. We are losing physical prowess, friends, lovers, family members and familiar things, like paper books, hand-written letters in the mail, even fun stuff like funny comic books, drive-in restaurants and movies.

But may we console ourselves with the simple, but profound truth that grief and happiness can gracefully exist side-by-side in our hearts.

I believe that as we grieve the very gradual loss of our physical abilities, we can increase the power of our spirits in new and exciting ways.

Personally cultivating our spirituality can not only have a positive and powerful effect on our own strength and energy, but also on the health and well-being of many people around us.

Here are a couple of personal reflections I’ve had along my spiritual way. Do either of them ring true for you?

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Personal Reflection Number One…

So many of us were told as youngsters that we had to depend on our brain to get us through life with an unusual body that was partially paralyzed. “Be smart, clever and well-educated and you will show people you can fit in.” 

But there was another important piece. Body and mind are interlaced with our spirit to make us complete. Some even say that we are all spirits on earth who just happen to have a body. And that spiritual transcendence can help us face our physical differences and challenges “with a clearer perspective, rising above the limits and pain initially imposed by the disability.”

As a person who has been living with a post-polio disability for sixty-two years now, my spirituality has helped me make sense of being unusual, physically. God works in unexpected ways, at surprising times and through unique people like you and me.


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Personal Reflection Number Two…

We have the power to effortlessly transfuse other souls on earth with enthusiasm and assurance. I really believe that we who have a socially- obvious disability with braces, crutches, wheelchairs, and a variety of physical differences have been put on a stage in this “theater of life.”

Like it or not, people notice us. People look at us. People even stare at us. And that has given us an automatic power to influence others in positive ways.

Being a person with a disability who genuinely emanates spiritual peace can have an amazing effect on so many people around us. How many times have you heard people say “you are such an inspiration to me?” Spiritual meditation can bring us a peaceful heart. That serenity in our eyes and in our overall countenance, surrounded by our appliances and asymmetries, automatically gives hope to those who are seeking inspiration.

Did you see the woman on Dancing with the Stars last year who came in second dancing on two prostheses? The power of her positive influence in America and around the world is huge. She has no idea.

And neither do we. We can and have been influencing the human condition on earth as we have transcended and transformed our polio-caused disability from weakness into strength.

When you think of it, there is great irony in knowing that because we have lost muscle power, we have the potential to give muscle, vitality and strength to the world and we don’t even have to say a word.

First and foremost, we simply have to be present among our fellow human beings. That’s it. Just show up. Just be there, among people. All the rest that we choose to do–like speaking, writing, listening, leading, following, praying for people, contributing through our work or our family jobs or a hundred other roles we may play—all of that is simply what we do. But what about the spirit driving all that activity? How does the divinity of our inner spirit inform our activity?

As I write this blog post, my first 2015 resolution is slowly emerging into crystal clarity.  I want to tap into my spirituality every single day this year…because I really, really, really respect and like my spirit. I will ask spirit every morning to lead me through the activities of that new day.

Okay spirit, I’m ready. What will happen? This is exciting.


4ec810a01e1d6PICT0016_large_medium 1Wishing you an enthusiastic year ahead.……….


Did any of these personal reflections on spirituality resonate with you?

Sharing your unique personal insights here might help enlighten someone who is earnestly searching for his or her own spiritual answers…