Our challenge as we age is to maintain the integrity and shape of our life in a way that is consistent with our character, writes Josephite Sister Maryellen Thomas rsj.
We like to be the writers of our own stories yet throughout life we can encounter many unimaginable adversities.
As we age, the betrayal of body or mind can affect us so greatly that we can become disconnected from who we were or who we want to be. Our challenge is to maintain the integrity and shape of our life in a way that is consistent with our character.
Author, Connie Goldman, describes the experience of growing older by saying, "The challenge of aging isn’t to stay young, it is not only to grow old either but to grow whole, to come into your own."
The last period of our life is potentially when our most significant transformations occur. It can be a passage into the most esteemed social and spiritual quarter of life. It can be a '…time to come home to myself, to understand the meaning, the message of my life, the substance of my being…' (Joan Chittister).
Let me introduce you to Dora and her journey to wholeness.
Dora was an artist. Her beautiful paintings could be found everywhere in the district. She had been a popular member of nearly every committee in her country town. If there was something happening, Dora was there in the middle of it.
In her family, Dora was recognised for her listening ear, wisdom and affection. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren loved her. If they needed her, she was there in the blink of an eye. She had outlived two husbands and this demonstrated her ability to love and be loved.
When Dora came to the Aged Care Facility where I worked, at the age of 94, she was far from the person described above. The woman we met was cranky, crotchety and very hard to please. Something had happened to Dora that created a change in the ‘self’ she had been. This once active, artistic person was now immobile, grossly arthritic and vision impaired. She seemed to have lost everything that was important to her and this made her very cross. Her daughter, who was in her seventies, had become her slave and was not coping with her mother’s care needs. The time had come for Dora to move to a place where she could be assisted with all her needs. This, of course, made her crosser!
The latest transition was very painful for Dora and she was not going to give in and be nice to anyone! The caring staff were unable to do anything that seemed to make her happy. She fast became the resident from hell, frequently pumping the bell for attention, rudely bossing the staff and then criticising anything they did for her and constantly complaining. Everyone tried every trick in the book to win Dora over, but without success.
Months passed and then Dora met Jack, a gentle, hearing-impaired widow. Jack had a beaming smile that could win anyone over. Behind his smile he held a great sadness. He had become estranged from his family and was isolated because of his deafness. Still, he had enough compassion in him to reach out to Dora, who was obviously in need of a friend.
Time passed and Dora and Jack’s relationship blossomed into something more than friendship. They spent all their days together and were often seen holding hands or cuddling. At 88 and 94 they had once again found love. Jack and Dora were able to see past each other’s infirmities to recognise the beauty in each other.
As the relationship developed Dora became softer, more loving and appreciative. She started to form friendships with staff and became an advisor, confidant and peacemaker. Then something terrible happened. Unexpectedly, Jack died. Dora was distraught and inconsolable.
However, this is not the sad end to a true love story because in loving and being loved by Jack, Dora had recaptured her real ‘self’. She had become friends with the staff and together they grieved and let go of the pain of losing Jack.
Dora’s gifts were her ability to be available for others, to be a listening ear, to impart wisdom and to share affection. She lived for many more years after Jack’s death and was a firm favourite of staff because of her loving and giving nature.
The contribution we give to society cannot be defined by age, strength or skill. Mary Catherine Bateson describes this beautifully in her book, ‘Composing a Further Life’, when she says, "Active wisdom is the ability and willingness to contribute to society by putting a lifetime pattern of experience and reflection to work, above all by listening."
Dora’s transition into graceful ageing, although rocky, allowed her to become a force for positive change in her world. She remained a significant contributor to her local community by being her true, loving and giving ‘self’.
"If one completes the journey to one’s own heart, one will find oneself in the heart of everyone else."-Thomas Keating