Thursday, July 7, 2016


The reality of growing older is explored in ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ (Albom, 1998), where an important theme is the acceptance of the physical and mental changes that aging brings in its wake. To experience old age without regret, we have to find a purpose for living while we are still young. Being aware of our own mortality on a daily basis can help us do that. Grief comes easily to many older people because of the losses they experience. This is discussed in ‘Lapping’ (Halligan, 2001) where the author compares the movement of the mind to the rise and fall of waves on the seashore with some memories becoming prominent and others fading away over time. Loss, and the grief that comes with aging, is also discussed in the article ‘A poetic life’ (Leser, 2005). We are reminded here that loss can sometimes be a time to learn valuable lessons. In old age there are many lessons that can be learnt about the strength of the spirit and those who find this inner strength can triumph over all kinds of physical limitations. Finding new directions in our lives after retirement is important. In ‘Not to yield’ (McDonald, 2000), we are reminded that growing older need not be an excuse to stop learning or following our passion. Memories represent unique aspects of our personalities. In ‘Saying Goodbye’ (McInnes, 2005), we learn about what happens when Alzheimer’s disease robs people of their memories and they become strangers to themselves and to their loved ones. Sometimes we wonder if knowing the diagnosis of an incurable and progressive illness like Alzheimer’s serves any purpose. In ‘The right to self-determination’ (Pieters-Hawke & Flynn, 2004) this question is explored. Early awareness can enable people to plan ahead and ensure that what happens to them in the future is according to their wish.

We gain experiential knowledge by listening to the stories of others (story witnessing). The insight from the narratives listed above have helped me develop empathy and to realise that there are no readymade solutions to many of life’s problems. Only by understanding the unique situations of others through active listening can I hope to help them effectively.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The ability to choose

Based on: Pieters-Hawke, S., & Flynn, H. (2004). The right to self-determination. In Hazel’s journey : a personal experience of Alzheimer’s (pp. 71-84). Sydney : Pan Macmillan.

As people grow older, one of the things that they may fear is the inability to make their own choices about how they want their lives to be.

In this story, Hazel is a woman who has just been given a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. While she is not in any way dramatically different in the day after knowing the diagnosis (versus the day before the diagnosis), Hazel is nevertheless more apprehensive, after the diagnosis, about a future where her sense of self will be eroded away.

Sometimes one wonders whether there is any purpose in knowing the diagnosis of a disease for which there is no treatment. Because whether one remains blissfully unaware or fearfully apprehensive, the disease will unfold the same way, isn’t it? Hazel’s story tells us that an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease gives people an opportunity to provide instructions for those situations in the future when they would no longer be able to make decisions. It helps family and friends know what they must do without feeling guilty or anxious. One of the important decisions that Hazel communicated to her family was that she did not wish for her life to be prolonged simply for its own sake. She had no wish for medical interventions to keep her alive when she reached a state where she was of no use to herself or to anyone else. The ability to articulate such desires and to ensure that everyone will understand and follow them is the main benefit of knowing early the diagnosis of a disease like Alzheimer’s.

Much of what we fear may never happen. Whatever the situation we are in, we have the ability to create in our own minds the kind of future we want.  We have the power to construct, if we so choose, our own narratives of what our lives will be in the future as we age. These mental constructs can be safety nets that allow us to move bravely towards an uncertain and potentially fearful future. We must learn to exercise this cognitive choice while we can.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Losing memories

Based on: McInnes, W. (2005). Extract from Saying goodbye. In A man’s got to have a hobby:long summers with my dad (pp. 231-246). Sydney : Hodder Australia.

Memories accumulate as we grow older. These memories define us and connect us to our past. Alzheimer’s disease robs us of these memories and we become strangers to our former selves and to the people whom we knew in the past. 

When Colin developed Alzheimer’s disease, his wife wanted to care for him in their house and not keep him in a nursing home. As the disease progressively robbed Colin of his memories and his links with those who loved him, their house seemed to shrink because most of their daily activities revolved around his needs. Colin became increasingly suspicious as his memories were slowly extinguished. This made it increasingly distressing for his family. 

As people grow older with chronic progressive diseases, there will come a time when there is nothing more to be done, nothing that will make things better. It is then a time of waiting, of waiting for death. This is the time when loved ones struggle with their own emotions and try to find meaning in loss. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Based on: McDonald, D. (2000). Not to yield. In T. Koch, M. Annells & M. Brown (Eds.), Still doing : twelve men talk about ageing (pp. 115-131). Kent Town, S. Aust. : Wakefield Press.

