Changing Our Minds About Aging

***  Time for this post? Reading… 5 minutes. Listening… 28 minutes. 

In North America, we have a bad impression of aging. Most of us would like to avoid it. Since that isn’t possible, we tend to ignore the subject as much as we can.

And really, who would want to get old, considering that the cultural messages are largely disparaging and dismissive. We are generally seen as failing adults, rather than people with something to contribute.

Where can we find a better vision of aging?

I was inspired by an interview I heard a few days ago on CBC’s “Tapestry.” Geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Marc Agronin has written a book which is invites us to stop thinking of aging as an “implacable enemy and start seeing it as a developmental force for enhancing well-being, meaning, and longevity.” A summary of The End of Old Age goes on to say:

the focus is squarely on: “So what does this mean for me and my family?” In the final part of the book, Dr. Agronin provides simple but revealing charts that you can fill out to identify, develop, and optimize your unique age-given strengths.

It’s nothing short of an action plan to help you age better by improving how you value the aging process, guide yourself through stress, and find ways to creatively address change for the best possible experience and outcome.

Dr. Agronin is an expert in Alzheimer’s disease and other geriatric mental health issues, and runs both a memory center and one of Florida’s largest Alzheimer’s clinical research programs. He is the author of nine books and hundreds of articles, has been published in the New York Times, and writes regular blogs on aging and retirement issues for the Wall Street Journal.

In the interview, he said that if we celebrated when people enter older stages of life, there would be a really profound shift in the way society thinks about aging. Instead of dreading it, we would look forward to it.

Dr. Agronin has plenty of experience with older people since his average patient is 90 years of age. He does not deny the challenges they face. But I was struck by how he’s able to both acknowledge the downsides of aging and yet still see that aging has the potential to be about growth, change, and even strength.

Age-given strengths…

Strength is not something we typically associate with aging. I think that’s because we have a narrow view that defines strength as only physical robustness. Yet, Dr. Agronin says he has seen people who are both frail and vital at the same time.  Their strength, he says, is in their wisdom, purpose, and creativity—qualities that grow and deepen with age.


For a longer presentation that develops Dr. Agronin’s ideas about the five aspects of wisdom, among other things, go here.

There’s a lot that begs for further exploration. Next week we’ll consider the intriguing notion that age might be just a state of mind.

What’s it all been about?

***  Time for this post? Reading…4 minutes.  Viewing…20 minutes. Reflecting…as you wish.

It seems natural to me that our interests change as we move through the last years of life. I think of it like the arc of a story—there’s a welling up of action in the middle and then things sort themselves out and resolve for the finale.

Reflection. Assessment. Wondering what it’s all been about. These are on my mind… and I’ve been on the lookout for perspectives I can relate to. You may recall that I recently asked nonagenarian Nora Bitner for her view on the tasks of aging.

Here’s another perspective…

Lewis Richmond is a musician, retired teacher, and author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wisera book about how to find contentment and wisdom throughout the aging process.

In his video about aging, he discusses worthy goals such as generosity and givng back, gratitude, living an ethical life, recognizing that everything is connected, and kindness. He says, “Kindness is one of the gifts older people can bring to a society, because they’ve seen what happens when kindness disappears from the world. It’s not pretty.” His video spoke to me and I thought you might enjoy it too.

The explanation of meditation as it relates to aging was a revelation to me. When he said there are two functions of meditation, I had a light-bulb moment. Suddenly I understood why I don’t relate when meditation is promoted for its calming and relaxing benefits. I don’t need or want that. I prefer to sit quietly with my thoughts, tune in to my body, and gain perspective and insight.

As Lewis Richmond explains, what I’m engaged in is the other function of meditation—the ability to see what’s real. Not as I imagine it, not as society tells me it should be, but what it really is for me. What’s bothering me about my aging body? What am I afraid of? What unresolved emotions are lurking in the background? Quiet time gives me the space to explore these questions.

Reflection and contemplation help us make sense of our lives as we approach the finale. In our elderhood, we need space to reflect more than we need time to calm down.

Every breath, new chances.

“Attending to your inner thoughts” is one of the worthy goals Lewis Richmond identifies. This, for me, is one of my major tasks as I age. I want to allow unresolved questions and issues to surface, face them with kindly attention and care, and transform them so they’re no longer burdens and preoccupations.

I want to be free of encumbrances as I go into my last days. In my view, that will make it easier to make a graceful exit. Every day that I’m still here, I have new chances to lighten my load and get ready.

There’s so much else to unpack from Lewis Richmond’s presentation. What spoke to you?

Stop. Take a breath.

*** Time for this post? Two minutes and that’s it!

My family and friends know that I can be pretty focused when I hone in on a project. That has certainly been true as I’ve been learning about dying. My motivation is to be able to help myself through the process when the time comes…and to share what I learn along the way.

The downside of such focus is that single-pointedness can arise. So I’ve been consciously tuning in to counterbalancing viewpoints. I heard this quote in a recent radio interview… Continue reading

Quantity of life … or quality?

*** Time for this post?  Reading…2 minutes. Viewing…19 minutes. Taking it in…as you wish.

BJ Miller, a hospice doctor, says, “At the end of our lives, what do we most wish for? For many, it’s simply comfort, respect, and love.”

Yet the statistics show that most of us in our over-medicalized Western culture do not die that way. And it’s easy to see why.

Doctors are trained to keep us alive, There are a lot of treatments they can offer before giving in and saying the dreaded sentence, “There’s nothing more we can do.”

