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The Mortality Club

It's Good that We Die

Death is a scary thing to contemplate. Images of the grim reaper are designed to terrify, not to console. It is no wonder that so many horror movies include dark cemeteries as the place where terrible things happen to good people. A belief in Heaven, or life everlasting helps mitigate against the terror, but rarely alleviates it entirely. And yet, it is good that we die.

If death were not the consequence of failing to take care of our bodies, we would become slothful and unhealthy, and spend all of eternity feeling poorly. We would be like a sick, old person condemned living in a state of decay forever. Consider T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land. The epigraph refers to the story of Sybil. She requested and was granted eternal life. Unfortunately, she forgot to ask that she be allowed to remain forever young. She aged and became decrepit. Not knowing what else to do with her, the townsfolk put her in a basket and hung her over the town square. For a thousand years, they listened to her moan, “Let me die. Please let me die.” And yet they could do nothing to help her.  Read More 
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Sharp Dressed Seniors

Increasingly, older men and women are fighting ageism by refusing to tone down their dress code to meet the expectations of those who believe that aging bodies are not worthy of dressing up in bright colors or the latest fashions. These sharp dressed seniors find that dressing up makes them feel better about themselves and life in general. It gives them a boost and an outlet for exercising their creative urges. And, it gets them noticed. It’s a highly creative way to fight the feeling that as we age we become invisible.  Read More 
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Widow's Walk

I wrote Widow’s Walk when I was thirty five years old. Tracing my first year’s torturous journey after my husband died of a heart attack was an attempt to come to terms with death and its aftermath. Now, at the age of seventy-one, I am attempting to come to terms with the challenges of aging and, as the runway of my life gets shorter, the certainty that I will die. I wrote The Hourglass: Life as an Aging Mortal to describe this part of life’s journey. Many who have read that book urged me to republish Widow’s Walk. This posting is taken from the Preface I wrote for that new edition.

Although it was a difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching process, I believe it is even harder to lose a spouse when we’re older than when we are young and the future is filled with the sense of potential. The experience of several of my close friends who have recently become widows and widowers has convinced me this is true. When we are older, we are less resilient. The are fewer paths open for us to discover. Our energy levels are lower than they were, making it harder to explore the new paths that do present themselves. There are fewer candidates who can or want to fill our empty chair. We may not even want them to do so, peferring to content ourselves with the memories we built over the years with our dead mate.  Read More 
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Conversations About Dying

The other day I came across a blog posted by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I was attracted by the smiling face and wide brown eyes of the young woman in a black graudaton cap and gown. She held a diploma in one hand and roses in the other. Her name is Tara Baysol. She was the author of the blog.

The first paragraph broke my heart: “I was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013 at th age of 27. Just prior to my diagnosis, I had started a new, exciting chapter as a Yeale graduate student. My self-confidence was at an all-time high as I had survived my chaotic early 20s and was beginning to really figure things out. But then the symptoms arrived, and they led to a discovery that demolished everything.”  Read More 
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SAVING THE DEAD: Post Mortem Photographs

December 20, 1914
During one of our trips to Australia, my husband David found in an antique shop a poster sized photograph taken of the 740 Australian men who volunteered to fight during the First World War. These farmers, shopkeepers, and others who had never served in the military but shared a strong sense of patriotism were sent to Egypt for training. The day before they were due to depart for the front lines in Gallipoli, they had their picture taken on the Pyramid Cheops.

The photograph hangs in a small room off our den that we call the archive room because it houses all our family photo albums, and because one wall is devoted to photographs of my family. (The room also doubles as a wine storage room, and repository for history and reference books.)

