My daughter is very tenderhearted. For a long time we avoided the subject of death, which means we avoided pretty much all Disney movies. But when she was 4 years old she was coloring at the kitchen table. She looks up at me with her big, brown eyes and asks “Mommy, am I going to die?”
In that moment I made a split second decision to tell the truth. I simply said “yes”
I made the wrong decision. Lies. That’s what I should have gone with…
Lies of unicorns, rainbows and life everlasting.
Her big brown eyes filled with tears. She threw her arms around me and sobbed. Her heart is pressed against mine and I feel it as it shatters.
My heart breaks too. Not because of her inevitable death, but just because of innocence lost. And I lost all ability to speak. I can’t tell her that she likely has another 80-90 years. I can’t explain the hope of an afterlife. Nothing. I open my mouth but nothing comes out. I completely lose the ability to communicate.
My son is gifted in seeing the lighter side of things. He’s barely 2 at the time but is getting increasingly annoyed at the situation. He blurts out “People don’t got died. ONLY dinosaurs get got died.”
He makes me laugh, as he usually does. The tension in the room dissipates. I regain the ability to speak. We have a conversation about death. And though death is sad, it’s a natural part of life.
People prepare for death. We make wills. Advanced directives for our health care. We take out life insurance policies. Some of us even plan our funerals and pick out caskets. We don’t face death unprepared.
People also prepare for retirement. People have financial advisers and investment portfolios. We count down the days to retirement, we plan parties with cakes and gold watches.
But what about the space between?
Between retirement and death? During that time we age. Granted, we are all aging, even right now. But it seems to become evident in our twilight years. And we do not prepare for aging. Not at all.
I know that people don’t prepare for aging because I get thrown into the mix when an injury or illness happens. I am a hospital based Physical Therapist. So people don’t see me with shin splints or tennis elbow. I’m the person people see just after their world has fallen apart.
I’m the person people see after a devastating stroke. I come in hours after the doctor delivers the news that someone is paralyzed and will never walk again. I see people after a cancer diagnosis is made or a limb has been amputated. I’m the person who helps people get out of bed after surgery. To begin to face the challenges that life has given you.
People don’t plan for injury.
They don’t plan for illness.
Something life altering occurs and they have no idea what to do.
People plan for other devastating events. We have a fire escape plan. Is there a tornado or hurricane is heading our way? We know what to do. People plan. We hope these things never happen, but we are prepared if they do.
But perhaps planning for aging is different because it involves facing your own mortality. We don’t like to think about it. So we just ignore it, even though are aging is much more likely to occur than a fire or natural disaster.
So today I’d like to offer you 2 ways you can plan to age, so if the unfortunate happens you are not totally blindsided.
First, create a support system. This piece is crucial, if you do nothing else, please do this. Support systems look different to different people. Sometimes it includes family, sometimes it does not. Who’s going to bring you food? Can someone drive you to appointments? Who is your support system?
Second, consider your environment. If you 78 years old with Parkinson’s disease, then living in a 3 story town home is not likely to work. But even if you are young and healthy, what are your options if an injury occurs and you can no longer manage stairs. Or if you have cancer and the chemo treatments leave you so weak you can barely make it to your front door. What are your options? Can you put a bed downstairs? Is there an accessible shower? Can you afford an extended stay hotel for several weeks?
You have an emergency plan in place for fire and natural disasters. You’ve set up wills and retirement accounts. But today I challenge you to have a plan if you face an injury or illness. Who will support you? Can you live in your home? What options do you have?
This article is a guest blog by Rachel Blackwood, a physical therapist and aging in place specialist for Designing Independence.