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”…
…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:
- 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.”