Grow Old Along With Me: The Best is Yet To Be (Part C) by Bernie Siegel, MD

I ask seniors how they can die laughing.  The answer is: To have the family tell stories about your life when you are ready to die.  So, embarrass your family regularly and give them material to use.

My father literally died laughing as my mother told wonderful stories about their early relationship. When my father was tired of his body, he said to my mother, “I need to get out of here.” That is when we all gathered and made his transition an unforgettable one that gave the children in the family a very different feeling about death.

My father-in-law was a great teacher, too. He lived to be ninety-seven in a body rendered quadriplegic by a fall twenty years earlier. When I asked him for advice for the elderly, he said, “Tell them to fall on something soft.” A few days later, he said to me, “It doesn’t always work. They stood me up in therapy and I fell on my wife and broke her leg. So, tell them just to fall UP.” I thought that was a joke until the evening when he told us he was tired of his body, refused his dinner and evening vitamins, and then died that night. As far as I am concerned, he just fell UP.

When love is involved and guilt is not a part of dying, how easy it can be to leave at the appropriate time, either with loved ones beside you or when they leave your bedside, to make it easier for them.

For many seniors, the family needs to be there to express the anger they are feeling over their care in various healthcare facilities. In my father-in-law’s record, it said, “Son-in-law causing a problem.” Yes, I spoke up because he was afraid that if he complained, they wouldn’t respond to his needs when he was alone at night with no family there to help him. Some of my complaints were to get them to treat him like a person. So, I complained. There is more to caring than writing prescriptions.

It shows us how important our connections are to other living things. We know the benefits of pets and people, but even plants can prolong survival when they give us meaning. In one nursing home study, they put plants in all of the rooms, but only half of the residents were told that they plants were their responsibility to water and care for. The others were told they were for room decoration. Those who were given responsibility lived an average of six years longer.

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. When there is still an active life force, they will want to leave the room, redecorate, or put in a picture window.

The description of one’s favorite animal is always related to one’s feelings 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, un-alive, and perfect again. Please remember that leaving our bodies is a therapeutic decision at some point. When we leave, we do not take our afflictions with us.

I also see the life force when I ask seniors to draw pictures of themselves as they are today and as they were twenty years ago. Ninety percent of the time, I receive two pictures. One picture revealing a slim, happy individual in the past and the other fat and unhappy one today. A small minority hand me one picture saying, “That’s me then and that’s me now.” They understand that their attitude is what creates their world.

As a blind senior shared while she was being wheeled into a nursing home for the first time, “What a lovely place.”

“But, you can’t see. How can you say that?”

“I decide what I see,” she replied.

And… so it is at every age. So, grow old along with me. The best is present. So, when in doubt about how to help a senior, listen, listen, listen. By your listening, they will get to hear and know themselves and their needs. And then, you will receive credit for being an enormous help. I know from experience.

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