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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Letter: Reflections on aging and the stages of life
Letter to the editor. File

Dear editor:

I want to thank Dr. William Brown for his column, “Start to finish: What happens to us as we age,” in the Dec. 14 issue of The Lake Report.

Dr. Brown details the medical progression of deterioration in health and functionality over the course of life and especially the decline in the senior years.

As true as this may be, I would like to suggest that “what happens to us as we age” is a great deal more than simply medical/physical decline.

Humans are a complex interaction between the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and relational aspects of being. And the condition of each of these has enormous impact on the outcomes of the other aspects.

Meaningful, genuine relationships are crucial for overall health.

At birth, infants deprived of touch and emotional relationships do not thrive physically.

Equally so, in later years, relationships with peers and younger generations provide support, encouragement and purpose-for-living that can provide meaning even in suffering.

Having been directly involved in nearly 200 families’ experiences of losing a loved one either suddenly or over a period of time, I have seen how much the sharing of stories, reconciliation and acceptance can happen when relationships are attended to in the senior years of life.

Even a senior’s decline can facilitate family and generational healing.

Erik Erikson’s “Eight Stages of Life” conclude with “integrity vs despair.”

Each stage involves the coming to terms with its unique challenges, the success of which leads to either one of two outcomes.

In the case of the eighth stage, as a person reflects on their life, their successful acceptance of their life as it has been lived (the good, the bad and the ugly) can lead to integrity in the ultimate phase of life, rather than despair.

That is, rather than resentment and disappointment, there can be shalom, peace and contentment. Even with a shrinking cortex.

I have long been interested in observing how people live their lives.

In spite of the tendency of life’s stresses and experiences often to fragment ourselves into fears, anxieties, aggressions and defensiveness, we have the opportunity throughout life to choose integration over fragmentation; love over hate; kindness over meanness; giving rather than taking; gratitude over complaining; life over death.

While our bodies may indeed gradually reduce their capacities, our souls and our minds can grow in wisdom and discernment.

I find that as I age, my life experience and wisdom is in increasing demand from those younger than me. That’s not to say I can always rise to the needs of the occasion, but it shows that younger generations often look to elders to see how life is to be lived.

Sometimes the example produces, “I never want to be like that,” but other times the ways that one ages leads to an inspired, “Wow, I hope I can be like that when I get old.”

In many cultures, including African societies I have lived in for many years, the elders are respected and honoured. That has been truer in past decades even in our culture.

I would venture to say that as our life expectancy increases, and as our resources and knowledge of how to live healthy for more years increases, we as elders have enormous value to offer our younger colleagues in terms of wisdom, support, guidance, listening ears, and even corny jokes and entertaining, outdated expressions.

An article by Harold Koenig in ISRN Psychiatry in December 2012 entitled, “Religion, Spirituality, and Health: the Research and Clinical Implications,” details the findings of a century of studies on the effects of religion on health.

In fascinating detail, the article shows over and over that studies find religion and spirituality can have a positive effect in virtually every area of health.

“While religion and spirituality is not a panacea, on the balance, it is generally associated with greater well-being, improved coping with stress and better mental health. This relationship with mental health has physical health consequences,” Koenig says.

These findings strongly suggest that how we live our lives, our relationships, our emotional and psychological maturity, and even our caring for our own soul spiritually all have a profound effect on our entire lives with a remarkable opportunity to enjoy purpose and meaning even in aging.

As Dr. Brown notes, “There’s no escape … in the end there is an end.”

True enough and I do not trivialize the negative health issues of aging. But along the way we have choices in how we each deal with our approaching end.

And how we live now – young or old – will shape the quality of our end.

Blessings on each of you in the new year. May you age well.

Rudy Dirks

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