I was in there the other day looking for a bottle of wine and got distracted by the photograph which David framed and hung on “his” wall –– the one we had dedicated to his family photos. My attention was drawn to the two soldiers who had been propped up against the wall of the pyramid by their buddies. They had died in the infirmary the day before. Because they were a part of the valiant 11th Battalion, they didn’t want them to be forgotten. It was to become the last visual record of eighty percent of them. Only 144 survived that bloody battle. Read More 
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THE WAR OF THE AGES: Chicken Little and Indiana Jones

The pace and tempo of old and young are different and out of sync. Older people move more slowly than younger people. This frustrates the young and intimidates the old. Older people walk slowly because their bones are brittle, their balance is off, and they’re afraid of falling. They stop every few feet because their fibrillating heart makes them short of breath. They drive slowly because their synapses don’t fire quite as fast, cataracts are forming and their peripheral vision isn’t what it used to be. They even eat slowly. That may because they aren’t in a hurry, or because they need to chew their food more thoroughly to digest it, or because they just can’t seem to get the fork and spoon to cooperate.

In good humor, let me tell you a story about my mother and spaghetti. She loved spaghetti with meat sauce. She ordered it at every opportunity. My siblings and I tried repeatedly to teach her how to use her fork and spoon and twirl the pasta into a tight roll before attempting to put it in her mouth. She never quite got the hang of that. She persisted in attempting to pick up the pasta one piece at a time with her fork and put it daintily in her mouth. The strand of pasta would hang from the corner of her petite mouth, spewing sauce all over her chin. That made her nuts. She’d put down her fork, and carefully wipe her face with the napkin and then begin again. The meal could last for hours. We finally got to the point where we’d take her to restaurants that didn’t have spaghetti on the menu. Read More 
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THE WAR OF THE AGES: The Old Phart and the Upstart

The Old Phart refuses to give in or give up. He or she will stand his (her) ground and yell and scream if necessary to be heard over the din created by disinterested and disrespectful younger people who want the obstinate old trouble maker to simply get out of their way. The Old Phart has a thing or two to say to the younger members of the group whom he views not as legitimate heirs to the throne, but as Upstarts who have not earned the right to rule.

Even when the experiences and expertise of an elderly person are relevant to the challenges a younger person is facing, there can be conflict. This happens when the once influential old man or old woman who sat on top of the chain of command now has no direct reports and no legitimate authority. Too often, that old man or old woman holds onto the demeanor and directive communications style that was once appropriate. He or she intrudes and tells the younger people in his world what to do and how to do it. The interference is strongly resented.  Read More 
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Money Matters

Money creates choices and maintains options. In doing so, it enables elderly people to be masters of their own destinies. Elderly people without money or assets can have a terrible time.

Think about Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear decided to dispose of his estate while he was still alive. He assumed that the recipients of his wealth would be grateful and therefore eager to care for him until he died. He decided to gift each of his three daughters a proportion of the estate commensurate with her love for him. He failed to understand that his daughter Cordelia was expressing deep affection when she said, “I love you more than salt.” Insulted by the comparison, he gave all of his assets to the two daughters who played most effectively to his aging ego. Read More 
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Old People are Works of Art

On Facebook, I have a page devoted to my book, The Hourglass: Life as an Aging Mortal. One of the postings has received more than four thousand comments, “likes” and other delightful reactions. The theme of the post is a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Beautiful young people are acts of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

I posted the quote with this photograph of a smiling older lady which I found and purchased on a digital photo site. Many people have assumed that it’s my face in the photo. I wish!!! I am stunned by the extraordinarily positive response to the quotation and the photo, and thus wanted to share it with you. I believe if we can think like this, when we look in the mirror, we might just learn to like our physical selves as much as we did when we were younger. If we are to live rich and full lives when we are older, it is important that we learn to love ourselves, warts and wrinkles and all. It shouldn’t be hard if we give up the notion that only the young are beautiful. Read More 
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THE WAR OF THE AGES: Technophobes vs. Digital Dudes

Technology intensifies the great divide between the young and old. Sometimes it even exacerbates the war of the ages. Many older people just don’t think the new technology is relevant to their lives. Many are afraid of it. They feel threatened by the proliferation of new gadgets like smart phones and tablets that make it possible to get connected and stay connected with anyone, anywhere, anytime, and all the time. The longer they resist the new technology, the more foreign and frightening it becomes.

Young people today are all Digital Dudes. They are on the move. With their smart phones, they can keep track of friends’ locations. If someone gets an idea and wants to stage a big event with little planning, all they have to do is send out text messages to everyone on their contact list and urge all within striking distance to come.  Read More 
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