Elderhood as a Life Stage: The Power of Naming (part 3)

Denver Tea Room

Denver Tea Room

Elderhood and naming, misnaming and un-naming. This will most likely be the last installment on this philosophical theme.  In thinking about how to prevent elder abuse and exploitation as well as the new mandatory reporting effective July 1, 2014 in our state for persons aged seventy and older, aren’t we also looking at our own fears about what we see happening now to our family and community members as we also consider what might happen to each of us if we find ourselves in difficult circumstances?

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

But will our thinking  about our elderhood and its challenges be big enough and deep enough to get us there – to some solution?  I think of a quote from the late literary critic and essayist Northrop Frye, based on lectures he gave when he was in his later years  – or eighth stage:

The cultural aura, or whatever it is, that insulates us from nature consists among other things of words, and the verbal part of it is what I call a mythology, or the total structure of human creation conveyed by words, with literature at its centre.  Such a mythology belongs to the mirror, not the window.

Northrop Frye, Creation and Recreation

What is a mirror for? Why, reflection of course.  If you’re not sure about the importance of reflection, Teilhard de Chardin, the paleontologist and theologian, considered the birth of reflection as a major contributing factor to the phylogenesis of the human evolution.  See Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon (2003: S. Appleton-Weber, transl.) at 171.  In case you might be wondering whether I am saying that only human beings have that power of reflection, I would have to admit that no, I think there are many other animal beings that possess the ability to reflect.  Our notion of social justice is evolving to reflect this.

One of the side effects of our recently acquired longevity is the side effect of dementia and incapacity.  Perhaps before declaring a “war on Alzheimer’s” we might first examine our thinking about it – dementia as a “side effect” of longevity.  Are we looking in the mirror or through the window here?  I would suggest that this story is one which belongs to the mirror and is therefore part of our story, a myth as suggested above.  What we lack is a big-enough thinking, a mythology for what is happening to us in this new old age.  The call for the war on Alzheimer’s is indicative of our desire for a quick fix, to maybe find a pill to take so we can “manage” it.

So is it the remembering or the forgetting that is the challenge?  Disappointment, disintegration and resulting dystonia, and of course depression are accompanying many of us as we pass through the eighth and ninth stages of life.  All this “dis” reminds me of William Blake, the English poet of the 19th century.  Kathleen Raine, the late poet, author and interpreter of Blake, caused me to wonder about reversing the polarity in the final (ninth) stage of our lives and consider that:

Experience was not a learning but a forgetting, a loss of vision, a narrowing of consciousness, or as Blake puts it, a falling into the deadly sleep of materialism, to become oblivious to that beauty seen with the eyes of innocence.

K. Raine, “A Sense of Beauty,” in The Underlying Order and Other Essays (2008: Temenos Academy ) at 67.

    So in the context of the life cycle, as some movement from an origin, a progression and evolution (if we’re successful) we might end up at some place of return in the ninth stage as described by Joan Erickson – the gerotranscendance.  Perhaps the stages themselves mark time as well – chronologically of course, but also in terms of kairos, the quality of time.  The Egyptians originated the solar year, the Zuni people referred to months as the steps of the years, and so the regeneration of time, in its cyclical aspects has been a part of the human phenomenon for all of our known history.

So what is it to which we return – a forgetting or a remembering?  Perhaps in order to be able to manage that return, we must dis-assemble ourselves somehow.  That is one aspect of transcendence.  Maybe it is also that perhaps forgetting all that accumulated experience is needed in order to clear away the debris, so that we can truly remember, as described by Raine and Blake.  I don’t pretend to have any answers, I am merely proposing we open the doorway a bit wider before we determine the path forward.

There are many ways to look at dementia and incapacity, but when we focus exclusively on the individual and on the objective, measurable parts of a person’s identity, it can only ever be about loss.  I am merely suggesting that the group focus is at this time much too narrow and there are other ways of viewing old age, and it challenges beyond the checklist formulated by our brain and identity-centric material order-obsessed version of objective reality.  Moving away from “I am X” toward simply “I am” is what I’m talking about.

Remember the quote I started this series with?

With great power comes great responsibility.

Voltaire (1694-1778), Spiderman (2002)

   I will close this series with an exercise with a bit of music.  I think a big part of our problems with thinking, both as individuals and collectively as a society, has to do with our neglected sense of wonder.  So here goes: try this link of an inspiring song by Lisa Gerrard (you might recognize it from a movie soundtrack) and while you are looking at the beautiful pictures of our cosmic neighbors, try stretching your arms wide as you sit or stand, as if you are spreading your wings or are about to receive a welcoming embrace.  Do this for two minutes and see what it does for your sense of feeling confident and powerful as well as your sense of wonder and beauty that is the world of which we are part.

So to conclude this series which revisits common themes of other posts: darkness and depth and exile and return, I will employ my favorite poetic device, haiku.

How can it be known –

to distinguish between them,

the two darknesses?

 

Only the compass

Rose of the heart can measure

Luminosity.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org

Longevity Planning – Planning for Long Life and Likely Disability

 

denver elder law

Lucina’s Spring Blossom

As you have undoubtedly noticed, Americans are living longer than ever before.  One of the side effects of this longevity is a fairly strong likelihood that an incident or period of incapacity or disability will accompany that long life.  Yes, we baby boomers seem to think that if we just continue to exercise and eat right, somehow we will get a ticket to longevity that ensures our vital longevity.  After all, we boomers practically grew up with Jack LaLanne!  Long before Hans und Franz of SNL fame, there was the blue-jumpsuited “Godfather of Fitness” (I learned of this moniker this only as I did a bit of web research).  LaLanne died in 2011 at age 96, with nary a gray hair on his head!

