Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Grow Old Along with Me the Best is Yet to Be

by Bernie Siegel, MD
My advice for aging is actually the opposite of the title of this article. I say grow young along with me because though I know there are benefits which come with aging I want to preserve my body and my health and keep them from aging and enjoy the present moment. I always remember the words of George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears football team. When he was well into his eighties a friend found him in his office on Sunday, and asked him why, at his age, he was working on a Sunday. His response, "It's only work if there's someplace else you'd rather be."
Just stop and think about that for a moment. How can you age if you never know what time it is? I know from experience and as a physician that the healthiest state one can be in is when you are doing something which makes you lose track of time. When I am painting a portrait or operating upon someone I have no sense of time or self. I am in a trance state and I believe when we are being creative our physiology gives our body a profound live message. The sad part is too many people wait until they are told they have a limited amount of time before they start living their chocolate ice cream.
That expression comes from one of our children who, when I asked him what he would do if he had fifteen minutes left to live, said, "I'd buy a quart of chocolate ice cream and eat it." What I had to learn is that we each have our own flavor and brand of chocolate ice cream. I have letters from people who moved, took off their tie, took violin lessons and did all the things they wanted to do before they died. So they were not denying their mortality just enjoying their life time; their letters often end with, "I didn't die and now I am so busy I am killing myself. Help, where do I go from here?" I tell them to take a nap because they are burning up and not out.
Now let me share some of the things I have learned from ninety year olds. One I shall never forget is a woman who, in her nineties developed breast cancer and gall stones. She was quite upset with God for doing this to her at her age but accepted the surgery and moved on in her life. I asked her to join our cancer support group because I knew she had lessons to teach us about survival behavior. One day when everyone in the group was caught up in their fears and what problems the future held I turned to her for help and asked, "What are you afraid of?" After several minutes of silence she sat up and said, "Oh I know; driving on the parkway at night." That resolved everyone's issue as we went from fear to laughter.
I loved it when I asked my mother what advice she had for seniors that I was going to lecture to. She said, "Tell them to lie a lot." I asked how that would help and she said, "If you tell people how you really feel they'll put you in a nursing home. So lie about it."
To survive we all need to have a sense of meaning in our lives, and express our emotions, including anger, when we are not treated with respect. Make our own therapeutic choices, ask for help when we need it, respond to our feelings when making choices, maintain an authentic life not just a role and say no to what we do not want to do. Basically we need to find our way of expressing our love while keeping a childlike sense of humor. 
Let me close with two simple techniques for knowing what the aged are thinking without having to verbalize things they do not want to share. One is to ask, "How would you feel if placed in a totally white room?" and "What is your favorite animal and why?"
When a senior is tired of living or physically exhausted the white room is a spiritual sanctuary they are happy to be in because there is no stimulation and they can rest there.
The description of one's favorite animal is always related to one's feeling about one's self. So an active meaningful description also speaks about the same thing in that person's life and self. When there is no animal, life or energy in their choice they are ready to move on to become dreamless, unalive and perfect again.
So grow young along with me. The best is presently. I have learned from Helen Keller that, "Deafness is darker by far than blindness." So when in doubt about how to help a senior, listen, listen, listen and only say, "Ummm" in several ways. By your listening they will get to know themselves and their needs and then you will receive credit for being an enormous help. I know from experience.

Listen & Call in to talk with Dr. Bernie Siegel on "Mind Health Matters" at 9 am PT, every 1st Tuesday of each month at 800-555-5453

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