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What Comes With Age?

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What comes with age?

There’s lots of things people say come with age, things like wisdom, patience, tolerance, respect – things that we seem to spend a lifetime learning and acquiring. But there are other things that happen with age as well and often that culminates in developing a sense of what truly matters to us in life. We define what it is that we value the most.

I’d like to tell you a story about a lady and we’re going to call her Maggie.

I met Maggie when she was having a real struggle in life. She had had an accident; she had been near death and spent months in a hospital. She had no family to speak of and being in her 80’s she was declining in mobility and cognition. Maggie was a fighter. She had lived all her life with a degenerative condition, she has fought institutionalisation and a whole host of well-meaning do-gooders to carve out an independent life for herself; after her accident that all changed.  Doctors decided she needed a Guardian and a Financial Administrator appointed – clearly she could no longer decide things for herself. Why? Because there are standardised tests that she didn’t do well on when she was recovering from her accident… because when she had the accident she wasn’t wearing a call alarm… Whether that truly means she’d lost capacity is another blog post altogether, and one that would need people more qualified than me to determine, but I’d like to tell you what happened next.

Her home, the one she had saved and bought with a family member who had since died – but she had maintained even though she’d not worked in a very long time… overnight, her home stopped being her home and she was told that she couldn’t ever go back there. Even with a level 4 care package – the waiting list for which was over 12 months long – the house was deemed unsuitable. So the contents needed to be packed up, dealt with, distributed and stored. Maggie had to not only face never setting foot again in her home but she had to catalogue by memory her belongings and decide their fate; she went from a trip to hospital, to never returning, to being forced to decide what she could part with and what she could not. And of course the indignity of having strangers go through it all and do the work for her.

To Maggie, so many things had a very sentimental value. Those precious things were reminders of people, places, holidays. Her time living on an Island off the coast of Australia when she had been more mobile, holidays visiting beach spots interstate with her now dead family. In the course of a day her most treasured possessions were boxed up and packed into storage and the entire rest of the contents of the home were either sold, removed or donated to a local re-use shop.

In a day, an entire world was dismantled and a few precious memories packed safely into boxes; in a matter of months the home was sold. The Guardian insisted she needed to be in a care home. The Financial Administrators had to sell her home to pay for it.

The Guardianship order ran out after 12 months so she was again able to make her own decisions, safely ensconced in a care facility, however, she had no home to go to. And no way of pulling money together to relocate to independent living. And of course, the nature of living where everything was done for her meant she had lost the confidence to do things for herself. The accident and recovery didn’t help this either.

Over the course of the next 2 years Maggies world got smaller. The things that were delivered to her on the day her home was boxed up became the entire extent of her world. From a two bedroom home to a room in a care facility. Even the precious things that it had been so important to keep and put into storage at the time started to become a distant thought. The connection to those things faded. The memories they gave her however, they remained. Maggie started to talk as though the things were of much less significance that they had once been. Essentially, she has distilled her life down enough that she started to hold fast to only the things that mattered the most. That this was forced on her and that she did the mental work to live with that knowledge, was a testament to her courage and strength.

Eventually, this narrowing of her world started to include the things around her in the care home. The things delivered to her that day that she could not bear being parted from… they started to matter less as well. This was a further distillation of her life – a letting go of sorts. Letting go of control yes, but also letting go of the things that bind us to the mortal world.

The last time I saw Maggie, she was the most content I had seen her. She had stopped being angry and the and she had a solid sense of the things, the people and the hobbies that really gave her purpose and meaning, and she spoke about them with passion and a twinkle in her eye. When we talked about her possessions she didn’t really even care to discuss them, the physical treasures that represented memories and the stories behind them had all but faded – but those that she held onto related to people, and when she told me about the people in her life there she was again with a grin and an infectious charisma. She knew what it was she valued the most.

This often happens with age. During the process of aging (read dying, or illness … at any age) and facing one’s mortality, the world shrinks and the things that we value becomes more important and clearly defined – the things we don’t value we gradually let go of. In a perfect world we will have the space and support to do it in our own time. In the real world, it doesn’t always happen that way and sometimes we have to play the cards we are dealt. Even when they are terrible.

I have seen this many times. In the end, no matter how people get there, what people hold onto most often are people, pets, memories, music, thoughts, conversations, ideas…. And very few actual things. Even people who have loved things. Even people who are not at all ready to die.

How beautiful would it be if we, like Maggie, discovered what we valued in life, but we did it so much earlier than she did. It doesn’t mean we have to give everything away and opt for minimalist living, its more in our state of mind I think. It’s about gratitude, about being open enough to wonder why things happen and what they can teach us, it is about having honest conversations with ourselves and examining our motivations, our joys and the things we deeply long for. And then, being courageous enough to own them, maybe even pursue them. Certainly document them. Record your wishes.

In some ways this is a cautionary tale, if Maggie had appointed an enduring guardian and power of attorney before her accident and done an advance care directive to document her wishes, the desire to stay at home would have been well known and I would like to think that the guardian would have fought for her right to go home. Even just for a short time. Even just for a visit. Even just to oversee her things being packed up. Even just to walk through that door for the last time – and out of it again – on her own terms. Agency matters.

I invite you all to take some time over the next few weeks and months to consider what it is you value – who it is you value, what it is you hold onto and why. I invite you to lean into what you discover about yourself and sit with that a while. I hope that like Maggie, the knowledge makes your life a little better for the living.

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