loss

Losses in the Aging Process

Our dear friend and mentor, Cari Dawson, graces us once again with her words of wisdom.  We go through tremendous losses as we age, and those seem to accelerate with every passing year.  Since I’m only eight years younger than Cari, I can align quite easily with what she is saying.  And it’s about time someone said it!

I have been a Grief Recovery Specialist for nearly twenty three years. The loss of a grandchild was the catalyst for me, an event that started me on this life-saving work so that I could help others. My loss history is lengthy: I’ve lost parents, a 2-year-old niece and a 25-year-old nephew, a brother, other family members, pets, jobs, lifestyles, husbands, friends, trust, and patients. Now, as I move deeper into my mid-seventies, I am becoming more acutely aware of the losses associated with aging.

The most obvious loss in aging is the fact of limited time on earth. It becomes more real that gravity is chipping away at us. There are subtle and not so subtle clues that we are disappearing. One of my friends talks about the invisibility in this elderly period of life as we are embedded in a culture of youth. “When people talk to me, I don’t feel like they see me.” Others say they don’t recognize the person in their mirror. “Who is that old lady? I don’t feel like what I am seeing.”  Friends complain that their lives are narrowing, that doctor visits are crowding their calendars. Some are losing their joints and other body parts.  They are getting hips and knees replaced, cataracts removed, hearing aids fitted, open heart surgery. Almost all of us have arthritic changes, we lose flexibility and dexterity, we lose cadence when we reach for words that don’t come as easily as they used to. We are generally slowing down. We adapt to the gradual losses, but as I am wont to say hoping to lighten up with dark humor, “None of us is getting out of here alive.”

And we often experience a loss of dignity. I personally encountered such a loss during annual well visits with my Primary Care Physician (PCP).  Although I have managed to reach this point in life with only occasional use of prescription drugs like antibiotics and I remain in excellent physical and mental health, I am a firm believer in preventative care, routine tests and lab work. Twice in the last several years, I have felt humiliated when unsolicited, my PCP’s office performed memory tests involving my retrieving three unrelated words (sunset-chair-banana) said earlier in the visit by the health care provider. Part of this test included a request to draw an image of a clock at 11:00. I was tempted to draw the image digitally rather than as the face of a clock with hands and numbers! At a time in my life when I intentionally enter into contemplative meditation and practice letting go, I felt like I was being graded on my ability to remain linear and dualistic to please government (Medicare) and health care professionals. I doubt if the health care provider understood that I felt like a fungible commodity instead of a human being.

Putting this into perspective, I understand that tests for dementia can be a necessary and good thing, but I wonder if the health care provider considers the context of the patient (other than chronological age) before launching into such tests. For example, the first time this test was administered, I had been in the throes of grief over multiple significant losses (which happens frequently as we grow older) and was experiencing disorientation and detachment from the dualism of this world. I was in no frame of mind to remember three unrelated words and I felt that having to draw a clock with the big hand on 12 and the little hand on 11 was demeaning and counterproductive. In fact, the loss of respect and dignity compounded my losses and my grief. Am I losing my mind too?  My identity?  Am I just some thing to be charted rather than a mature woman with feelings?

On the other hand, there are so many joys of life at this stage!  Balance is the most important aspect of our lives as we age. Although I continue to work—see and counsel clients— and volunteer, it is done with utmost concern for balance and my priorities which facilitate my journey to wholeness:  contemplation, spending time with close friends and family, enjoying my furry friend, reading, and working out at the gym.  I have become more acutely aware of the clock that is ticking away and ironically and interestingly, it has given me more peace of mind and focus knowing what I thought I knew all along: that my time here is running out.

I marvel as I reflect upon a long journey from a small town Ohio Valley high school girl of seventeen whose highest aspiration was to be a secretary and housewife, to multiple and diverse careers and paths, to where I am now in my mid-seventies contentment. I hear the clock ticking like a heartbeat. It’s a good reminder to live in the present, to see the beauty in Life, to taste, touch and feel it, to grieve the inevitable losses and know it is all good.

Cari D. Dawson, MTS, MA, JD, www.transitionscelebrant.com

Cari’s previous post was about grieving the loss of a pet.

18 replies »

  1. Great post on aging. Sorry that you didn’t like the memory test. It is rare to see that happen where I live. I’m so excited to see that there is a physician out there that did an early memory test! If every physician would do that, we’d all have a baseline and we’d be able to know when early signs of memory loss are starting. We can make a difference in the outcomes of memory loss if we identify it in early stages. 🙂

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    • Thanks for your comments, Shelley. I have worked with hospice patients with dementia and agree that early detection is beneficial. It seems that Medicare pays for physicians to administer the memory tests beginning at age 65. I have no problem with that and it should be handled considering the individual patient. You might be interested in a previous article I wrote (with an addendum) on the Soul of Dementia while I was still working in hospice. https://womenbecoming.wordpress.com/?s=Soul+of+Dementia.

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      • Bless your Hospice heart. In a perfect world, every person who has dementia would be loved as much as they are by their Hospice caregivers. I personally believe that a baseline in our 40’s, 50’s would be beneficial, but the insurance companies don’t believe it’s considered preventable, so they don’t cover the exam. As your post (lovely one at that, thank you for sharing the link) stated, we all die of something. Early detection of my mom’s declining health and memory loss leading to vascular dementia may have helped her live longer. I’m positive there are healthy alternatives for preventing vascular dementia. http://www.quaintrevival.com/my-spring-memory-garden/

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  2. Wow! Even though I’m still in my 50s I can relate to this post as I too have lost both my parents (they died young), pets, family members, friends and co-workers. Many of my family and friends died in their 50s or 60s. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer, etc..

