Aging with Dignity...
The other thought is that retirement is easier if your identity and your life do not revolve around your work. Be more than you do. When I was in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley (before seminary) I noticed that those professors who had interests and identities outside their work had an easier time making the transition to retirement.
However, those whose identity revolved around being professors did not retire so well. In fact, while I was there UC Berkeley came up with a special designation that allowed them to keep their offices and maybe mentor a few graduate students. They called them "Professors in the Graduate School" or PIGS for short. It's good to be more than you do.
Recently I listened to an interview with Mary Catherine Bateson, daughter of anthropologist Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. She made her mark decades ago by publishing a book called Composing a Life, which is based on case studies of women balancing work and family commitments. These women used words like "juggling" but Bateson wanted a word that captured the creativity with which these women accomplished this feat. She hit upon "composing" as a better metaphor.
More recently, Bateson has written a new book, also based on case studies, titled Composing a Further Life. This book talks about how people handle the new phase of life that has emerged in recent decades - a longer time of good health after retirement she calls "wisdom on the hoof" or "the age of active wisdom." More formally, she refers to this life stage as "Adulthood II."
Bateson is heavily influenced by Erikson's stages of life, each of which has its own challenges. There is good and bad news about this emerging phase of Adulthood II. The bad news is that you get to have an identity crisis all over again because some of the same issues of adolescence and young adulthood re-emerge. There are many important and difficult choices to make about what you will do with your time, who you will spend it with, and who you will be in this new phase of life.
The good news is that you can remake your life. You make one completely different from Adulthood 1, which is great if you hated your job, for instance, or felt stuck in some way. Another approach is to remake your life in ways consistent with the best elements of your work life. For instance, if what you loved about your work had to do with the people rather than what you did, then you can find include people in things that you really love. One man in her book took up jewelry making and created a whole artistic movement in his retirement community. This can be a time of great expansion if you don't withdraw from the world.
There is a spirituality to this phase of life. I believe people are meaning-makers, and so in this phase the question may be what gives my life meaning now? How can I use this in my life right now? Questions of identity are at least partly spiritual questions - such as "who have I been?" "who am I now?" "Who might I become?" There is a time of reflection on the past as well as planning for the future.
Bateson found some of the spirituality of this phase had to do with values. People find themselves deciding to downsize and simplify their material goods, or prioritizing relationships with family and friends. Creativity may become more important to them they find ways to share their experiences and wisdom.
Bateson defines wisdom partly as being able to see more connections between current and past events, and that comes with age. This helps us to take a longer view when it comes to political and social concerns. She believes an important part of meaning-making in this stage can center around advocating for the lives of future generations, for the children and young adults who don't yet have a voice.
Dying with Grace....
Last fall I watched my mother's health decline rapidly into her death. As I sat with her those last couple weeks, I realized that dying is hard work. There is a lot of internal work one needs to do to let go of life. After my mother died it became obvious that she had known it was coming months in advance. She had been getting her affairs in order for quite a while. I also learned that weeks before she had the stroke that led to her final decline, she told ladies in her bible study group that she would miss the next meeting because she'd be in hospice, and then she'd be gone. It was somewhat comforting to know that this was what she wanted.
The other thing I saw with my mother is that there is a lot of grief as one says farewell to family and friends. One day after some of her friends said goodbye to her, she had a tear in her eye. I said, "Saying goodbye is hard." She nodded. Of course I also see this with my hospice patients - dying people experience what we call "preparatory grief" as they prepare to leave. Their loved ones experience "anticipatory grief" as they watch the person preparing to die. It's hard work for all, but can be done in ways that are beautiful and compelling.
I have come to see death as a natural passage in life, not unlike birth. Where we come from, if anywhere, is a mystery. Where we go to after we die, if anywhere, is a mystery as well. We live from mystery to mystery. I have come to see hospice workers as midwives, helping people from the mystery of life to the mystery of death.
The loss of health is not easy at any age and that's the bad news. It holds changes we tend to fear, like losing our independence, losing our faculties or functions - fear of pain and fear of death. It takes a lot of courage to face all of that. Preparing for the ends of our lives takes hard work, getting our affairs in order, repairing relationships if we can, and working through a lot of grief. Because of all this internal work we tend to see people turning inwards and withdrawing as part of the process of dying, even weeks and months beforehand.
But there is good news here, too. The good news, in short, is that it is possible to have a good death. It is possible to die with grace as it is possible to live gracefully. In fact, it seems to me that the elements of a good death are the same as the elements of a good life.
