Retirement and cognitive decline

A close friend of my late grandfather passed way recently. The pattern of his decline prior to his death, however, was unerringly similar.

My grandfather, till the age of 67, was admired for his relative youth. He went for a swim everyday at the community pool near our home, ran a cost accounting business with a partner, read a lot, and was active. At 67, however, he decided (with his partner) to shut down their business and “retire.”

Every year, for the next ten years, he aged at the rate of three years for every one. The average amount of television he watched per day went up during this period from one hour to ten hours. His physical decline during this period was the hardest for us to stomach. He went from walking and swimming a lot to barely being able to move. His last years were tough on him.

The fable of the frog in boiling water may not be real but its implications for human behavior are definitely true. We were caught unawares by this gradual transformation. And, before we realized something was very wrong, it was too late.

This close friend’s story was similar – his cognitive decline after “retirement” was swift.

The world’s population is ageing. Combine that with advances in medicine and we have a generation that is also going to live longer than any other. As we all learn to deal with our ageing grandparents, parents, and eventually, ourselves, it is worth remembering that the enemy is cognitive decline. There is a lot of truth the phrase “its all in the mind.” Physical decline follows cognitive decline (while this was our observation, it may be that there’s a feedback loop that accelerates both).

My lesson from this experience was – Don’t allow your loved ones to “retire.” Find ways to keep them mentally engaged and away from excessive television.

Death is a natural part of the life experience – but, severe cognitive and physical decline needn’t be.

Dealing with Death

A reader wrote in a few days ago expressing his devastation at a recent loss of a dear one. He couldn’t see himself getting over the loss any time soon and asked if I might have suggestions that might help.

Questions like this are really difficult. Even if I have dealt with loss before, every person has their own unique story and mental make up. And, I’ve realized over time that, no matter how close or similar your situation, you don’t ever truly know how another person is feeling. I asked him for a few days. And, the more I’ve thought of it, the more I’ve come to realize that I have only thoughts and lessons to to offer – no suggestions. So, here goes..

First, I have learnt that we must not deny or attempt to hold back our emotions. They are what they are. The answer after incidents that overwhelm us is to fully immerse ourselves in them and experience them. Only once we experience them can we accept what has truly happened. And, until we accept them, there is no way out. This is probably the hardest part of dealing with loss. I have known folk who’ve gone decades with having really accepted a loss of a life – it is not for the faint hearted.

Next, I have learnt that we must allow ourselves to play victim.. for a while. Jennifer Aniston once said that, when bad things happened, she gave herself 24 hours to play victim. I love that idea. Take the time you need to play victim but know that it is a limited window.
There’s a beautiful story story about a woman who went to The Buddha and asked him to bring her young son back from the dead. He said he would do it if she could bring food from a house in the village that hadn’t experienced loss. So, the woman knocked on the door of every house in the village and found that every home had experienced loss. Birth and death are a part of being human, she realized. Life must go on.

Master Yoda once said something very powerful – “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”

In talking about the dark side, he pointed to a beautiful insight about the human experience. Mourning doesn’t do justice to the lives of those who are gone. Celebration does. Those who are gone stay with us in more ways than we imagine – their memories and ideals influence us and the way we lead our lives. Mourning does no good to anyone but ourselves. If those who were gone meant so much to us, maybe we ought to consider celebrating their lives by doing more good on their behalf?

I wrote yesterday that it is reflecting on deep experiences, and not age, that leads to wisdom. Adversity has the power to transform us into wiser and better people if we let it. Of course, you may ask, why this? And, why not something else? Nobody knows. All I’ve come to realize that the universe is unfolding as it should. We will likely never have the capacity to understand why it unfolds in this way.. but it does. We just get to choose our response.

And, when I think of responses to adversity, I am reminded of what has to be one of my (many) all-time favorite stories. A teenage girl was contemplating suicide after a few setbacks in school and in a relationship. She told her father that she was feeling suicidal. He took her to the kitchen and began boiling water in 3 vessels. She began ranting and railing about his insensitivity. But, he told her to wait. He then put in a potato, an egg and a few coffee beans into the 3 vessels.
Five minutes later, he said – when faced with water, people tend to react in one of three ways. Like the potato, many go in seemingly strong but come out soft and broken. Others, like egg, go in with a soft inside and come out hardened and cynical. But, then, when you look around, you notice the coffee beans – they go in, transform themselves, change the color of the situation and, if that wasn’t enough, add a beautiful aroma too. Now that you are faced with adversity, I ask you – what do you want to be? The potato, the egg, or the coffee bean?