    Death is the equalizer. Once I had my stroke at age 49 my life has been a series of doctor visits. I try to align my vacation, sick and personal time with whatever doctor I’m supposed to see. I wish that I could spend my money on travel like I did when I was younger but I guess my traveling days are over.

    Never heard of these memory tests but I have a ways to go until I’m 70. I don’t know it that is the key age of mental decline. Who knows? I’ve had several female family members on both sides who have or had dementia/Alzheimer. Since I dislike being degraded or demeaned I can see myself declining these tests if I reach 70. I’m not a human guinea pig.

    It’s bad enough that they have to draw blood, test your urine, poke and prod you. Going to the doctor and being in the hospital you are more or less a set of symptoms. Something (you stop being human when in the hospital) a number an experiment. Doctors don’t really know what’s wrong with you they just give you various pills and potions just to see what will happen.

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    • I am truly sorry to hear that you have had a major medical event in your life so young. Take care of yourSelf and make it your intention to reach 70 and beyond! Don’t be afraid to travel if that is what your heart calls you to. With genes from both parents who had Alzheimers, you are wise to be mindful and seek medical testing early, BUT family history, although a strong indicator, is not determinative. I have a relative who is one of 12 children where both parents died of Alzheimers. All of her siblings have been diagnosed and/or died of Alzheimers. She is still living alone, independently, supported by community including adult children and grandchildren. As far as the age of onset of dementias, I have had patients who were diagnosed in the 40’s and 50’s although that was the exception. You may want to see the link I provided to Shelley above. I wish you a full and complete life, dear DancingPalmTrees!

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      • If it’s God’s will for me to travel He will give me the financial means to do so. Right now I exist on less than $10 dollars. Right now I am home on medical leave from my job. I mostly stay inside. The good news is that because of an accident at work I will retire this year.

        I will stay home, sleep and create artwork. Neither one of my parents lived to be 70 so I doubt that I need to be worried about dementia. I’ve had high blood pressure for years and either hypertension which caused my stroke or diabetes might get me. Despite the fact that I don’t drink or smoke and am thin. Being in the doctors office or in a hospital is a nightmare. Something to be avoided at all costs. Not to mention all the medical bills.
        Even when I retire I’ll be home because I will be on a fixed income. So my activities are confined wherever the New York city subway can take me.

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  3. Hi Cari, I really like all the honesty you added into your writing. I like your wanting to draw a digital clock for the time. That is so you … practical, whimsical and full of common sense. When I came out of my coma, the doctors tested to see if I had brain damage. I’m lousy on those tests in general because I think so radical different because I’m such a visual person. There was one test where I had to come up with what was the common theme of five words. I answered “the are all the color brown”. My answer perplexed them and then they said, yes, that is true. But you are thinking too hard. What is the answer. The answer they wanted were they listed all animals. You can imagine how I dealt with most of the questions they asked.

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    • You have the whimsical too! I love your answer about the color brown. I am sure that had no idea what to do with it. And how interesting that the health care professionals would say your are thinking too hard. Keep on being your unique self. Right brained people live in a left brained world.

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  4. Although the loss of others causes great grief, they are in a better place and we too shall one day meet. The memory test should be explained, not just administered. It is to see if your brain had lost a certain ability-if there is any neurological damage, it is a telltale sign of above mentioned diseases.

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    • Thank you, EmotionalNotions, for your comments. I’m glad that you feel comforted by your belief system. Often intellectual statements such as “they are in a better place” are not helpful to grievers because, although true, they appeal to the intellect. We grieve from the heart and not the head. It is not unusual for friends and family to want to SAY something to a griever. When I was working as a hospital chaplain, I once had a woman ask to meet with me in anticipation of her travel to comfort a dear friend who lost her mother. She wanted a list of things to say to her. But what we really need is for someone to listen, to be present, hug and support us, which is what I told her. It’s Universal and does not depend upon anyone’s belief system. You are absolutely correct about the need to explain medical tests and consider where and who the patient is, without hiding behind a computer.

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        • No one can take away the memories you have. Hold tight to them. If you haven’t already, you may want to get the book, The Grief Recovery Handbook, 20th Anniv Ed. I lost my dad to a sudden and fatal heart attack over 30 years ago. I thought I had done the grief work with him, but it took the death of my granddaughter and a visit to the Grief Recovery Institute for me to complete the loss with my dad. Now, I too, smile at the memories. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to “talk” to my dad today!

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  5. I would view the unsolicited memory test (or anything else that I didn’t ask for and that was not explained) as a red flag and would consider changing doctors. Medical professionals work for us, after all, just like auto mechanics or anyone else who performs a service; and they’re supposed to do what we ask them instead of the other way around.

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    • I agree wholeheartedly, Meg. I did change doctors after the first incident which also included an unsolicited POLST, essentially a DNR order, but it was mostly for geographical reasons; I moved and the traffic got more challenging in PDX. I have no problem with that. Thank you for pointing out that we must become proactive in our own health care. And, we need to listen to our own bodies.

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