One of the greatest acts of faith is believing that our individual lives have meaning and are worth living — all the way to the end. Throughout our lives, this faith is tested many times. For some of us, the final stage will be the most challenging test of all.
Old Age is Not for Sissies
Consider, for example, the life of my mother, who died three months ago at the age of 101.
By most accounts, she had a good run. Married over 50 years to a man she loved, she raised four healthy children in the small town where she lived most of her adult life. She and my father shared a modest, middle-class lifestyle. An active member of her church circle and bridge club, my mother had many friends and acquaintances. After my father’s death, she continued to live independently in their home for many years.
Then, at age 90, frequent falls and memory problems made it difficult for her to manage on her own. She moved 60 miles away to a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) in the town where my brother lives.
After that, everything changed. No longer able to drive, she lost touch with her friends and community. The memory problems increased. She fell and broke a hip that could not be repaired, leaving her unable to walk. In that first year at the CCRC, she moved from an apartment to assisted living to the nursing care unit, where she resided for the next 10 years.
Over time, my mother forgot all aspects of her former life, no longer recognized family members, lost her ability to speak, and became totally dependent on caregivers. She spent most of her final two years sleeping.
Where is the meaning in that life?
This is the question that all of us living through today’s “longevity revolution” must face. As we watch our parents slide into senility and dependency, we wonder what will become of us, and we worry that we, too, will suffer the same fate.
Meaning in Vulnerability
One way to think about this issue is to rise above our personal fears and look at aging from a broader perspective.
In his book What are Old People For? geriatric physician William Thomas makes a strong case for old age, including the final years of decline and disability, as essential to the evolution of humankind. He argues that “society needs to see, be inspired by, and learn from the weakest, frailest, most forgetful of us all.”
Why? Because they give us deeper insight into the human condition. They remind us that we are all vulnerable, and we all need each other to survive and thrive. If we can overcome our fears and open our hearts to the full experience of living and aging, we will become kinder, more compassionate people. Our spirit of generosity will expand, and life for everyone will improve.
Thomas explains it this way:
“The oldest of the old have always been our most important teachers. They instruct us not with words or memories of times long ago; they teach us with their selves. As time leads them to rely ever more closely on others, they offer us the opportunity to care for them. They bring into our lives the realization that all life is precious. Through them, we begin to understand how caregiving makes us human.”
Caring for elders is a unique form of caregiving because it reminds us, “generation after generation, that there is a vital and never-to-be-forgotten distinction between the withered husk of the body and the beauty of the human being that body shelters.” Through elder care, we learn to accept our own aging bodies with more kindness and equanimity. We also offer hope to future generations that, when their time comes, they, too, will be cared for.
My Mother’s Legacy
Some might call my mother’s final years a tragedy. But that would not do justice to her lived experience.
She was not unhappy in the nursing home. She lost all the worries and inhibitions that had plagued her earlier in life. She no longer compared herself to others, nor did she care what others thought of her. She was comfortable and content just being herself.
A real tragedy would be to allow those final years to overshadow her long and fruitful life.
In his book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, therapist David Kessler advises that, when we lose a loved one, we take the time to reflect on their legacy – who they were, what they did, and how they affected others.
My mother’s legacy includes the following:
(1) She was smart and ambitious but lacked the confidence to pursue her dreams. So she encouraged her children to pursue theirs.
(2) She was honest, reliable, punctual, hardworking and conscientious. She passed all these qualities on to her children, and our lives are better for it.
(3) She was a good cook and kept a clean house. She gained pleasure and pride in her homemaking skills. My sister and I are exactly the same way.
One of my mother’s defining traits was her frugality. She could make a dollar stretch in many directions and was skilled at “making do” with the materials at hand. In midlife, when she started working full-time, she joined an investment club and gradually began to buy stocks and bonds. My parents never had much money, but she invested whatever she could. She was planning for old age.
Years later, when she could no longer keep track of things, my mother appointed my older brother, a stockbroker, to manage her finances. He continued in the same vein, making small-scale, conservative investments with her future in mind.
They were smart managers. When my mother died, she left each of her children a modest sum of money, with a few hundred dollars left over for charity. This is an astonishing feat, considering that she did not have long-term care insurance and for 10 years paid to live in a nursing home. I venture to say that most other middle-class widows would have become penniless long ago.
My parents both came from humble beginnings, and Inheritances do not run in our family. They taught us to work hard and expect nothing from others. My siblings and I consider our inheritance a surprising windfall.
If there is a heaven, my mother is surely looking down on us and remarking gleefully, “See what happens when you save your money?!”
Kessler tells us that the best way to honor a loved one’s legacy is to take what they’ve given us and carry it forward. As he sees it, “ensuring that the good qualities of your loved one will live on in your life is perhaps the most meaningful of all legacies.”
For me, acknowledging the value of my mother’s life, including her final years, is a first step in that process. And so I have written this article and shared it with you.
The question before me now is this: How can I grow my mother’s legacy in ways that will enrich the lives of others, as well as my own?
I’m going to have to ponder that for a while. But I am my mother’s daughter, and I have faith in myself. I know that I will spend my inheritance wisely.
Written by: Ruth Ray Karpen
Ruth Ray Karpen is a retired English professor who now works as a freelance researcher and writer. She has published many books and articles on aging and old age, life story writing, and retirement. She also volunteers her time at a local hospice and animal shelter. In our series on Heart and Soul, she explores how later life, including the end of life, offers unique opportunities for emotional and spiritual growth.