My Final Post

I’m going to have to file this post under the heading “My Children Think I’m Morbid” although a part of me might argue with that because I don’t think the action I’m describing here ended up being the least bit morbid. In fact, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding actions my husband and I ever took in our lives. I do recognize, however, that most people think that filling out an Advance Directive is, in fact, a morbid thing to have to do.

When my late husband, Bill, and I filled out our Directives, it started out feeling a bit morbid but by the end of the procedure, it had become one of the most enlightening conversations we ever had. We actually did two different sets of forms, one form that was given to us by the mortuary that we used to arrange for our end–of–life services, and a second form that was given to us by our primary care physician. The two forms contained very different questions and all of those questions were important ones.

Most of the questions on both forms were relatively easy to answer but one of the questions was definitely not easy to answer. In fact, it took us several days to come up with an answer that was sufficient to meet our needs. This question involved this subject of when we would choose to terminate life-extending actions. It was easy enough to say that we would choose to discontinue these actions when our life no longer seemed worth living. The hard part, of course, was deciding exactly what made our lives worth living and when those elements were irretrievably gone.

As most of my close friends know, I can be a bit compulsive about certain things. Because my husband was six years older than me and because my health was considerably better than his at the time we filled in the forms, I took this question far more seriously than he did in the beginning. My father died at the way-too-early age of 48 years after an extended illness, and my mother had to make many of the medical decisions as his condition became critical. I was still a teenager at the time but I was very aware of how difficult it was for her making many of the decisions that were necessary.

It was quite easy for Bill and I to say that we did not want to artificially extend our life span if our condition was such that we could no longer enjoy our life. The difficult part was putting into words exactly what made our lives worth living. I had been married to Bill for almost 50 years at the time we chose to fill out these forms and I thought I knew him very well. But when I pinned him down on exactly what was necessary to ensure that his life was worth living, and when I realized that there was a possibility he would not be able to explain this to me as his illness progressed, I knew how important it was to be absolutely clear in my understanding of this matter.

Because I also recognized the possibility that anyone, even people in apparently good health (as I was at the time) could suddenly have an event like a stroke occur that would leave them unable to communicate on this vital issue, I also recognized that I needed to be able to spell out very clearly to Bill and/or my children exactly what made my life worth living. As we began the process of communicating on this issue, we both realized that it was not going to be as easy as we originally expected to understand our own wishes, let alone understand our partner’s wishes.

The process of examining our own considerations on this subject and our own preferences proved to be both extremely difficult and very wonderful. Bill surprised me repeatedly as he began to voice the conditions he felt were necessary to make a life worth living. I would never have guessed that being able to go out and putter in his garage would be so near the top of his list. Nor did I recognize that the ability to listen to music would also be near the top. I wasn’t surprised to hear that the ability to give and receive hugs was his number one item (Bill was a great hugger), but I was surprised when I realized that such an ability would also be right at the top of my own list.

Working together on our lists was extremely helpful to the process. Many of the items that Bill put near the top of his list were not things that we were in the habit of doing regularly. Once I had seen his list and borrowed heavily from it for my own list, we began to make certain that the activities at the top of our list were done frequently from that time forward. Lots more hugging took place after we completed our lists and I have to add that now that Bill is gone, those hugs are the thing that I miss most of all.

The subject of this blog, as the subtitle denotes, has always been about how to make the final 15% of one’s life fulfilling. Many of the activities that Bill and I did during those last years of his life were based on what we learned about each other as we filled out those Advance Directives. Now that Bill is gone, and I am left behind to plan for the remainder of my own life, I still refer back to the realizations I had while filling out those forms. I am currently working hard to rearrange my own life to take advantage of the fact that I have unlimited choices about what I want to do in the future and that I need to give high priority to the items that were on that list.

