How Old is Old Enough? Reflections on Compulsive Aging by Guest Blogger Jeanne Denney
My last column considered the predictability of dying and how it can be trusted to arrive. This week I ponder how we can get stuck in this inevitable process and how “compulsive aging” is a very different thing than vital aging.
I have known more than my share of the very old. I seem to meet them everywhere. Betty is a tiny, spry 98 year old woman who works the local church thrift shop desk. She wears too much makeup over a face that looks like a 20 year old apple, but other than this she presents with the hearing and energy of someone in her mid 70’s. A draftsman I worked with in the bridge business commuted from Queens to Times Square daily on the subway from his 20′s until he was 96. He still out-detailed his peers with a perfect, steady hand. Ray made drawings for Radio City Music Hall, the Chrysler building and the Empire State Building in his youth. At 90, after breaking his hip, he returned to work in a month. Another tenacious man I know of lived independently until 105 after a life of drinking cistern water, breathing oil fumes and heating with wood and coal. He finally suffered “a brief illness” and died. These are no ordinary souls, and my encounters with them seem to be increasing.
There is good reason for that. The over 100 crowd is the fastest growing demographic in America. This makes them a growing curiosity and a pressing issue. People like Aubrey de Grey and the researchers in this
video posit that death is an aberation, a disease that can and should be cured. I am a doubter, but indeed many more of us stand a chance of living over 100 years of age than even 20 years ago. Still, these examples aside, it is hard to prove that quality of life is improving for the very old. I have been thinking about these rare souls for clues about happiness, the energy of the body and our ability to stay in it or not. I wonder, honestly, when the scales
are tipped so that ultra-aging isn’t worth it.
Honoring Resilience, but… for how long?
There is a tenacity about the very old that is palpable though not quantifiable. If I had to put into one word what they have mastered it is resilience. To be resilient is to have a creative gift for survival. Mainly we assume this is great. But it is hard not to notice that some kinds of resilience in aging seem healthier than others. Sometimes resilience begets a weird rigidity. It begs the questions “How old is old enough?” or when, perchance, does a gift for survival become a terror-driven compulsion, a sign of dysfunction, much like someone who can’t leave an abusive situation?
In contrast to the examples I gave above of people living to a very spritely old age with meaning, zest, humor and quality of life, hospice work brought me into contact with people resolutely surviving their capacity for joy and connection as if they had lost the flexibility to complete a transformation. Many of the very old seem lost between exuberant bodily life and a spiritual destination, neither of which they are connected to. It is as if they are trapped inside a calcified shell that has frozen shut from lack of movement. They remind me of people who have missed a train walking with heavy bags. This article chronicles well the complications of what I might call dysfunctional or compulsive aging and its implications for others.
What it Looks Like
To be clear, I am not thinking exclusively or even mainly about people in comatose states. I am thinking, for example, of an oriented but angry 103 year old bereft of relationship and hearing whose 16 year activity in the nursing home was mainly to obsess about her threadbare housecoat or get lost in nightmarish, paranoid thoughts about her aides. The rigidity of her body and her bitterness together seemed to form a cage that made it harder and harder to move on. Had Margaret been a bit happier or physically supple, I wonder if she might have died earlier with more ease and grace. Instead she was compulsively aging.
There are many forms of compulsive aging. I remember an abandoned 65 pound woman who lived curled into a ball for 3 years miserably fighting, not for presence in a body, but against escaping it. She fought just as deeply against anyone who tried to care for her. What could possibly be holding her in this life but a resolute vow not to surrender to death? Candice was proof positive that resistance to physical death does not a life make.
Compulsive aging might look like a person who expresses wishes to die but feels like they can’t overcome a persistent thought pattern or perceived responsibility. One brilliant 100 year old woman once said: “I want to die, but I can’t because the world is in worse shape than when I came into it. I can’t leave it like this.” Helen was stuck with a sense of over-responsibility for “the world”, a contract that she could not escape even as her means for improving it were obviously diminishing. Behind these examples it seems something has gone awry in the living and breathing process of vital transformation that death is a part of.
When is enough, enough?
That soul question of course can’t be answered by anyone other than ourselves from a deep, unconscious bone knowledge. All I know is that there are deaths full of vibrance and deaths that seem simply an exhausted, confused fight against a feared but unknown enemy. There are deaths that are full of grace and those that seem tortured and overdue. In a word, some deaths have more life in them than others. Another time I hope to write more about these characteristics of different forms of aging.
For now, I hope to be like the spritely Betty in the church thrift shop, but I will take an early death over a tortured escape from a calcified existence many years later. I suspect this is an insight I should take to heart for guidance on how to live,breathe aand move even now at 51.
Jeanne Denney is a therapist and hospice worker in Rockland County, NY and the author of The Effects of Compassionate Presence on the Dying. (See www.rocklandmindbody.com)