Life Well Lived

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I find there’s a micro and a macro way of looking at my time on this earth and it’s only when I get wrapped up in the micro that I miss that macro “big picture,” where I fit in, and what it all ultimately means. Oddly, I find that my age has influenced that as well. When I was younger, it was much harder to pull myself back from the micro life of endlessly chasing ways to make more money, more money, more money…

I have never had a lot of money but it’s only recently that I’ve slowed down enough to reevaluate my life, take a look at where I’ve been and what mattered then, and where I am now and what matters now. I wish I’d been able to do this sooner because the balance has shifted. Maybe I needed the youthful experiences and the passing of time to see the patterns. The pattern was that I would spend 80% of my time trying to come up with ways to make more money and about 20% of my time enjoying what I had and the outer things that touched my soul in ways tangible things did not. Somewhere along the line, I realized I had it backwards.

It doesn’t hurt that I work with hospice patients who teach me every day that having enough money for “things” isn’t (or shouldn’t) be the goal. I believe the saying goes, “You can’t take it with you?” It’s a very simple, overused saying with mammoth meaning. Sort of like living a more authentic life and noticing the little things around you that actually have meaning. In the end, we’ll all be reduced to the images and memories that reside in the mind and the Louis Vuitton bag or the botoxed lips or the million dollar house won’t have an ounce of meaning. The things I hear hospice patients request are family members, friends, sunshine, fresh air, open blinds so they can see the sun rise, etc.

We do a disservice to our time on this planet when we try to separate ourselves from our own organic nature – when we think we’re above the plants and animals around us and that we operate on a different level because we possess bigger brains. I’m not so sure we’ve used them wisely, are you? The organic world has much to teach us when we stop and connect. But it definitely requires us to stop. And then connect.

Here’s a good, recent example of what I’m trying to say. How many times have you heard, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” when referring to the recent mass shooting? Several? Dozens? How many of those people would you guess took the time to connect with the feeling of what really happened and what really matters in those final moments? You have to put yourself in someone else’s place, mentally and emotionally, and feel what it must be like to have a teenage child die for no damn reason at all. You must be able to feel the anguish in your heart, not from a once-removed superficial place of observing strangers living lifestyles different from yours (which makes it easy to put a little distance between their reality and your own), but from the gut-wrenching depths of your heart as it would feel if it were your child or your spouse. Only then does “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” resonate with the survivors. Oh, they appreciate your words, I’m sure. But I’m also sure they’re aware that they’re words and that if you were in a position to do something about it, you would if you really felt the horror. You wouldn’t allow it to keep happening.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that if you don’t feel the life around you, you miss the life around you.

I know a woman who prided herself on how much money she had and the “things” she bought to decorate her home. Although she would verbally say things like, “I’m not rich” and “Money isn’t everything,” her actions spoke louder than words about how she believed her money gave her clout and bought her attention (I purposely didn’t use the word “love” because it certainly didn’t buy her that commodity). Now, she sits in a nursing home, entertains few visitors and laments over and over, “I used to be somebody.” Doesn’t imply a life well lived, does it?

My life well lived will be the one where I’m more able to fully connect on all levels – mental, emotional and spiritual – with the life around me. I have macro moments that stand out for me: sitting alone on my hotel balcony overlooking a Costa Rican rain forest, watching and listening as it rained, taking in the breathtaking beauty of this quiet communion; telling an unresponsive elderly woman I’d be back to sit with her so she wouldn’t die alone and when I got there, she took her last breath and died; laughing until my sides hurt at the antics of two cats playing with a new toy.

These are things that matter: I’ve felt deep emotions; I’ve loved; I’ve appreciated my place as a sentient “being” in the bigger scheme of things.

 

Who’ll Take Care of Me?

Nurse holding hand of senior woman in pension home

I often hear people ask those of us who aren’t married and have no children, “Who’ll take care of you when you get older?” Interesting question. Yes, it has crossed my mind many times and I used to believe that my brother and/or my friends would take care of me. I ‘ve never been uncomfortable on my own and living by myself is something I treasure. I never have to argue over what television show to watch, clean up after someone else or let him know what time I’ll be home. If I want to waltz around the house naked, there’s no one to point out my flabby parts or use that as the right time to suggest a healthier diet. So it’s not loneliness that concerns me – well not now anyway. I might one day eat those words but right now, I don’t see that as the issue.

But what if I live to a ripe old age, and most of my friends and my brother are gone? I must admit, it is a concern. On the other hand, working in hospice, I see how abysmally family members can treat each other and fight over money and possessions. The patient is more often than not the one who bears the brunt of the disrespect and, sometimes, outright neglect. So, if I were married and had a bunch of children, could I necessarily count on any of them to do the right thing by me? I think not. Many times the children dislike each other and fight over who’s right concerning the patient’s care. The thing is – it’s usually the patient who suffers because the kids aren’t making a decision on what’s best for the patient; they’re deciding based on their own comfort levels. I guess I’m glad I won’t have a child who’s so determined to keep me here that he/she makes hospice staff withhold medications that would make me comfortable so I can be what they would call “alert” even though I’m thrashing around in the bed.

My biggest concern is the in-between stage – the stage where I’m no longer able to live on my own, require constant care but am not hospice appropriate. I hear horrible stories about the care the elderly get in many of the nursing homes. And I can see it clearly. Nursing homes, like most other businesses, have a plethora of employees who are primarily interested in the paycheck and not the job. Many of them have little or no empathy for the elderly people and how could they? They have zero understanding of living with legs that no longer hold them up, or having to take a ton of medications that take care of one thing but bring all kinds of side effects that may make the elderly person seem “slow, ” when, in fact, the brain works just fine. Those are the circumstances that concern me. I’m not sure the outcome of being in that environment has anything to do with whether or not I have children – and children who truly care about my best interests to boot.

So the fact that I don’t have a husband or children doesn’t bother me about growing older and ending up in a nursing home. What concerns me is ending up in a home where the culture is one of “just wheel them into a corner and let them sit all day.” And I’ve seen it. We had a case of a patient who was brought into the hospice to find placement in a different home because the one where he had been living had wheeled him outside ostensibly to “get some sun and fresh air” and left him in the Las Vegas summer sun for the better part of a couple of hours. I worry that I’ll need to go to the bathroom and someone will be irritated that I ring for help too often. I worry that I’ll reach a point where I have to defecate in a diaper and no one will come to change me for hours and hours. I worry that I’ll end up with Stage IV decubitus ulcers because it’s too much trouble to constantly turn me. I worry that I’ll be hungry but someone forgot to take me down to the lunch room to eat. I worry that I’ll be physically broken but mentally alert and people will come in and talk to me like I’m a two-year-old.

Bottom line: it’s the people in the facilities who will be tasked with my day-to-day comfort that worry me.