While aging is basically good, one of my favorite things about it is its complexity. When things don’t go as you’d hoped, or when you get bad news, there may be a silver lining—as I learned in 2003. Soon after my 60th birthday, I had a mastectomy for a breast cancer originally thought to be non-aggressive. I had no lymph node involvement. Out of the blue, though, my inexperienced oncologist called and told me I had, at most, two years to live.
She was taking the word of an overconfident radiologist, who read a routine liver scan and thought the white specks on my liver were metastasized breast cancer. After my initial terror wore off, I did some quick end-of-life planning and had important conversations with my children. Imagine our delight when the diagnosis was reversed by a second radiologist: The white spots were merely one more sign of aging! I had my life back and I have not regretted the earlier bad news for an instant in the last 14 years.
The most important learning, the most silvery of the silver linings, was that after that experience I could truly feel, “Death, where is thy sting?” Being unafraid has allowed me to refine my early end-of-life planning many times and to see that it can be a continuous, even enjoyable process.
My second example: My husband, David, had a moderately severe stroke a year ago. Previously, I’d only had to depend on friends and family for very occasional assistance. Suddenly, I needed a whole team of people to relieve me on a regular basis from my full-time caregiving duties. And this went on for a month or two.
My friends and my fellow members of Wider Horizons Village rallied and came to our home for two to four hours so I could get out for errands and recreation. What a wonderful gift! This team of people enjoyed being on the giving end and paying it forward. No one was stretched beyond his or her limits—especially me!
Quite a few less dramatic events associated with aging have provided my husband and me with the opportunity to leave a better legacy for our five children. That legacy has two parts. First, by anticipating and planning for ourselves, we relieve them of that responsibility. Second, we model for them the behavior that many of us, deeply embroiled in eldercare with parents who don’t seem to want our help, wish had been modeled for us.
The unadulterated good news is that you can plan ahead at any time—not just when a crisis occurs! Human nature seems to make us ignore all early warning signs so planning often happens in the breach—but if you can plan before the crisis hits, so much the better.
So that is what the overarching theme for this and future columns from me will be: Planning ahead for your aging is a wonderful legacy you can give your children.
Denise Klein led the King County Area Agency on Aging for 12 years, was Senior Services’ CEO for 10 years, and spent 13 years as a national consultant on aging. She has served on numerous non-profit boards, received two national leadership awards, and is currently the executive director for Wider Horizons, a Village Network community in Seattle. (www.widerhorizonsvillage.org)