The loss of a life is as difficult a test as they come. There isn’t an easy way out of it. But, there is a way out of it. It will require us to accept the pain, dig deeper, learn, grow and transform ourselves in the process. That isn’t easy. But, it is possible. It isn’t easy to do so alone. There is no way we would have emerged out of our losses if it wasn’t for our friends and family. But, we did. And, we are grateful for it.

Often, we seek to push very hard to change a situation we deem unfavorable without appreciating the fact that it is us who are meant to change.

Death, more than any other life event, can help us understand that this life is short. It is up to us to make it meaningful, make it count. We can choose to be the coffee beans.

death, coffee beans, potato, eggsImage Source

Loss

A friend passed away yesterday. I didn’t know him anywhere as well as I wish I had but I did know he was an incredibly nice person. The little bit of overlap we had was actually thanks to this blog. We met a few months back because he stopped me and spoke of a recent post. We had a few other chance meetings but nothing substantial. I knew him well enough to wish him a happy birthday a few weeks back. He responded with a note that said – “When I grow up, I want to be like the editor of ALearningaDay.” I laughed.

I think we might have passed each other a couple of times after that and I remember thinking I should sit down with him for a conversation sometime. That didn’t quite happen..

I looked back at that note from him yesterday.

I’ve learnt that there are broadly 3 kinds of reactions after we hear of an untimely loss that happens in close proximity. When you take away those who don’t know the person at all, you are left with those who were close and those who were acquaintances. When you are really close, the loss leaves an indelible mark on your life forever. Things are never the same again. If you’ve got a strong culture within the family, there is a chance you might experience normalcy. But, given we spend most of our lives running away from the idea, most near and dear ones find it incredibly hard. And, when you know of the person as an acquaintance (me in this case), it serves as a strong reminder that we’re not here forever.

I felt myself walking about in a bit of a daze all of yesterday. It made me think of nothing and then many things all at once. Having experienced untimely loss close twice, I feel I understand the pain of near and dear ones and it always seems to make me stop, reflect and take stock.

And, yesterday, I felt the following thoughts repeatedly pass my mind –

1. We must be excellent to ourselves. If we are fortunate to be blessed with good health, we must do everything in our power to keep it that way. It is a privilege to be healthy. It is up to us to use it well.

2. We must be excellent to others – especially those who are dearest to us. For there are few other things that matter. We’re here for a short time and it is all about who we touch. And, for those close to us, let’s not wait till tomorrow to share a hug.

3. We must work to make this world a bit better. When we think about it, the time we spend with our near and dear ones is actually a minor proportion when compared to the time we spend at work. Yes, this is not always possible. Yes, we need money. But, where possible, when possible, let’s seek out opportunities to touch others and make this world a bit better. A lot of what makes the world today is unfair. This is about not letting the unfairness getting us down but working towards building a better future.

I don’t think such moments are about deciding to live every day as if it were your last. Life isn’t about absolutes and I find such thinking naive. I do think it is a constant balancing act. And, there definitely exists a balance between working towards a better future while doling out hugs, kisses and love generously.

Be nice. Be kind. The world will roll on without you. All we have is a limited amount of time to make a small difference where we can and when we can. Let’s make it meaningful, make it count.

We lost a wonderful member of our ALearningaDay community yesterday. He will be missed.

The weight of those who are gone

I thought I’d interrupt normal programming today (i.e. the 200 words project) to write about something that is top of mind and personal. I try very hard to abstract from events and focus on the essence of what I’ve learnt. This will not be easy to do in this case but I’ll try.

