“I am not afraid of dying”, he said. “In fact, I would rather die than deal with old age”. This made me wonder, Is dying better than aging?
I was on the phone with my dad. It was a long-distance WhatsApp call as I was driving around running my endless list of errands. His words stung me. I responded with empathy and compassion. I tried to console him with, ‘Dad. this happens to everyone. You are not alone. Aging is hard but we all have to do it.” He agreed. We hung up shortly after.
This was a gut-wrenching conversation for me. Let me tell you why. My dad is my hero. When I think of him, I see a handsome, confident, self-made man in his 30s that I look up to. So when we arrive in India for our visit every year and walk through the arrivals gate, it hits me. Every single time I see them on the other side, it hits me.
It hits me that my parents are aging. They are not in their 30s anymore. I am in my 40s, I have two teenage children and I have lived far away from my parents for 20 + years. I get to see them only once a year. So this aging thing is really shocking for all of us.
When I was growing up, my family would say that I was a mini version of my dad. I am just like him. We are both annoyingly optimistic, relentlessly focused, unapologetically outspoken, and wholeheartedly generous. We both had a crackling temper, not sparing a second to stand up to injustice, but have mellowed down quite a bit as we grew older. He has mellowed a LOT more than me. I still have some spunk left. My husband would attest to it as he is at the receiving end of it (sometimes… ok, most of the time! :)).
Our recent conversation got me thinking about what my own experience would be like with old age. My dad is a few years shy of 70. He has worked for 50 out of the 70 years of his life. His life is an inspiration to me and many others.
‘Is dying better than aging?’ I don’t have the answer.
I was introduced to my own sense of mortality at a very young age. After my cancer diagnosis, I was fearful and anxiety-ridden for years. I don’t think it was fear of dying. The fear was associated with leaving behind the people in my life who are alive. My kids, my husband, my family. I was afraid to leave them behind because I was afraid that their life would be negatively impacted by my death. My dad’s fears are very similar. He talked about how he worries about his children, his grandkids, and his wife. What would happen to them after his death? Who would watch out for them when he is gone?
These were all valid concerns. I didn’t really know how to respond but something came out of my mouth that I didn’t expect. I told my dad to make a list. My dad is a list maker. I get it from him. We both LOVE making lists. His notebook is filled with lists for everything. So I told him to make a list of his accomplishments and his failures for each decade of his life. He thought that would be an interesting thing to focus on. I don’t know how far he has gotten since we last spoke. What I did realize after I hung up was that I had no idea how to help him.
I have been thinking about my own preparedness for aging. Our lives are not designed to help us navigate old age and it’s many mysteries. We seem to cruise through life with great enthusiasm in our 20’s. From 20 to 50, it’s all about achieving milestones – college, jobs, homes, marriage, kids, career progression, family vacations. Then come the 60s and 70s when you imagine you will be traveling the world on a cruise ship, visiting your kids for the holidays, and spending the rest of your days catching up on your reading list and socializing with your friends who are also doing the same thing as you are.
I think we all know that the story doesn’t always play out this way. I know too many people who haven’t quite lived out their retirement hopes and dreams.
So what can be done to prepare for old age?
Take stock of your accomplishments and failures.
It is very important to know what has shaped the person that you are now. I especially like the idea of doing this for each decade of your life.
Explore human connections.
I am not referring to your social media connections. I am referring to the human connections in your life that have made you who you are today. For some people, it’s also the connection you have with your pets. Both my dogs, Sammy and Penny have helped me heal from very painful life experiences. Your connections with humans don’t have to be limited to the people you know.
I recently met a woman in the wine department of my local grocery store. She runs the department and has excellent wine recommendations. I thanked her for her work and also shared how grateful my husband is that I am no longer draining his collection of fine wine. She was thrilled to hear my feedback.
She shared how she loves her new “retirement” job after 20 years as a flight attendant. She told me she was battling stage 4 lung cancer, is in a trial that is likely going to extend her life by one more year and she would much rather come to work every day than stay home waiting for death. I was so blown away by her positive spirited demeanor and am certain that it will extend her life way beyond one year.
Our little interaction made her so happy that it made me realize how important it is to be present and in the moment. You never know how much a connection (even for a fleeting moment) could make a big difference to someone’s life.
Tell your stories.
I have realized that as I get older all I have going for me are my stories. We all have interesting stories to tell. So tell your story. Tell your friends, colleagues, your kids, and grandkids. I remember the stories my grandparents and parents have told me. I often tell my kids the stories from my childhood. They love hearing about how my cousins and I would spend afternoons in the summer stealing mangoes from grandfather’s trees. My mother would often buy us mangoes from the market to prevent us from stealing but we insisted that the mangoes tasted better when we stole them. Grandfather was not thrilled but we think he secretly enjoyed our mischief!
My friend has decided that post covid she is moving to India to work in an ashram for 6 months so that she can be in service to others. I think it’s great she can do that. But I don’t think you need to move to India and work in an ashram to serve others. Every small act of kindness to the people around you counts as service. Serve others and will take your mind off your own troubles.
Explore your spirituality.
I often thought of the Bhagawad Gita as a book you read when you get older. I would watch my grandmothers read it every day. I thought that’s what you did in your old age. This year I decided to explore the sacred book by myself. For the uninitiated, the Bhagawad Gita was written a few hundred years ago, in Sanksrit and takes about 3+ hours to read cover to cover. I decided to take this on and read it every day for 12 days in a row to honor both my grandmothers. At the end of the 12th day, I was a different person.
Unlike the bible or the Koran, the Bhagawad Gita is not a religious book. It’s an epic story about an epic battle. It’s a story that teaches you how to live your life. I now find myself going back to the Gita as a reference book when I get stuck with something. It has been a magical experience to find so much wisdom in the pages of this great book.
Is dying better than aging? I still don’t know the answer to the question,
To be honest, I don’t think we are fully prepared for old age. We don’t know how to prepare for old age. It bothers me immensely that I don’t know how to help my dad! I believe that technology companies are uniquely positioned to build products that accommodate the needs of the aging population. We need to go beyond healthcare to think about the needs of the aging population – social, emotional, housing, employment, and beyond. If we don’t think about this now, we will be faced with the same question that my dad is facing. We will be faced with the same fear of facing the daunting aging process.
Can we accomplish this in our lifetimes? Absolutely yes.
I think technology has made great strides in the last decade but there is a lot more to be done. We need to do more than accessibility and assistive tech. We need to engage with our elderly and deeply understand the pain points we need to address.
Our future depends on it!
Follow our work, The Accidental Ally https://theaccidentalally.com/