How Old is Old Enough?: Reflections on Compulsive Aging (Part 2 of 2)

July 25, 2011

by 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.

shell with pearl

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 http://www.rocklandmindbody.com)

If you are interested in subscribing to this blog, contributing to the Kairos Network or participating in a process of “Planning on Dying” contact jeannedenney@gmail.com. You can also just hit the subscription icon above.

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4 Responses to “How Old is Old Enough?: Reflections on Compulsive Aging (Part 2 of 2)”

  1. Julie said

    Hi Jeanne
    As a Tibetan Buddhist we prepare for the death process almost everyday of our lives as we all want to be reborn into a happy and contented existence. In Tibetan Buddhism this is very much impacted by how we live our lives now which is why we are mindful of the need for compassion and treating others with kindness and love. Most of us do not have a fear of death because we are certain we are doing our best in this life however, in the West, death is something often made into a taboo subject, something considered mournful and in a way dark. People don’t want to talk about death until either they are terminally ill or in a near death state. This is often sad as they have done no preparation and are often afraid of what will happen. Many want to make amends for wrongdoings in the very sacred time that should be spent passing peacefully, they are concerned about guilt and sadness. It is strange that some people only consider the real feelings of others at this time and then it is usually to clear ones own conscience. The process of Bardo is I believe a peaceful one where the merit one has accumulated just needs to be processed for the next life. I became a follower of Buddhism some years ago following the murder of my partner and it was because of this I decided to leave everything behind and travel India. There I was fortunate to meet Geshe who took me as his student in the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and since then I have been a practitioner & scholar.
    Please see the video on my blog
    http://www.mindfulness-therapy.blogspot.com for more information about Bardo.

  2. Jeanne,

    I have done a lot of research on Centenarians and Super Centenarians. In fact, several years ago I had presented about Healthy Aging at the USABP conference.

    My realization is that healthy aging has to do with healilng your emotional blocks from childhood as you age. The earlier you can do this, the better. When my mother was lying in her hospital bed, dying, she couldn’t stop crying for 2 1/2 weeks because she had never faced some important life issues before.

    Those who refuse to reevaluate their upbringing, their values, their attitudes and their interpersonal interactions can be stunned and very upset that their bodies are “betraying” them.
    Those who realize that we must go with the flow and be in attunement with what is in our life, moment to moment, will have a much easier time dealing with the inevitable decreases in bodily functions.

    The body loses functions at about 1% every year, begining at around age 25-30. So the changes are barely noticeable. But if we are attuned to our own body rhythms, we can easily adjust, slow down our activities, provide less stress in our life, and enjoy our moment to moment living in a way that brings us serenity and joy. It also helps to maintain a purpose filled life, to never stop learning and to surround oneself with loving and caring friends and relatives – and to have a sense of spirituality, something beyond this body and this world.

    Erica

  3. Fran said

    “All I know is that there are deaths full of vibrancy 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.”

    I would guess that lives are like that as well. To say that some lives have more death in them than others might be equally true.
    I think it is more about consciousness than age, or consciousness at any age. It’s a process and sometimes people get old and die before they’ve processed very much or just not enough to accept the next change.

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