A lot is written about modern man’s longevity and we recognise that modern medicine plays a major role in creating that longevity. But a recent operation brought this into clearer focus for me.
I am generally in good health and can reasonably expect to be one of those who live ‘till 90. But without the intervention of modern medical practice I would be dead – I would have died at 63 and again 6 months ago, at 67. In fact, if I look back over my life, I probably would have died a couple more times if it hadn’t been for penicillin. This got me thinking. There have always been people who have lived into great old age, but their numbers were few. Modern medicine has changed that.
I take medicine’s intervention for granted. I get sick, take some wonder drug, have a “simple” procedure and I’m back out there in the race. And I don’t stop to look at what just happened.
What happened is that I’ve just been granted 10 or 20 extra years of life. How am I going to use this gift? Same-old, same-old or a re-evaluation? How did my lifestyle contribute to that death defying moment? And most important, what in my lifestyle do I need to change so that it doesn’t happen again?
If I choose not to change my lifestyle, modern medicine will continue to rescue me, but I will live into an increasingly uncomfortable old age – where one condition is compounded by two, three or more life threatening conditions.
If I do choose to change my lifestyle, I need to consider my health in its broadest perspective. How is my diet, what exercise am I doing, what am I doing to stay bright and with it, what purpose am I fulfilling that gets me up with enthusiasm in the morning, what relationship do I have with friends and family, and do I have enough money to take care of myself?
Either way, modern medicine’s gift is a double edged sword; yes, the likelihood of 20 additional years of life, but, they are old-age years and with them come all the complications of old age.
So, whoop dee do – my gift is to grow old and frail. What does that mean for me?
Physically I’m on the decline. But Stephen Hawking is my hero – he is still the ultimate theoretical physicist and cosmologist. So it’s not just about the body.
Mentally, Alzheimer’s is the bogy-man. Leading an active lifestyle that combines regular physical, social and mental activity will help to lower the risk. Depression and medical conditions like diabetes, and high blood pressure are high risk factors for Alzheimer’s; so getting them treated early is important.
Socially we are starting to see an epidemic of loneliness, where old people go for days without human company. So, how do we stay connected to family and friends?
But our biggest challenge is to find meaning and purpose in a retirement that could last for 20 or more years. Viktor Fankl, in his masterwork, Man’s Search For Meaning, stated
“We need to think of ourselves as being questioned by life, taking responsibility for its problems and fulfilling the unique tasks which it constantly sets for each of us. This uniqueness gives meaning to our existence.”
There are so many issues that need calm, considered wisdom, free from the demands of ego and self-interest. We have lived through fundamental changes in the way the world works and we have experienced the pressures of career and responsibilities. We have made mistakes and we have learned from those mistakes. Those experiences are invaluable, and with that experience, some of us will go on to accomplish enormous tasks; others will fulfil less obvious, and often unseen, tasks.
The world of today’s youngsters is immeasurably more complicated than ours was and the time pressures on families are huge – so no-one has time to listen. Hold on – we do! We can be of service in who we are being. Rather than being grumpy, we have an opportunity to provide unconditional positive regard (thanks Carl Rogers) in all our relationships. My belief in you creates your belief in you! What could be a more important task than that? And through that task we can influence the course of humanity.
So perhaps, the spiritual task of aging is to transcend our disabilities, our losses, our dependencies and to become aware of the ultimate meaning of life. To consider what value our dependence brings to others and to hold a place of calm in a world of pressure and rush.
If we are miserable and wracked with multiple diseases we won’t be bringing calm, fulfilment and positive regard – we will be a burden and we (and others) will suffer. So ultimately, the gift we have been given, is to maintain our quality of life as we get older, to continue to be of service and to sustain authentic relationships with others of all ages.