Now, let’s be clear. The blame doesn’t lie solely on the shoulders of doctors. We, the people who are offered these treatments, may not yet have come to terms with the fact that we will surely die sooner or later. In this mindset, we aim for quantity of life and lose sight of the quality of life we may really be aching for.

When we are uneasy about our inevitable death, we grasp at any possibility that’s offered to us. Yet, as Stephen Jenkinson says, the “more-time” bargain we make to avoid the end of life has consequences we never imagined.

Quality of life as we near the end…

Continue reading

Footwear too cool to dispose of.

***  Time for this post? Reading…7 minutes. Thinking about why you keep what you do…optional.

I know people who feel they must purge their living and storage spaces before they die. Their intention is to make it easier for their family to wrap up their affairs. What a shame!

True, it might help the family dispatch the estate efficiently. But what will they miss out on?

My take on that…

I think there’s something to be gained when others go through what we leave behind. They may learn things about us that they didn’t know, remember long-forgotten events, and gain perspective on who we were.

The way I see it, this is part of our legacy—and we are shortchanging our survivors if we leave a stripped-down version of our life.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for leaving an unholy mess. Like Margareta Magnusson, I think I should take responsibility for what I keep. And part of what I want to keep is those things that illustrate my history. For example…

Footwear too cool to dispose of…

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When is enough enough?

***Time for this post?  Reading… 8 minutes.  Viewing…12 minutes. Exploring what is deeply satisfying to you…as long as it takes.

It’s not easy to know when to call it quits, to speak up and change course when we’ve had enough.  This bold action requires us to think deeply about what’s important, and to take a stand for it…even when those around us have a different opinion about what we should do.

We are not enculturated to live—or die—on our own terms.

How much is enough?

… “enough” is not a number—it’s what is deeply satisfying.

The above quote is from Conscious Spending, Conscious Life, my book about using our resources intentionally. It helps us all navigate the consumer culture without being consumed by it.

As I learn more about the way we die in the West, I keep seeing parallels between consumption of consumer goods and our engagement with healthcare services. In both cases, we can end up being used by the system rather than served by it. Continue reading

Alternate Death Traditions

***  Time for this post? Reading …1 minute. Viewing …19 minutes. 

Enculturation is the process by which individuals learn their group’s culture—through experience, observation, and instruction. It is how traditions evolve.

We all become enculturated, that is, steeped in the way things are done in the society in which we live. It’s what we know, what we get used to, what we think is normal.

How WE do death isn’t the only way…

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Die Wise

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 5 minutes. Viewing…you’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes.

When I wrote my first blog about dying, reader Barb Morin posted this comment…

A master of this subject [thinking about dying] —a self-described dealer in the “death trade” for over 20 years is Canada’s own Stephen Jenkinson. He has written a number of books – the last one called Come of Age and an earlier one entitled Die Wise.

He has a website called orphanwisdom.com and he is currently on tour through North America doing a presentation called “Nights of Grief and Mystery” with a musician named Greg Hoskins.

We recently attended this in Calgary—me and 5 family and friends who were not really looking forward to an uninterrupted 2.5 hours where entry was not allowed after the doors closed, with no intermission . About all I can say is that no one moved for the fastest 2.5 hours in my life and none was “unmoved’” by the content. My husband, who has a reputation for being able to sleep through ANYTHING shortly after it begins and wakes up as the clapping starts, was awake for the entire thing! He even said, “that was really good”!

I’d certainly encourage you to look at him as a resource. He has an NFB film about him and his work called Griefwalker which you can find on YouTube. He also teaches on occasion at Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island and teaches at his farm in Ontario.

As it happened, Stephen Jenkinson had not yet crossed my path—and I could hardly ignore such a compelling recommendation. Having listened to him on video, today I’m sharing an excellent interview that gives you a sense of what he’s about. Continue reading

A little change in social attitude…

*** Time for this post?  Reading…3 minutes. Listening…10 minutes. Considering…at your leisure.

The death phobia that pervades our consumer culture does not serve us well…

We get to indulge in death phobia because commercial interests are right there, ready to step in and do the difficult things for us. In this way, we avoid a lot of discomfort.

But we pay a price for our comfort…and it’s not just in money. We become death illiterate, with no language for what death asks of us and no emotional capacity to recognize that death is asking something of us.

The cultural story…

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Unhooking Your Death from the Consumer Culture

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 9 minutes. Viewing… 4 minutes. Doing something to unhook yourself…up to you.

We live in a time when dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. In our consumer culture, commercial interests have taken over all the difficult things we used to do ourselves when someone died. In return, we get to detach from the experience and feel less discomfort.

That wasn’t always the case. Here’s a recollection shared by Nora, a reader who is now 90 years old.

My first direct experience [with death] was probably around the age of 5 or 6. In those days people still often dealt with the death of a family member at home, and my mother was often called on to help with washing of the body. In this particular instance a baby had died and I accompanied her to the farm where the family lived. They were friends. I watched as the baby was washed and placed in a small wooden box, then taken out and buried on the property. I didn’t see the burial, but can’t recall why. I only remember that I wasn’t scared and thought it was completely natural.

That had changed by the time the Baby Boomers were growing up in the 1950s and 60s. By then, the funeral industry was in full swing. Death was outsourced and we didn’t learn, as Nora did, that it is completely natural and not scary. In the absence of such experience, we’ve become fearful of the unknown and susceptible to the death phobia that pervades the culture around us.

Death phobia serves commercial interests…

Continue reading