When I introduce myself to people I work with, one of the ideas I share to help communicate who I am is – I have been shaped a lot by death. Our family lost my uncle to an accident and my father to himself in a space of 3 years. Now, the typical reaction to this for the opposite person to say – I’m sorry. And, if we’re having a really upfront conversation, I generally explain more. You see, the hard part wasn’t that we lost 2 members of our family. The hard part is that my grandmother has, over the 17 years that have gone by, held those who’ve gone dearer to her than those who’re still here. I’m going to leave the details out here and instead just say that very few conversations with my grandmom in 17 years have gone by without us feeling the weight of our absent family members.

I wish this was a unique problem. Given my general comfort with topics that are generally perceived taboo or morbid, I’ve been fortunate to be trusted with information about so many families who have similar dynamics internally. The data I’ve collected over the years has led me to one important conclusion –  we need death education more than we do sex education.

In an average lifetime, we see at least ten births and ten deaths of people who are close to us. And, yet, very few hardly ever get comfortable with the idea of death. That’s a funny situation to be in as death is one among the few certainties of our life on this planet. So, that results in whole families torn apart, relationships broken, and many many unhappy years following a single event. There’s a wonderful Buddhist parable in which a woman goes weeping to the Buddha and asks him to bring her young son back from the dead. He asks her to bring a mustard seed from a house that has never seen death. So, she goes on a long search and comes back empty handed – every house she went to had seen death…

I wanted to write about this today as today was another day when I felt the weight of those who are gone. Today is actually my grandparents 50th anniversary. I’d have loved to interrupt normal programming to wish them a happy anniversary. But, as has been a trend in the past 17 years, there’s always an excuse to mar happy occasions. I’ve made peace with this fact after an “aha” moment 5 years ago. But, my mother hasn’t, for instance. And, that’s tough.

So, I thought I’ll do what I always do and share a few of my biggest learnings from these experiences.

1. Every person is responsible for their own happiness. This has two powerful implications. First, it is that you ought to worry most about your own happiness and not sacrifice that at the expense of others. That’s because, over time, you cannot help anyone else if you can’t help yourself. So, to be useful in the long run, take care of yourself first. Second, you can attempt to help others for a short while. But, after a certain point, it is their life and their responsibility. Don’t try to play god.

2. Really appreciate the people around you. If your mind is always stuck on the past, you’re never going to be able to enjoy the present or the future. All we have in this life is a collection of memories. Yes, there were great memories in the past with great people. But, there are equally great moments waiting in the future. For that, you have to really appreciate and be thankful for those who are with you now. Be great to the people you are with. Collect memories.

3. Express your love and gratitude. Once you learnt to appreciate the people around you, express you love and gratitude. Be generous with hugs, kisses, compliments, affection and love. We sometimes treat our heart as one that has space only for a few. It couldn’t be less true. My experience is that it only expands with time.

4. The world is your family. I’ve come to realize that there is so much family out there in the world. I count myself as a person rich in relationships as I’ve found an abundance of parents and siblings out in the world who’ve taken incredible care of me. I guess you just have to open your eyes to the possibility.

5. Take death education seriously. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about design firm IDEO’s efforts to “design death” and have those difficult conversations. I think we all have a duty to understand this certainty. If you’ve experienced in some form with a relative or family member, then I hope you’ll take the time to reflect, think, and have conversations about it. Death and the fear of it shapes more lives than you and I can even imagine. And, a lack of an understanding of this concept probably destroys more people’s happiness than diseases like cancer.

For my part, I’ll do my best to add more to conversation here. Death, depression and all such taboo topics are only taboo because we don’t spend enough time thinking about them and really understanding them. And, understanding them is strangely liberating.

One thing that does happen when you do think about these things is you realize how fleeting these moments are. The days feel long, but the years are really short. And, while life may be the longest thing we do, it is still really short in the big scheme of things. It is up to us to do something worthwhile with the time we have and spread as much love and joy as we possibly can instead of being caught in vicious cycles of unhappiness.

As I type these words, there are people who’re dying in various places. Many of these folk likely wish they could live a bit longer and tell the people they loved how much they cared about them – that’s the biggest regret of them all. Some others likely wish they’d lived a life with more meaning.

Happiness is not one of those things that comes assured on our birth certificate. Happiness is hard because it requires us to live a life close to our purpose and have real impact on the people on this planet. But, hard doesn’t make it impossible, of course. To make this life meaningful, to make it count – that’s entirely our responsibility.

And, what a great responsibility it is.