When Don McDonald retired, he felt that he had stepped out of a very rewarding phase of his life. He felt that he had closed the door to a life filled with people, noise and action. He felt adrift but he consoled himself that he would now be able to march to the rhythm of his own drumbeat. He had to remind himself that retirement would give him the opportunity to explore new horizons. One of these opportunities was in the form of being able to spend time reading aloud to his wife who lost her vision after a stroke.

Retirement also enabled him to find meaning and fulfilment in domestic chores like cooking and keeping the house and garden tidy. Retirement spurred him to involve himself in the University of the Third Age (U3A) which is a network of older people who are interested in learning for its own sake. Don found enthusiasm and purpose by trying to light the “fires of curiosity” in the English language through teaching a class called Words Alive in U3A. Involvement in the activities of U3A also gave Don the opportunity to meet and know people with different kinds of attitudes and interests.

Retirement is the pause button of life, a time for reflection on the meaning and significance of life. Growing older should not be an excuse to stop learning. Rather it should be the opportunity to focus on the kind of learning that we are really passionate about and interested in. Teachers are also learners for it is a poor teacher who does not learn from students. Tennyson’s words can indeed be a guide for older folks:

Though much is taken, much abides;
And though we are not now the strength which in the old days
Moved heaven and earth; That which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts made weak by time and fate, but strong in will;
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Old age can unmask inner strength

Based on: A poetic life written by David Leser in the Australian Women's Weekly (January 2005)

Old age is often associated with loss and loss is often associated with regret. But, as Barbara’s life in this article shows, the loss of even a vital function like eyesight can be the key to an aspect of life that is fulfilling and rewarding. Barbara was able to reach out and touch people because of her blindness. She developed the ability to intuitively understand the emotions and needs of others by developing a hidden resource inside her, something she would never have been able to do if she had not lost her eyesight. Her life can be an inspiration to all those who are growing old with the regret of losing the strength and beauty of youth.

Old age can be a fulfilling place if, like Barbara, we learn to develop unique strengths within us that were unacknowledged earlier. Old age can be the time when the strengths of the spirit become more evident and stronger. Without the inevitable (physical) losses of old age, such inner strengths may never be discovered. When such inner strengths are discovered and strengthened, we develop the ability to look forward to the future with hope instead of looking at the past with regret. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The grief that comes with aging

Based on: Halligan, M. (2001). Lapping. In The fog garden : a novel (pp.1-8). Crows Nest, NSW. : Allen and Unwin.

Growing older increases the risk of experiencing loss. 

The movement of the mind is like the lapping of waves. Some memories are intensified while others are erased; like the waves which ebb and flow, creating and removing, patterns on the sand. When one is grieving, one may observe commonplace activities in great detail. Halligan, after the death of his wife, was exquisitely sensitive to the sounds of the birds around his house and to the activities of children playing on the beach. His memory sharpened the images of his wife greeting him with a kiss every time he returned home and there is a painful intensity in the way he remembered always being comforted by the sight of his wife’s car even though it was of a colour that he detested. 

Grief can also be externalised. Halligan takes the large cathedral he used to frequent with his wife to be symbolic of the enormity of his grief. The analogy is apt.  Grief can be as complex as a cathedral with all its intricate sculptures and carvings and grief, like the cathedral, has a way of hushing and silencing interactions between people.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Growing old

Based on: Tuesdays with Morrie -  a novel by Mitch Albom

Growing old need not be an uncomfortable feeling. Ageing is like an irresistible force that will take place whether we want it or not. Morrie says that resisting ageing is what creates uncomfortable feelings and unhappiness. He feels that those who resist ageing are mainly those who have unsatisfying or unfulfilling lives. Those who have found a meaning for their lives will generally be grateful for the experiences of the past and will not be unhappy to move onward to whatever the future holds for them. 

Envy for the young and the healthy is something that older folks will always experience from time to time but it is possible to feel it and let it go by replacing that feeling with the awareness that ageing is also a form of growth and maturation. Morrie finds comfort in imagining ageing as a process that takes one onward from infancy to childhood to adulthood and old age. The young and the old, at any point in time, are simply at different points in this spectrum of time.  Those who are old have already traversed a greater part of this spectrum and should feel a sense of accomplishment for having done so.

Our priorities often change in ways that we cannot imagine when we are faced with the reality of dying within a finite period of time. Morrie tells us that he feels the soft and gentle emotion of love connecting him very strongly to others, even strangers. He implies that love is a force that connects us all to one another, like beads on a string. His awareness of being connected to others is probably what has given him the ability to accept being dependent on others in his eight decade of life.

Morrie feels that we tend to ignore the reality of death when we are young and healthy and that this makes us unappreciative of the gifts which we receive in this world from Nature and from others. He feels that being aware of one’s mortality on a daily basis is the right thing to do for it gives us valuable insights into how we need to use our time on earth.