Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Flourishing: Getting Old

Our book club recently read Still Alice, which is a fictional account of a woman who gets early-onset Alzheimer's, and I personally followed it up with a viewing of a TED talk on preparing to get Alzheimer's, by the daughter of a patient.  Then just the other day, I attended an 80th birthday party for a woman in my congregation, and I was the one who walked her back up to her little apartment where she lives alone, helping to carry her gifts.  The very next morning, I sat down to do an actual writing prompt (rare!) and it directed me to imagine myself at 80.  All those things made me think of flourishing in a few new ways.

Basically, I realized that I can do a lot, now, to plan for my old age.  I can't choose what will ail me or if I will be alone or not, but there are a few concrete steps I can take to be well-equipped to face whatever comes.  And, I suppose not surprisingly, what I can do essentially is to flourish now.

One of the biggest pieces of advice that stuck out to me was to learn some skill or hobby that would keep you occupied even if you couldn't recognize words or remember your own name.  If you're a drooling mess, what can keep you from going crazy?  It's not all inner resilience or endless television -- a lot can be gained from having your mind and your body linked in some way that becomes second-nature.  (Maybe there's a good reason knitting is often associated with old ladies...)  I'm hoping that the time I've spent dancing, hiking, running, and digging in the garden will translate into increased mobility as I age, but also into an ability to calm my mind and engage with the world simply by putting one foot in front of the other.  I don't just hike, I've been an avid student of the outdoors, particularly identifying wild plants; I'd like to think that those things will stay familiar and uplifting to me even if I can't remember their names anymore.

Music also plays a role in what I imagine my elderly strengths will be.  I just heard a sister speak at church about visiting her husband in the nursing home and how when she plays the piano there, one particular lady always wheels right up next to the piano and sings along to the hymns she plays.  This elderly resident apparently can't really speak anymore, but she can sing the hymn lyrics clear as a bell.  I doubt I'll have a great singing voice or be able to play much on the piano at that age, but I do know the words to a lot of hymns.  So if there's a piano in my nursing home, I'll probably be happily warbling away, keeping at least my mouth and some dusty corner of my brain moving.

One last, unusual thing that may keep me sane is math.  Numbers have always kept me oddly grounded when I run into mental distress, so I'd probably love to do a bunch of 4th-grade workbooks when I'm 80 (or thereabouts).  Give me some kind of story problem to solve, some kind of budget to balance, and you've probably got my focused attention for a while.  Take note, my future caretakers!

But really, as I think about these scenarios, they take a rather beautiful shape.  They seem to imply that I will continue to be truly myself even when I'm old, and that the person I'm trying to become now -- writing, exercising, camping, showing affection and tenderness, creating scrapbooks and Halloween costumes and birthday cakes -- is the person who will be best prepared to thrive till the end.  As I've tried to focus on flourishing, on using my mental faculties to fine-tune my good desires and to physically connect with my world in a happy way, I'm building what I'll need at the last.

Though as an aside, I feel the slight need to dispel that happy blogland haze that makes my life seem perfect.  I have plenty of days NOW when I show signs of crankiness, loneliness, unreasonableness, and sadness, let alone when I'm 80.  But one of the other bedrock items that came out in my more-personal writing exercise was my testimony, and specifically going to the temple.  So, I'll do the best I can down here, but I'm trying to make friends in high places :)

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