Seniors beset by loss can find ways to make life more fulfilling

By Ken Potts

"Senior cited for threat to lawn care man." If I remember correctly, the headline read something like that. The story went on to detail how an elderly gentleman had verbally attacked and physically threatened the young man who was mowing his lawn; the customer actually became so incensed that the police were called. Go figure.

The other day a friend of mine shared with me a recent altercation at the meeting of his neighborhood association. Seems that the annual assessment was going to be increased by 5%. A shouting match between the 50-something board members and two 70-something couples erupted.

By the time it was all over, the seniors were name calling and cursing.

A philosopher once suggested that, at its most basic, life is loss. By that he meant that, for all the love, success, recognition, and gain we may experience over the course of our lives, ultimately our existence is defined by how we deal with loss.

Though that sounds a bit depressing, there is more than a kernel of truth there.

Certainly there are the obvious losses we experience over the course of a lifetime - the relationships that end, the ventures that fail, the status lost, the possessions surrendered.

But even the positives in our lives involve loss. Love found in one relationship involves losing the potential for love in another relationship. Being successful in one endeavor requires that we give up our dreams of being successful in another. Public recognition means the loss of personal privacy.

What we gain in one area - wealth, for example - requires loss in another - perhaps time with our family.

Now, I mention all that because what defines our senior years to no small degree is coming to terms with such loss. And the older we get the more obvious our losses are. For example:

1. Physical losses: Once we reach our early 50s, almost all of us are aware that we just can't do what we used to do, whether it's how long we can work, how much we can lift, or how quickly we recover from illnesses. And though things like nutrition and exercise can mediate to some degree these losses, we will all experience physical decline. Such loss is a reminder that our youth is behind us. And it is also a reminder that the loss of life itself is ahead of us.

2. Mental losses: Sometimes I think I've already forgotten more than I remember. And what I do remember is often information that has almost no use to me. Again, as we age our mental functioning declines to some degree. Exercising our brains can help defer this loss; it cannot prevent it.

3. Relational losses: More than a few of our elder pundits have commented on the difficulties of outliving friends and family. We also often just lose touch with family members, friends and former colleagues. People who care for the elderly tell us that loneliness is one of the most difficult challenges for older persons to overcome.

4. Material losses: For more and more seniors, it is more and more difficult to make ends meet. Though we do not see the poverty among the elderly that we saw 50 years ago, it is still hard for many seniors to pay the bills today, let along figure out how they will do so five or 10 years from now. And as we downsize from house to townhouse to apartment to retirement home, we inevitably have to shed many of the belongings that have helped define our lives. Whether it's our great-grandmother's rocking chair passed down from generation to generation, or the collection of souvenirs from 40 years of vacations, we feel like we are losing a chunk of who we are.

5. Loss of power: Maybe it's working for someone 20 years our junior, or feeling like people don't listen to us anymore, or retiring from an executive position, or losing our ability to drive. Inevitably the older we get the less power we feel we have over our lives. Such loss can be humbling, humiliating, and frightening.

6. Loss of dreams: As we grow older we come face to face with what we haven't been able to do in our lives. Even if we have lived full and fulfilling lives, we have still not been able to live out all our dreams. We are faced with the fact that we have not been the spouse, parent, successful businessperson, artist, etc. that we imagined we would be. And now we are running out of time, energy, and hope that we can ever make our unrealized dreams come true.

We could go on, but I think I've made my point.

Now, we have a choice as to how we will respond to such loss.

We can respond with thoughts like "What's wrong with me?" or "I'm all alone," or "I don't matter anymore," or "I'm a failure," or even "My life is falling apart."

When we respond in these ways, we will feel depressed, anxious, bitter, angry, and hopeless. We will likely take out these feelings on the people around us.

I suspect the seniors I mentioned earlier were doing just that. Ironically, when we do this we often cut ourselves off from the very people or activities that can make our lives more fulfilling.

On the other hand, we can accept loss as a part of life, do our best to lessen the impact of those losses we do have some control over, build new relationships, look for happiness in the here and now, find new ways to make a difference, and live life one day at a time.

When we choose these responses, we can find much to celebrate in our lives.

We may need help in making such a choice. A pastor, physician, or counselor can often offer us the insight and support we need to do so. There is much to gain if we make the effort.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling with offices in Naperville, Downers Grove, Geneva, and throughout the North Shore. His book "Mix, Don't Blend: A Guide to Dating, Engagement, and Remarriage with Children" is available online.

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