There is no doubt that at different phases of life we feel different pressures. As a full-fledged senior, I’m happy to report that most of the pressures of being a kid, being a teenager, being a young adult seeking success in forging a career and close relationships, and being in those middle years, where you have your own work stresses, family stresses, and often parent responsibilities as well (hint, hint) … they all dissipate. It’s like a miracle; you no longer care what other people think (well, at least not obsessively), you no longer worry that you aren’t as good as the next person – you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone. It’s remarkably freeing.
There is no easy way to alleviate the different pressures we put on ourselves at different phases of life. Perhaps it’s meant to be. Living through each phase is what makes us the people we become. And our personal goal should be to become the best we can be, even though we rarely know what that means in advance.
These thoughts came to mind when I read a highly thought-provoking blog post by fellow blogger Barry Hopewell this past week, called Letting Go. This is how Barry starts his topic; I highly recommend reading it in full as he explores ways in which we can lead quality lives in the moment.
Approaching the later years of life, I realise more and more that life is all about letting go. We spend the first part of life building up an ego, a bank of experiences, attitudes, habits, patterns of behaviour, traumas, relationships, material things. Over the second half of life, essentially we have to let go of our attachment to all of these, as we go through the process of preparing for our approaching death. If we do not, the ego dies with the sudden traumatic loss of all those attachments – surely the reason why death is so feared by many.
Why do I come up with this theme at this point in time? Because I have been touched by the experiences of those going through this very process, suffering illness, problems with memory, suffering from attachment to past relationships, suffering from anger, suffering from stress ‘because of’ the behaviour of others…
Of course, Letting Go is not just about dying, it’s about living life in the present, here and now, unencumbered by the past. This is the essence of life.
The day after I took note of Barry’s post, a good friend sent me an article entitled Treating Alzheimer’s as a matter of degree that provides a better example than I could have possibly imagined of how, when one door closes, we can find new doors to open (thanks, Francine). New opportunities. Letting go of what we can no longer do and finding new paths to personal growth and fulfillment. At any age. Despite infirmities. See what you think!
Getting a university degree at age 84 is a bit unusual. Preparing to start a Master’s program at 85 is a rarity. Doing all this while diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is stunning.
Ron Robert walked across the stage at King’s University College in London, Ont. last month to collect a three-year Bachelor’s degree in political science. Now, at the age of 85, he’s taking a few more courses in the hope of embarking on a Master’s degree.
“I’m going to go — I hope, if my head is still working — for my Master’s. It is working, so I’m not going to stop,” Robert told The Catholic Register.
King’s Political Science professor Andrea Lawlor has no doubt Robert’s head works. She taught him through four different courses in Canadian politics and law — four of the 35 courses Robert completed for his degree.
“I didn’t know Ron had Alzheimer’s for the first few weeks I taught him. It wasn’t until he mentioned it in class — quite casually — that I found out,” Lawlor said in an email.
There were small accommodations for Robert — primarily oral exams rather than the traditional two hours of writing longhand answers in a hushed lecture hall. But Lawlor and other professors at King’s were more often making allowances for Robert’s deteriorating eyesight (macular degeneration) than for his memory troubles. Robert recorded lectures so he could listen to them again. Professors assigned him podcasts and documentary films, knowing that hours of reading would be a problem.
Long-term memory is one of Robert’s strengths.
“My long-term memory improved, but I lost my short-term memory,” Robert explained. “I remembered things from when I was five years old, which I couldn’t have remembered before I got Alzheimer’s. So figure that one out. It’s weird.”
He also looked into the world of puzzles and memory exercises often recommended to people trying to stave off dementia.
“There’s nothing empirical about them though, unfortunately,” he said. “So, I thought, ‘You go to university’ — which I had always wanted to do. You know, you’re tested on a regular basis. To me that made sense. It’s no good just trying to memorize stuff if you don’t have an objective to memorizing.”
In class Robert was an asset as a witness to history, generous with his knowledge.
And it’s that reference to the knowledge Robert had accumulated through his long life that he shared with his classmates, even with Alzheimer’s, that reminded me of another article that had been sent to me this past week (thanks, Marilyn).
In Elizabeth Keating’s article in The Atlantic, The Questions We Don’t Ask Our Families But Should, she starts out by making the very true observation that
Many people don’t know very much about their older relatives. But if we don’t ask, we risk never knowing our own history.
You might think you already know your family’s stories pretty well—between childhood memories and reunions and holiday gatherings, you may have spent hours with your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles soaking up family lore. But do you really know as much as you think?
In my research [as a linguistic anthropologist], I have been astonished to find that so many other people also know little of the lives of their parents and grandparents, despite the fact that they lived through some pretty interesting decades. Even my students, some of whom majored in history and excelled at it, were largely in the dark about their own family history. Our elders may share some familiar anecdotes over and over again, but still, many of us have no broader sense of the world they lived in, and especially what it was like before we came along. The people I interviewed knew so little about their grandparents’ or parents’ early lives, such as how they were raised and what they experienced as young people. Few could remember any personal stories about when their grandparents or parents were children. Whole ways of life were passing away unknown. A kind of genealogical amnesia was eating holes in these family histories as permanently as moths eat holes in the sweaters lovingly knitted by our ancestors.
She goes on to posit several questions she encourages young people to ask their parents and grandparents. I have to admit that I sure wish I had asked these questions of my parents and grandparents. And, needless to say, it’s way too late for me. But not too late for all the young people out there. Her questions include basic background information, such as where someone was born, as well as more abstract inquiries, such as how someone conceives of their identity, what they believe in, and what they’ve noticed about the passage of time. Talk about interesting questions. She also reminds her readers that:
When you ask for descriptions of an elder’s childhood home and the neighborhoods they roamed around, you’ll hear stories that place you in a rich sensory world you knew little about. So ask what family dinners were like and what your relatives were taught about expressing emotion. Ask about their worst first dates and where they bought their clothes. And remember that the most important questions can also be the plainest. One of my favorites is just “What do you wish people knew about you?”
So give it a try. You may be surprised by how much your parents and grandparents haven’t told you, perhaps because they thought you wouldn’t be interested, or they weren’t sure how you’d judge them. Just as the precious oral literatures and histories of whole communities are being lost the world over through rapid change, migration, language death, and a failure to ask, there is a risk that your family’s personal stories, too, will be lost forever. Your parents and grandparents have unique snapshots and memories of the world they knew, and in learning about them, you can not only preserve the past but also create lasting meaning and connection. In families and communities, there are secrets to be discovered.
Or if you’re the parent or grandparent, encourage your offspring to ask these questions. They’ll eventually thank you for it. You could even incorporate some of these questions in your customized Kindness Calendar!
The reality is that we all age – if we’re lucky, and these later years pass pretty darn quickly. We should make sure that we’re leading our lives the way we want to – the best lives we can – and that we’re building good memories to leave those we love and care about.
Have fun making those memories, and make sure that you’re sharing them.