So what about this longevity issue – I am thinking of it in the context of the death denial and youth glorification convergence . . .?  I’ve written about it before.  Death strikes fear in people’s minds, and even in our hearts.  For many it is a major anxiety producing thing to consider, let alone contemplate.  Ernest Becker wrote about this in The Denial of Death.  A favorite book of mine stands in contrast to this well-recognized fear, in Who Dies, authors Stephen and Ondrea Levine take a completely different approach to this fear and address it in the context of conscious living and conscious dying.

So how we view this life and death experience, in terms of what we fear and what we embrace, what we can know and what remains mystery, this is far from a “standard” human response.  I might be getting off-topic here, but let’s face it, with this kind of a topic it’s hard to know where things will lead!  I don’t think we’ve always lived like this – with such “faith” in medical science as something that will somehow protect us from the ravages of illness, old age and eventual death.  I am pretty certain that our scientific progress in understanding more of how our bodies function, age and eventually die, has brought about a thinking that we can somehow “manage” death.

And so we hold death at bay, we call it the enemy and we make our lives a struggle against the inevitable.  Well, if that is the sum of a life’s purpose . . .  I would say “that ain’t much!”  When many of us are ill and eventually die, we often employ that language of warfare.  Example: John Doe fought bravely in his struggle against metastatic prostate cancer.   On this topic of battlefield euphemisms, my friend Liz sent this excellent article to me from “The New Old Age.”  Bottom line is, the militaristic language, the fighting words we see so often and hear in conversation do nothing to empower our lives and our sense of purpose in our lives.  I would argue that this language and its approach rob us of our purpose, disempowering us by making us random and senseless victims of our lives in our death.  Remember the announcement of the war on cancer by President Nixon?  Most recently we have the war on Alzheimer’s announced by President Obama.

So back to the longevity planning theme and the fear of illness, frailty, disability . . . .  life on its own uncertain terms.  The fear of disability is more troubling in many respects than the fear of death.  Much of it springs from youth glorification, an extension of that anxiety around death which often includes processes, occurrences and diseases that often precede death.  Is the glorification of youth simply an extension of the denial of death?  I am not asserting that the American cultural obsession with the denial of death is a recent occurrence or produced by the baby boomer generation.  No, it goes back further than that.

I have written previously about the fear many of us have of getting Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia.  I think there is also plenty of evidence that people fear incapacity at least or perhaps more than the fear of dementia.  Of course, dementia is only one form of incapacity, so the questions may blur the distinctions. There are of course a myriad of other fears which surround aging.  Many of them don’t have to do with losing capacity so much as retaining it in our old age.  I enjoyed reading Roger Angell’s article “This Old Man” in The New Yorker.  It is a story about all those human needs and desires we carry with us into whatever age we find ourselves.  There is no handbook on how to behave when you find out that your 85 year old mother, who has been widowed for less than two years, has started dating on the internet.  And what about physical intimacy in the assisted living or nursing home?  I’ll write more about our cultural fear of aging soon.

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

What does living with Dementia Look Like?

I recently read a blog post written by a woman in Florida (she blogs under the name “stumblinn”) who has been living with young onset dementia for fourteen years.  Her post of May 8, 2012 was entitled “Dementia and spirituality” and you can read it here .  She writes

I am glad that I have never seen myself as a victim of or suffering from dementia.   Having dementia is not a choice for me, but not suffering from it is.   We suffer when we resist what is, see what happens to us in life as unfair.   When we remain aware at all times that everything that happens is an opportunity for learning and spiritual growth, then there is no suffering.    (That does not mean there are no challenges to face as without them, there would be no growth.)

I found her comments instructive.    It reminded me of an article I ran across a few years ago published by Baylor University.   I liked this article because it considers dementia in the spiritual context and asks “what is it that makes us who we are?”  It is illustrated with a picture of a quilt to demonstrate how the story of each of our lives is connected to others’ lives.  Dementia may rob people from remembering their “story,” but others can help them remember by reinforcing each individual’s uniqueness and honoring the person’s “be-ing” not just their “do-ing.”   I’ll quote Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel’s comments at the White House Conference on Aging, back in 1971:

Older adults need a vision, not only recreation.

Older adults need a dream, not only a memory.

It takes three things to attain a significant sense of being: God, a soul and a moment.  And the three are always there. 

Just to BE is a blessing, and just to LIVE is holy.

The Alzheimer’s Association has a list of resources (articles, books videos, etc) under “Spirituality and Dementia” that is available here.

The U.S. has recently declared a “War on Alzheimer’s”  and some commentators are optimistic that Alzheimer’s Disease may be treatable by 2025 – read an article in the April 2012 Scientific American here,  but while this focus may prove successful to combat and prevent in the future there are many people – both individuals and families who face many different types of challenges right now.  This is why I liked stumblinn’s post.

The World Health Organization  issued a news release on 4/11/12 under the title “Dementia cases set to triple by 2050 but still largely ignored”    and essentially recommended that dementia public awareness and diagnosis needs to be expanded beyond the eight nations who currently have national programs to address dementia.  One of the topics covered in the release was providing more support to caregivers.    In this country, we need to continue to expand our understanding of people with dementia as people first, not medical problems to be fixed.

In the meantime, there continues to be evidence that lifestyle choices and habits still factor into the dementia diagnosis  in significant ways, U.S. News article “Everyday Activities Might Lower Alzheimer’s Risk” is here  and efforts to get people with dementia out in nature to reconnect with it to get back in better touch with their essential humanity  are helpful as are programs reconnecting dementia patients through art (an article in The New Old Age series).  I’ll explore more about gratitude for “what is” in a later post.

©Barbara Cashman, LLC