It's not just how long you live. It's the depth and breadth of your life that can make it so rich
Early yesterday morning I read an article on Medium which addressed some very scary aspects of getting older in America. The author, who is a lawyer but not in elder care, wrote about the challenges and pitfalls of trying to care for two end-of-life patients who are also her parents.
Boy did that get my attention. Not because I have parents- my folks took care of that challenge long before I turned fifty, which was about the time my father died. Their elder care facility managed everything. Back then, some twenty years ago, we didn't have the same phalanx of lawyers whose entire raison d'être was to prevent children and other loved ones from carrying out the will and choices of those who were infirm and unable to fight for themselves.
Said lawyers' jobs now appear to ensure that said people's money, every last penny, is to be sucked into the banking and sick care systems while family members are diligently trying to carry out said loved one's express wishes.
First we kill all the lawyers...until we need one, that is.
That led me to thinking. A lot, actually. As it's my thing to write about aging vibrantly, I can't sidestep how this affects how I look at living vibrantly. The end of my runway could be any time. If I keep up my habits, it is possible, if not likely, that I will indeed last another thirty. Barring a nuclear war, or whatever else the Universe may have in store for us. As in floods, drought, hurricanes or whatever our extraordinary stupidity around climate change will bring us. But that's another article.
Let's focus on the positive.
Poet and author Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses, The Zookeeper's Wife) wrote:
"I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I just lived the length of it. I want to live the width of it as well."
We see a constant barrage of articles, books and programs focusing on longer life. We don't always see the same kind of discussion about the broadly-lived life, the kind of expansive experience which is available to anyone with a library card and a big dose of curiosity.
What about a life with genuine depth? Breadth? Those options are available to us at all times. We may not see them when we focus so much more on just sticking around another decade.
Here's where I disagree with that thinking. If by buying another decade, we simply put off the true hard work of life, or procrastinate another ten years about what we really want to do or dreamed of doing, what good is that extra time?
More importantly, what good is that time if our habits have crippled us?
To that, for those who are just so worried about dementia/Alzheimer's, Nature just came out once again with the best and simplest medicine on the planet: exercise.
Here's the kicker:
Aerobic exercise positively influences episodic memory among adults ≥55 years without dementia, with larger effects observed among various sample and intervention characteristics—the clearest moderator being age. These results could have far-reaching clinical and public health relevance, highlighting aerobic exercise as an accessible, non-pharmaceutical intervention to improve episodic memory in late adulthood.
Tired of that reminder? Ohfercryinoutloud. Because that reminder is critical- if you're not exercising (and kindly, eating responsibly) then you may well be setting yourself up for a very bad ending. I don't want that. By the same token, if this just annoys you, please go back to your scrolling. I am not your writer. I am your writer if you want a rich, deep, broad and well-lived life, however you might define that.
So first, there's quality of life, having to do with our health. If we aren't willing to care for our body and brain, living longer can make us parasites on those whose tax dollars have to support our care, or those whose livelihoods-like our kids- have to prop us up.
I wouldn't blame them for blaming us for undercutting their life quality simply because we chose, in the face of all the obvious evidence, to be sloppy in our habits.
When we have dementia, we probably aren't contributing. I dunno about you, but dementia does tend to put a rather big dent in a well-lived life. Not for all, but most certainly for family and caregivers. The emotional and financial strains are considerable.Want to know how much?
I don't want to end that way. I don't want you to, either.
The way I see it, the rich, broad, deep life begins with self-care, so that to the extent we are willing to commit to being better stewards of this body we're given, that kind of life continues to be available.
But it isn't everything.
People like Stephen Hawking, whose body succumbed young to ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, lived with this progressive disorder until all he could do was control his speech with a single cheek muscle. By the time of his death at the age of 76, he had lived a long, deep, broad, rich life, imprisoned in his body, but with a mind as free-flowing as the Milky Way and galaxies which fascinated him.
This man, imprisoned in his body, unlocked the universe for the rest of us. How many of us can say the same?
Many if not most of us have bodies which can still respond to good care. That is where it all starts: ensuring options as we age. We really can begin at any time. Interestingly, sometimes when we think we're crippled, we aren't. That invariably begins between the ears, as all things typically do.
But that's just a part of it.
I found this article on LinkedIn and offer it for your consideration, as it covers much of the same territory I would anyway:
If you travel, as I do, being in new places where you are bound to make mistakes and very public missteps, you allow a depth and breadth of experience with which to navigate daily life with much better skills. In my case, it's also where I mine most of my comedy material. There is a lot of it because I make plenty of mistakes. I make plenty of mistakes because I am willing to risk looking stupid or foolish.
Learning to see such things as inevitable comedic moments makes them far less threatening. If anything, being willing to laugh long, loud and hard about the ridiculous things we do is part of being powerful. Confident. Joyous. Fearless.
It also gives us permission to really live.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist.” – Oscar Wilde
You can slap all the damned memes on your wall, your phone, against your eyeballs if need be, but if you don't do anything about them then they are wasted words.
I arrived in Santiago, Chile, about four hours ago. I'm exhausted. The exchange between Veronica, the hotel receptionist (that's a misnomer, this is a residential B and B) and myself was utterly hilarious because her translator constantly misheard me. We were in stitches. I've had six coffees, four hours of sleep and I am a walking zombie. That is THE best setup for comedy I know.
In five days I am off to ride Chilean horses in the Atacama Desert. Long a dream of mine, I am making that come true.
I honestly do not care what living richly looks like for you, only that you give yourself that gift. Not in a million years would I have you forfeit exuberance for existence, joy for just getting by, or any other tepid version of what life could look like for you. Even if all you can do is read, that is adding depth and breadth. That's why I mentioned the library card.
Please. Turn your favorite meme into a living memory. Time does not wait for us. The end of the road is ahead, like it or not. Let's make this one wild, wonderful ride.
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