Dear Older Self,
As you grow more dependent on others for help and support you will be faced with daily decisions about what you can safely do and what needs to be left for others to do. You will need growing wisdom. You will need to listen to the input of those who know and love you.
The more dependent you become, the more helpless you may begin to feel. And this sense of helplessness may cast a shadow of despair over your remaining days. You are not, however, helpless in the face of this challenge. There are things you can do. You will need to grieve the growing losses in your ability to function. You will do well to remind yourself to be grateful for the abilities you have enjoyed. Finally, and this is the main point of this note, you will need to keep doing all the things that you are actually able to do.
There are several reasons for doing all that you can still do for yourself and for others. Perhaps the most obvious reason is that you will lessen the strain that others might feel over time in providing for your care. It is also true that when you stay as active as you can mentally, socially and physically it will have a positive impact on your health and will allow you to live each day to its fullest.
Helplessness and hopelessness often go hand in hand. So, in order to guard against despair, you want to find ways to do what you can for yourself. You want to find ways to do what you can for others as well. The simple act of choosing to keep active wherever and whenever you safely and reasonably can may sometimes help you to avoid slipping into despair.
Finding the balance between graciously receiving the help you need and staying as active and independent as possible will be a daily challenge. This is because what you can and can’t do changes almost every day. Some days you will be stronger and steadier than other days. Some days you will be weaker and less able.
Remember your friend who had been preparing her own simple meals well into her nineties? The day came when it was evident to you that it was dangerous for her to pour hot water from her tea kettle or carry a cup of hot tea even for a short distance. It was only a matter of time before she would scald herself. When you pointed this out she graciously accepted this new limitation.
On the other hand, this same friend was instructed by a home aide about how to pull herself up off the toilet in spite of her bad knee. This was something she thought she would never be able to do again. With the right support bars in place and the right placement of her hand on the support bar to create maximum leverage, however, she regained this simple ability. She was delighted that this was again in the category of things she could do for herself.
It is often difficult to know, dear older self, what you should do. I encourage you not to just sit back and let everyone else do everything that needs to be done when there is some part you can still do. Are you getting help to get to the shower or help with sponge baths? If you can participate in washing yourself, do so to the full extent that you are able. Are you able to dress yourself or feed yourself? Even if it takes longer than you like, do as much for yourself as you can. Wherever you are receiving assistance, notice if there is a way you can be a more active participant.
Some people die with their walking shoes on. They remain able to care for their basic needs, with some support, all the days of their lives. This may be your story. But many people need a great deal of help at the end of their lives. They cannot bath or dress or even feed themselves. If this is your story, look for what you can do. One of the things you can always do, dear older self, is to receive help with grace. You can ask clearly for the help you need without making demands or being inpatient. You can say “thank you” to everyone who helps you every time they help you. You can pronounce blessing on them. You can ask about them and listen to their stories. You can pray for them. You can delight in them and affirm them. You can laugh with them. You can love them.
One important way to let go of despair and to embrace life is to let go of helplessness and embrace doing what you can.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com