Friday, March 23, 2012

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem

There are things in life that make our sense of time more acute. If we live for today as sages suggest, we can't stop to rue the things we may not accomplish today, much less things we won't get done tomorrow. We won't stretch the hours given. Priorities, though, can change. We may be given new mandates by forces and circumstances encountered in our lives. The turns in the road may or may not be welcome, but they become our course.

If ambitious, you may take stock regularly to see if you are where you intended to be from the start. If you are instead whimsical, you may simply reflect on what has passed and carry on to see what tomorrow brings. Either approach provokes me to think about those tomorrows: meeting big goals, or simply arising to a new day, requires an appreciation for each new day. Take notice. While you still can. Carpe Diem, that is.

I've had a recent journey of observation down the path that awaits many in the latter part of life. Beyond frailty, illness, loss of independence, and outliving ones' peers, there is the cruel possibility of suffering the decline of ones' mental faculties. In caring for an elderly family member, I saw this firsthand.

You might assume that someone suffering cognitive decline is perhaps unaware of the fraying edges of their mind, exactly due to that altered grey matter. If this were completely true, it might be comforting; it might mean that a person doesn't have to be present, or accountable for their descent into becoming mentally 'damaged goods.' I think we'd like it to be true, we'd like to escape the embarrassment and loss that awaits.

What I observed instead, was a see-saw between complete inability to see in themselves their deficit, contrasted with other moments of very canny cover dialogue or irritated behavior when the frayed edges cropped up, and they knew it. Over weeks, months, and years, the person in my care coped with the difficulties that grew and encroached on their identity and the capabilities that had made them who they were.

The inability to reason, remember, focus, or complete a task, completely changes the order in ones' life. The idea of order becomes mostly foreign. Strangely enough, the personality I was working with had always had a very rigid routine, and this was a benefit in coping with the surprises and difficulties of their cognitive lapses. When you can no longer plan what comes next, but your habits have never been too spontaneous, for a long period it's possible to fall back on a well-worn pattern. It requires less thought to just do what you've always done. And in this case, that worked for a while, for most things. But eventually they were virtually "at sea" as to knowing how or what to do to get through a simple day. They had to be led through the dance, which became less vital and more banal every day. Even with efforts to enliven and enrich each moment, the ability to tap into life was deadened.

Something we may not account for in the waning years of our lives is the tenacious strength of our assumptions about what we can still do. We acquire our catalogue of knowledge, our practiced capabilities and talents, and assume they are ours for life. It is difficult to accept that we will inevitably lose some of them. Our patterns will be many decades long in the making. How do we imagine we will abandon those patterns? Is there a date-certain? Will we anticipate and delegate away the fabric of our lives with aplomb when we must? We know that we won't, not so easily. Our identity is made from this fabric, we value ourselves largely through our capabilities. And we cling to the notion that we are as we were before, even if nothing supports that notion.

There are the logistics of replacing our failing patterns with new approaches, a new prop, accepting some help. This goes against the grain, especially for a creature of habit. An "early adopter" might embrace new adaptive ways of doing things, but that still pre-supposes they'd know when it was time to adopt a new method. It may lead to abandoning activities altogether when we can't do them anymore. Driving a car is an iconic example. In our case there was that period of a few dodgy driving episodes, even after a lifetime that had included very skillful driving of difficult and exotic cars. Fortunately for my charge, there was a sudden loss of interest in driving, and we never had to have an actual intervention.

Other losses were harder to accept. It's too depressing to list all of them, but cooking, walking, hearing, creating, and being at all motivated were among the casualties. There is a real old-age dynamic of being "too tired to bother" that no amount of vitamins, care, or inspiration can fully offset. When arthritis dulls your hands, frailty robs you of surety in movement, and lost cognition shutters your awareness of all but the instant you are in, the world shrinks immeasurably.

My philosophy has always been one of living fully, appreciating things along the way, and not wasting opportunities to pursue meaningful things. The journey alongside someone who was approaching, and then arrived at the end of their road, was meaningful, but draining and confining as well. It was an impertinent mirror of what lies ahead. For someone decades younger, it seems too soon to become so familiar with that path.

And so, I purposely release my mind and thoughts from the excruciating details of life's finality. I discard the wearying role that went with supporting another in that stage of life. And I go outside, and smell the roses. I suggest you do, too.

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