The Mountain Times

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Aging in place: Watching death

Recently I was at the hospital visiting an old friend.  The jaundiced color, frailty, body of skin and bones combined with the morphine drip told all this was a final visit. This was a moment of good-bye.

The conversation dwelt on platitudes and humor. But what is there really to talk about at such times? Everything has already been said that needed saying by the way lives were lived, by who one is and how one made his or her way.

So, in the sterile room of institutional health and diminished expectations, what can we do but joke and act like nothing extraordinary is happening? Tomorrow everyone will wake up and life will be the same except for one slight hole in the universe. One missing piece.

I have long ago entered the point where funerals have become more commonplace than marriages. There are friends and acquaintances that I now see only at funerals. There are those I catch up with solely to say good-bye.

Such is the blessing and the curse of a long life. If we last long enough, we get to bury everyone.  If we do not, well, then someone else gets to bury us.

We don't talk about death and dying much in our society. The subject is taboo. It is almost as if dying is a personal failing. It has become more private, too. Deathbed scenes with family and friends gathered around are less common these days. When was the last time you heard the news reporter announcing the last words of someone famous?

That's too bad. If death is a part of life, then it must be good. The gift of life is good, so death must be a gift, as well. The native people of the far north believe that the wolf is a gift to the caribou. The wolf was sent to keep the heard healthy. Just like the wolf, death is a natural part of things. It isn't personal; it just is.

One of the things I've learned in working with older clients is that it isn't "if I die," it is "when I die." Perhaps if we could talk more about this, it might break down some of the false divisions our society has erected around aging. That we all will face and deal with death is far more significant than perceived differences of years or activities.

Not cheerful stuff, I know. But, aging is moving in a one-way direction. Each passing tells us more about our own mortality than anything else. This is not good. This is not bad. This is just the way of life and we must learn to deal with it. Each in our own way for more than anything else we are survivors. But, only temporarily.

Aging in Place, it doesn't' happen by accident. And, it doesn't last forever.

Scott Funk is Vermont's leading Aging in Place advocate, writing and speaking around the state on issues of concern to retirees and their families.