Last month, we said goodbye to my husband’s beloved grandmother, a loss that we’ll no doubt feel deeply for years to come. Grammy, the last grandparent between us, was a remarkable woman who warmly welcomed me into the fold of her family and treated me as her own from the day we met. We were fortunate to have celebrated Grammy’s 95th birthday with her in the spring, which was a time not only of celebration but of reflection on a life that had been very well-lived, physically and otherwise. In the past couple of years, she had become frail after nine full decades of hale and health, and after struggling with that transition, she seemed to have reached a place of peace.
A geriatric social worker since my mid-20s, I’ve spent my entire adult life in the awed presence of the “oldest old,” as they are known in the medical community. Theoretically, I know what it is to grow old, and I don’t fear it the way many do. I think a lot about becoming – and eventually being – old, and consciously make decisions about how I live my life with the “end” in mind. If the day comes that I’ve lost much of my ability to function independently, I very much want to know that I got everything out of this body that I could have. I want to have eaten every delicious thing, visited every beautiful place, hugged every dear person, and crossed every finish line that I reasonably could have. (I’m an avid distance runner.) I am, meanwhile, mindful of the role that moderation plays in the living of a long and healthy life. So I don’t actually eat every delicious thing. (Okay I usually do. But I don’t go back for seconds. Usually.) My impulse is to travel constantly, but I know the importance of planning financially for old age, and so have learned to avoid the temptations of the New York Times travel section, and try to keep our annual vacation budget in check. There are dozens of races I would love to run every year, but out of respect for the limits of my ankles, knees, and hips, I give them lots of love and recovery time, and restrain myself.
I see no reason to hold back when it comes to the hugs, though. Grammy certainly didn’t. As she grew older, the logistics of the hugs changed, as we had to lean down to reach her in her chair to get them. But they remained big and plentiful until the end of her long life.
Bill Thomas, MD wrote a wonderful book called What Are Old People For? that is still well worth your time, even though I’m about to give you the answer:
Young people are for doing. Old people are for being.
I couldn’t agree more. Certainly there are exceptional old people who earn college degrees in their 80s, run marathons in their 90s, or work until they’re 100. But most of us will be met with physical or cognitive limitations that make this kind of “doing” impossible. A good old age is, in my mind, one wherein we’ve successfully adapted to the functional limits of our bodies or brains, and recognized that while the ability to “do” may be waning, what the world really needs from us now is the unique “being” that only we can “be.” By old age, we have become the holders of histories, the vehicles of values we hold dear, a connective glue binding family together. We know the stories and the secrets, and (I can’t wait for this part) we have life pretty well figured out. Even in the presence of one who has lost the ability to remember or communicate verbally, if you pay attention there is an unmistakable sense of all that they know, and of who they are. Being.
Chances are good there will be a day that I can no longer experience the physical joy of a run. Perhaps I’ll still be able to read and write about it. Perhaps I’ll have younger or healthier friends through whom I’ll continue to experience that joy. Maybe I’ll lose that, too? Someday I’ll probably seem like little more than a wrinkly old lady to someone who’s not paying attention. But I’ll still be that runner, who ran all over the world, saw life through that lens, and cared deeply about it. And I’ll probably still have something to say on the subject. I hope someone will ask.