I hope my own children never have to make those important decisions for me about when it’s time to accept the inevitable, that death comes to us all eventually, and stop life–extending measures. The benefits of completing the forms extend far beyond just knowing when it’s time to allow life to end. Done properly, the information is also vital to making sure to live life fully all the way up to the end. I’m glad we had both sets of forms. The ones provided by our physician were very strong at covering the legal issues and I appreciate that those decisions have been made. The ones given to us by the mortuary focused much more heavily on spelling out what made life worth living and how we wanted to handle the last occasion in our life, whether it be a full–fledged funeral or a simple end-of-life party. The best part of the forms, as we did them, was the spelling out in great detail exactly what made our lives worth living. The benefits were so apparent, that I found myself wishing we had done the forms years sooner. Imagine all the extra hugs I might’ve received if I’d only recognized just how much my husband loved giving and receiving them.

Note: This will be my final post on this site. I have moved into a new stage of life now and will be started a new blog soon based on my greatly changed circumstances.

We Are Not Elderly Yet, Are We?

Definition of ElderlyYes, according to most dictionaries, those of us who are over 65 are officially elderly. Read the attached list of synonyms for the word elderly to get a clear idea of what the world’s attitude toward the elderly is often like: that list of synonyms contains words like geezer, decrepit, in one’s dotage, and over the hill. I was shocked the first time I heard myself described as elderly in a memo from my health care provider. Then again, the provider was Medicare so why was I so surprised? Some days I still feel like a young spring chicken, at least until I try to climb out of bed. Other days, I’m all too aware that my joints are wearing out, my senses are becoming duller, my organs aren’t quite as efficient as they once were, and the reflection in the mirror has white hair and wrinkles. So why do I persist in thinking this stage of my life, which I have dubbed the final fifteen percent, can be the most fulfilling stage of all? Sadly, some people have told me that my blog is badly named and I’m crazy to think it is possible to enjoy being old.

I’m not blind. I know that many people are facing incredible challenges in life. But some of the people with the biggest challenges seem to feel as I do and others whose lives seem outwardly at least to be going reasonably well are among those who think I’m nuts. But I persist in thinking this stage of life can be the most rewarding of all if we just make some adjustments to our activities, our goals, and our standards. I’ve been pondering where the difference lies between those who feel it is possible to enjoy old age and those who don’t and I got some insightful communication from Betty Cadwell Barry and her husband, Bob Barry, that helped lead me to come to the conclusions I am going to express in this post.

Young and OldAs you can see from the graphic, my goals have changed since my youth.  I think it is, in part, this adjustment that helps me maintain the idea that life can be wonderful in spite of my husband’s serious illness, my own more ordinary deterioration and responsibilities as a caregiver, and the fact that my friends have been dropping off at an alarming rate recently and I can see my own mortality beginning to stare me in the face. I have had five good friends die in the last 12 months and that is an average number for a person of my age. Continue reading

The Dark Side of Caregiving

Both giving and receiving care can be highly charged subjects. As an adult, needing to receive care is often tied to a loss of independence, loss of the sense of being able to have an equal exchange with others, loss of privacy, loss of dignity, and fear of being unable to fend for one’s self. Giving care to another, whether to a child or another adult, can equal a loss of time for one’s own interests and needs, loss of independence, loss of income, loss of freedom, and a fear of failure. The feelings that are stirred up by a need to provide or receive care can be positive: satisfaction at being able to help; the warmth of feeling needed; the pleasure of watching a loved one recover. But there are frequently very strong negative feelings involved as well: grief and loss when the help is rejected or unsuccessful; depression when the need is extended and stressful; intense loneliness when the demands result in isolation from friends or pleasurable activities.

The strongest positive emotion connected to caregiving is satisfaction when the process goes well for both giver and receiver. There is possibly no other feeling more wonderful than the feeling of having been helped when the help was desperately needed or the feeling of joy that results from seeing a person you have worked hard to help benefit from those efforts. The strongest negative emotion connected to caregiving is guilt: often an overwhelming and destructive sense of guilt that can strike both the recipient of the care and the giver of the care. That feeling of guilt is often made more powerful by feelings of shame and failure that accompany the guilt.

Caregiving is a major part of most people’s lives at any stage but in the final fifteen percent of our lives, the part this blog is most concerned with, we have reached a point where on average we are losing three friends or loved ones a year and the need to be involved in caregiving is at a peak.

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