Loss through Living

“Creeping Chronology: A Journey of Loss Through Living,” Jim Turner

Hebrew Scriptures: Ecclesiastes 12:1-8
(This Carpe Diem passage morphs into a series of metaphors related to aging.)

Christians Scriptures: John 21:18 & 19
(In this passage a proverbial expression to Peter is wrongly taken as a prophecy that Peter would be Crucified.)

Contemporary Literature: “The Little Boy and the Old Man,” by Shel Silverstein
Said the little boy, ‘Sometimes I drop my spoon.’
Said the old man, ‘I do that too.’
The little boy whispered, ‘I wet my pants.’
‘I do that too,’ laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, ‘I often cry.’
The old man nodded, ‘So do I.’
‘But worst of all,’ said the boy, ‘it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.’
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
‘I know what you mean,’ said the little old man.

Advocate Eureka Hospital is a small, Critical Access Hospital. With a 24 hour, physician staffed Emergency Department an individual who suffers a critical incident can be taken to the Emergency Department; be stabilized, and then either admitted or transferred to Bloomington/Normal or Peoria to an Acute Care Facility.   The majority of our patients come for outpatient cardiac or physical rehab; radiology or lab tests; or to see one of a number of specialist who come to our clinic one or more days a week.

The inpatient beds at AEH are designated “swing beds.” That means each inpatient room can be staffed for full acute care, or as an extended rehab bed at a lower level of nursing care. Needless to say, the charge is different depending upon the level of nursing care. Consequently, we have orthopedic surgery patients who are transferred to us from hospitals in Bloomington/Normal or Peoria for rehab after their three to five days allowed Medicare or insurance in an acute care facility by.

A while back I was visiting a patient who had transferred to Advocate Eureka from Advocate BroMenn following a total knee replacement. I’ll call her Martha. Martha was explaining to me that this was her second total knee replacement. “After my last knee, they sent me to a Nursing Home for rehab,” She said. “It was terrible! This time I told my surgeon I will never go there again. He told me about this place, so I chose to come here.” I asked Martha to tell me about her experience in the nursing home. She replied, “I saw a lot of my friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I didn’t like what I saw.”

Martha put into words what many of us feel when we enter a nursing home, even if only for a visit. We see our future there. And, like Martha, we don’t like what we see. We observe in the very elderly the ravages of time; the losses of living life; the results of “creeping chronology.” Shel Silverstein’s poem might be assuring to the little boy, but not so much to the old man. Most of us do not like facing the reality of our own aging process. Ultimately we do not want to hear “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”(Gen. 2:19b) In the cartoon on the back of the bulletin “Mr. O” replies, “It’s not the act of dying that I find worrisome; it’s the idea that you’re supposed to stay dead.”(Flo & Friends by Jenny Campbell)

Spending most of my life in a hospital at Advocate BroMenn, I learned there are worse things than “staying dead.” In either case, I know that my message this morning will have varying levels of discomfort for many of you. However, not coming to terms with our own transience is risky.

Recently I ran into a prayer, the author of which seems to be unknown, “Lord, let me not die while I am still alive.” Dying while still alive can be a state of mind or of body. We all know someone who lives so much in the past they find no pleasure in the now. We can also fail to enjoy the present while we worry ourselves to death about our future. That future may be a fear of death or it may be the fear of dying. We all probably also know someone who’s body has been so ravaged by aging or illness that they no longer live, but only exist.

Failing to accept that we have been created with “planned obsolescence” can prevent us from making choices which allow us to continue living while we are alive.

“Creeping chronology” is subtle. Perhaps it starts with that first, ominous strand of grey hair. Maybe it’s the first sign of crow’s feet around or bags under the eyes. It may be that first twinge in a knee or the lower back. For a period of time we can stave off the loss of our youthful look and failing body structure with Botox, exercise, and surgery. “Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, all is vanity.” (Song of Solomon 12:8) Sooner or later we find ourselves feeling like Frank on in the front of the bulletin, “Time used to be on my side, now it’s at my back and pushing.”

Time is a big loss related to living. Time is the one thing in life where the larger the deposit the bigger the deficit. Having become a septuagenarian I realize I have lived about 6/8 of my life. We are living longer now than we ever have. Yet, recently I learned that 50% of men who turn 70 will make it to 80. I’ve been retired from BroMenn ten years now. That means I have a 50-50 chance of living as long as or longer than I have been retired already. That has been sobering.

Another sobering experience of living is the loss of mobility. This week I walked out of a meeting with a fellow Board member for Compassion and Choices. I became aware of how cautiously he walked down the drive way, taking care with each step. In addition to his walk making him look older, I realized how much more time it was taking for us to negotiate the short distance to our respective cars. As you may have noticed, one of my knees is at a point where it requires me to use a cane in some circumstance. I have a collapsible cane in the door pocket of each of our cars. One of those canes makes a slight “clack” sound each time it hits the ground. It’s a real advantage in crowds…   people hear me coming and clear a path for me. When I get to a door they open it and let me pass ahead of them. Still, I feel like I’m as old as my fellow board member when people see me with my cane!

Finally, I suspect many of you know the experience of looking for a pair glasses or a hat, only to find it on your head. Or you go from one room to another to get something and when you get there you cannot remember what you went there to get!

Regardless of our losses from living, if we accept those losses we can then choose to do some things to compensate for the deficits and extend our healthy living. There is a reason the Shel Silberstein’s “old man” could “laugh” at his similarities to the “little boy.”   Brain health researcher Rachel Wu suggests a childlike approach. She suggests several things we can do to keep our brains younger. They are also things that can keep us younger in other ways as well. She suggests getting out of the routines we tend to get into as we age. Get out of the “rut” and “shake things up.” Become a “pupil” again. Take a class; assist an instructor; or mentor someone.

Keeping a positive frame of mind is helpful. Be an “old dog that can learn new tricks.” It is important to maintain “an encouraging support network of people. Avoid those who judge or criticize our detriments. No matter what living has taken away from us we all have something we contribute to life. Keep at it. Don’t give up. Remember, when the going gets tough the tough get going. I remember two centenarians at the former University Christian Church who were in the front pew virtually every Sunday. One day I asked one of them what kept them coming every Sunday when so many half their age would find one reason or another for not being able to be there. She said, “Every morning when I wake up I ask God, ‘What wonderful things do you have in store for me today.’

Finally, as they say in the work place, “multi-task.” Don’t just focus on one new thing at a time. Take on a variety of new things. Carla Bolek, an advanced practice nurse with Advocate Medical Group Neurology in Bloomington says, “As we get older, we tend to lose our child-like outlook in life.” She suggests “getting outside and in touch with your inner child. Look at the flowers and clouds, ride a bicycle. Don’t forget the wonders that are in front of us every day. When we start to feel old is when we start to get old.” Shel Silberstein’s “old man” could “laugh” at his similarities to the “little boy” because he could identify with the child.

In the Hebrew Scriptures age and the aged are revered. Extreme age was attributed to people in the Bible to demonstrate their goodness or holiness. Consequently Adam was said to have died at 930 years; Noah died at 950 years; Moses at 120. So, put aside vanity; get in touch with your inner child; take time to smell the roses; and live to be 960!