If we live long enough, we eventually age into frailty. The imperfections and infirmities of old age gather at the perimeters of our daily lives—biding their time, respectful of our earlier elderliness, but also certain that they will eventually come into the center of our existence and self-images. That they will have their way with us.
I have watched as this inevitable part of life has crept up on people older than me. It has occurred to me that in many cases, there was a threshold—a psychic or physical place/moment when the transition toward “frail elderly” began. For these older relatives, friends and colleagues, there seemed to be a landmark moment, a signal or a demarcation point when their life’s journey changed direction.
You may be able to name those life events, and others like them: A fall, a stroke, the diagnosis of a chronic condition, a difficult lifestyle change, a hospital stay, the death of a spouse, sudden economic trouble. Corrective or healing interventions may no longer work—or at least it takes longer from them to restore well-being. At these tipping points or junctions, an invisible cycle of cause/effect begins spiraling downward, drawing the inevitabilities closer and closer. However it happens to us, eventually we accept gradually increasing defects or dysfunctions into our lives, making room for them alongside our remaining attributes.
There’s another side to this story, though, not as certain as the encroaching frailty but as significant as the physical or mental troubles. Those same dear ones who have entered a new phase in their life have also shown me how they can still live fully, even as ill-health increases. Let me invite you into those thoughts, too.
Many people older than me have displayed remarkable spirit, proof that frailty doesn’t destroy life. Even as they make necessary adjustments to living with failing bodies and minds, they also exhibit fierce determination to make something out of what remains of their capacities. They regroup their sense of purpose within the constraints imposed by their shortcomings. In some cases, they leverage those difficulties into new capabilities—e.g., becoming skillfully mobile because of a walker or wheelchair.
A good share of them move into what feels to me like the highest levels of spirituality and wisdom. It seems as though they live on another plane of spiritual awareness, that their intuitions about people are razor-sharp, that they have distilled their lifework down to only what’s important. They don’t withdraw into the secluded cave of self-pity, but seem generous in ways that may not have been possible when they were fit-as-fiddles. They honor others by accepting loving care with grace and gratitude. Some of them use the considerable personal power that gathers around them, building up or supporting those who care for them. They exemplify what St. Paul wrote about God’s answer to his infirmities, “My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
I don’t know about you, but I hope to live into additional decades of life. Because of the witness of those who have come before me—including those who have transitioned to “frail elderly”—I am resolved to face this part of a full life with the same attitudes they have shown me.
So that I can continue fulfilling some part of God’s holy will….!
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