Make your wishes about healthcare known - who will make decisions for you when you cannot and what sorts of interventions you want in which circumstances. Keep a copy of any do not resuscitate orders on your fridge - that's the first place EMTs look when they enter a home.
It's also a really good idea to make some preliminary plans for a funeral - have life insurance in place to pay for things if money is tight. Pay in advance if you can - talk with clergy and with the funeral director. This will make things so much easier for your family and friends later on. And please, please don't tell people you don't want a funeral or memorial service. To my mind that is selfish. The funeral or memorial service may be about you but it is for your survivors. It is an important part of the grief process. It helps bring closure.
Just as one can have a "birth plan" (they were all the rage when my son was born) I have been thinking that you can come up with a death plan. In both cases things are out of our control and so may not go as planned. However, it may be good to think and talk about what you would like beyond healthcare orders. What do you want for pain relief? Do you want aided dying (if it's legal where you live)? What does your death look like? Are you at home, in a hospice or other facility? Is there music or is it quiet? Who's there, or do you think you'd like to be alone? Do you want some sort of ritual before you die?
As a hospice chaplain I help people who are facing fear find courage by reflecting on what has brought them through tough things in the past. I work with them on forgiveness of self and letting go of regrets. I do a lot of what we call "life review" with them.
We explore their religious beliefs together - even if people have not been particularly religious in the past, those big questions can come up. Why? Why me and why now? What is the meaning of suffering for me? What is my relationship with the Divine, if any? What do I believe about the afterlife?
People who work with dying people describe "nearing death awareness." Regardless of belief about the afterlife, as people near death they tend to see (or perhaps dream about ) people who have died coming to visit them. People who are dying tend to find this comforting but it can be distressing to loved ones who think the patient is "hallucinating." My mother said my father and her father came to visit her in the days before her death, and it felt like they were helping her to go.
As death nears people withdraw more into themselves, they let go, they find closure, and they move on. And all of this can happen with grace, with love, and with deep peace. I have had the experience, at the time of death, of a feeling of deep peace overtaking me. Others in the room have had that same experience.
Death is a part of life, a part that at this point I do not fear. Years ago I had a dream in which I died and wrote this poem about it, a fitting ending for this post.
Safe by Tess Baumberger
I step onto the sidewalk
of a busy street in a big city,
to go for a walk with a friend,
when someone shoots me,
right in the heart, and I die.
It doesn't hurt much, not for long.
I don’t feel angry for long, either.
The bullet wasn’t meant for me,
but for someone behind me.
It seems pretty pointless
to be angry at this young man.
I'm already dead. Being angry
won't make me live again.
Even in this dream I know
that some souls choose to remain angry
at those who have murdered them,
but that this anger weights them
to this world with long sticky lines.
Resentment would hold my spirit down
when, more than anything else,
it wants to fly, to soar, to be free.
So instead of feeling angry,
I choose to feel compassion
for my murderer. Looking at him
I can see all the history of his life,
all the painful circumstances,
that led him to this violent
and desperate act. I feel love for him.
As my heart opens its wings
in this warm unexpected feeling,
my soul rises out of my body,
until I'm floating over it.
My spirit is a golden egg,
a large ovoid sphere.
There is a casing around it
that starts breaking up
into what looks like little yellow butterflies,
that float away on the breeze.
Eventually, I know,
the same thing
will happen to my soul.
It will break up and go
to join the creative source
of the universe.
It will fly there with
the same irresistible instinct
migratory birds must feel
as they travel long distances
to places never seen before.
This is a magnetic pull
so strong that for me
there can be no other ultimate choice.
This whole time there is an Benevolent Presence,
behind and to the right, supporting me.
It looks like Emma Thompson in Angels in America.
I tell her that before I leave the earth
there are some things I want to do.
I want to hear baby laughter again,
because it's one of the very best sounds.
She agrees.I want to see mothers with newborn babies.
I have always loved mothers with babies
and that's why I wanted to be a maternity nurse, in this dream, at least.
So the Presence guides me to a maternity ward
where I see mothers with their little ones,
the start of life at the end of mine, so beautiful.
After that we'll go find some babies
old enough to laugh,
the sound rising, breaking
floating and riding the air
like those little yellow butterflies.
After that, I will fly off, free and happy,
to join that greater Wholeness.
In doing so, I know, my identity will end,
but that is fine with me.
I’m no longer attached to this existence.
I know the angelic Presence will be there
the whole time, supporting, guiding, accompanying me.
There is no fear.
I feel completely