Two years ago, after rejecting the option of an invasive biopsy procedure, my mother-in-law’s doctor told us that she “probably” had throat cancer and would experience an unpleasant demise over the coming months. This after a two-plus–month stay in the hospital with what started out as some kind of mysterious digestive issue.
Her children and their spouses and her grandchildren cried and planned and steeled ourselves for the “unpleasant reality” of what was to come. We researched hospice options and decided to bring hospice care along with 24/7 aides to her apartment where she would be most comfortable during the time she had left.
Except a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral…it didn’t happen. We just celebrated her 90th birthday, and she is sprier physically and mentally than many people half her age.
There are lessons to learn here. But first let me paint the picture of how amazing this woman is—she swims and does water exercises every day and then climbs two flights of stairs back up to her apartment. She participates in a balance exercise class two or three times each week. She had been doing it in person, but since COVID, she does it on Zoom. (Yes…she has mastered her laptop, smartphone and assorted apps and is rapidly learning how to use the Apple Watch she just got because of its fall-monitoring feature.) Additionally, she sews quilts for people in need…plays bridge daily (previously in person but during COVIC using online technology)…is actively engaged in managing her own investment portfolio—she can quote you the latest stock prices on the stocks and funds she owns…goes fishing when the water is clear…and, until recently, was on the board of her singles group. Not bad, eh?
When we first brought mom home from the hospital, besides having difficulty eating, she could barely stand or walk without assistance, and we actually “forced” her into an assisted-living facility for a while, fearful that her own apartment was not set up properly for what she would need. Two months later, she left assisted living and returned to her own apartment. This weekend, she had no problem walking with me, my sister-in-law and our dogs up and down a hill to sit by a nearby river nor up and down the stairs where we were staying.
How did she do it? Call it grit…call it fortitude…call it fearlessness. I believe she is simply choosing to live her best life each day without worrying about limitations and the reasons why not. In fact, if anything, we kids were skeptical when she first learned to lift her own legs from the couch by using a strap that she herself made to provide assistance. We were downright fearful when she announced that she had driven her car shortly after that. She could barely lift her legs just weeks before, and now she was driving???? Yet, we were hundreds of miles away from where she lived and were not witnessing firsthand her commitment to trying to do a little more each day and the progress she was making.
During the first months of COVID, she played things safe—remaining at home, wearing her mask, having groceries delivered by a granddaughter who lives nearby or the grocery store…and diligently continuing her exercise routine.
But now for her 90th birthday, she made a different choice—to be together with the people she loves the most. Children and grandchildren flew in from all over the country to celebrate with her…and while staying home with a face mask might have been safer according to the “pundits,” she decided that was not living. For her, living was stepping out of the “safe zone” and being with her family to enjoy what she said has been “her best birthday ever.”
My mother-in-law is not alone in her choosing to live her life each day. My own mother is similarly remarkable. At “only” 88 years old, my mother exercises everyday…is in two book groups and on several community boards…attends religious education classes each week… is an active member of her synagogue…creates bagged meal kits for those in need…and, pre-COVID, volunteered to visit hospitalized patients each week.
My mother also played it safe in the early COVID days, and she hated every minute of it. Why? Being in isolation did not allow her to live her life. So as soon as she felt safe enough, she happily came to my house and my siblings’ homes for meals (she couldn’t wait to drive and be in different surroundings after quarantine)…went to the grocery store…dined out at restaurants…and did whatever else is now legally permissible.
I know people much younger and at lower risk for COVID who are far more fearful and wouldn’t dare to do half the things and go to half the places that my mother does.
What is it about these two remarkable women? As I said before—they are choosing life…every day.
Why? How? Is it a conscious decision? Have they planned their efforts? No, not at all.
In my opinion, there is something deeply rooted in these women—and others I know of similar age—that doesn’t allow them to get caught in the extreme fear being generated by the news headlines. They also do not indulge themselves in the modern-day focus on “how do you feel,” which, in some ways, may fuel an increase in emotional illness. But that’s a different topic for a different day. These women simply make choices to keep themselves mentally and physically active, and then they choose to live their lives.
I’m not sure if it’s their age and experience that has made them far more relaxed about today’s challenges—just as middle-aged people often make calmer and wiser decisions thanks to their life experiences and richness of perspective, compared with when they were younger.
Additionally, is there something unique about this older generation that has lived through the Depression, a World War, polio, tuberculosis, the Cuban missile crisis, the 1960s’ Civil Rights movement and so much more. They have seen bad stuff before and know that there is another side to it. It’s both inspiring and calming to see them in action. In some ways, it is a return to the freedom of youth—not burdened by rules or limitations that have been thrust upon them.
We all can learn a lot from our elders as we face today’s challenges. Yes…be cautious and be smart. Yes…make decisions based on your unique circumstances. Most of all, yes…don’t be afraid to live your life or else you may miss out in the name of protecting it.
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.