This week, I got two pieces of devastating news – one personal and one financial – within a single day. This crisis, and my reaction to it, has caused me to reflect deeply on why have I chosen an interior design specialty focused on aging in place.
In starting “Living in Comfort and Joy,” I had initially planned to blog about things like bamboo floors and beautiful furniture. Writing about the emotional challenges of aging feels a bit risky, especially since both the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle have recently outed my age by interviewing me in stories about retirement and the current financial crisis. Nonetheless, the emotional challenge of aging is my topic for this week, and I am firmly convinced that without risk, there’s little reward. I’d love to hear how you, dear reader, feel about this different-kind-of post so I will know whether to repeat this kind of philosophical writing in the future.
Growing Emotional Wisdom
If I had gotten this much bad news when I was in my twenties, I would have stormed and cried. But in middle age, I can no longer afford that kind of emotional sturm und drang. It’s likely to produce an asthma attack, and that can send me to the emergency room. Net result: a painful reminder of my physical limitations, but no forward progress toward solving the original problem.
Although the aphorism “with the decline of the flesh comes the beginning of wisdom” has at times struck me as mere sophistry, it is also true that I am now capable of managing myself in ways I could not have imagined in my teens and twenties. I believe that the ability to step outside oneself, observe, plan, and consciously alter one’s own behavior is a key component of what has been termed “emotional wisdom.”
While decline of the flesh is mandatory, wisdom is optional. I know a handful of people in their twenties who have a measure of emotional wisdom, and I also know septuagenarians who have virtually none.
I suspect that those of us who gain emotional wisdom usually begin to do so in our thirties; I have a couple of close friends of that age who have become aware that while they can’t choose what happens to them, they can choose how they will react. And when it comes to aging, that makes a whale of a difference. There are now plenty of medical studies about multiple diseases, as well as about depression, which conclusively demonstrate that the ability to change one’s own attitude and behavior improves physical outcomes.
Insight and Interior Design
So what does this have to do with interior design? As it turns out, a great deal. I have written elsewhere about the process of learning to understand and control my asthma, and how I was able to dramatically improve my health by making changes in my living space. I have also written about how changes in the interior of one’s home or office can help one cope with hearing loss, or with loss of mobility.
I have an interesting anecdote to relate here. My friend Elisa, who is not yet 40, has been making a concerted effort to decorate and claim her apartment over the past couple of years. A PhD engineer, Elisa is analytical and applies the scientific method to her life without even being conscious of it: she observes, collects data, tests, and looks for patterns. She is also very studiously and intentionally acquiring emotional wisdom, learning to manage work relationships and her own reactions to situations.
Elisa recently told me that her newly decorated bedroom was marred by the fact that the floor was “always cluttered with stuff.” I was afraid that she would go on to say that she was too lazy to put her things away, so I interrupted and challenged her to apply her investigatory skills to figuring out why she didn’t put things away. I asked her to “observe the behavior of the animal called Elisa” and see if she could discover patterns to this creature’s behavior. Maybe the closet was too far away. Maybe the things on the floor wouldn’t fit in the closet. Or maybe the closet wasn’t in the regular path of travel the animal called Elisa would follow.
I’m happy to report that Elisa was able to step outside herself, observe what was happening and then plan a course of action. Drawing on what she learned, I took her through an interior design evaluation and planning process I use with clients, then lent her a bit of design help. The result: three re-organized closets, one set of peg-hooks in the bedroom, one set of coat hooks in the hallway, and an uncluttered bedroom floor that nicely shows off Elisa’s new French blue carpeting.
Creating a Design for Aging
When it comes to aging, there’s far more to consider than just habits or convenience: How do we sustain our spirits in the face of the inevitable losses that come with aging – losses of hearing, vision, mobility, income, status, friends, and loved ones? Variations of these questions echo in my thoughts as I’m thinking about several potential clients:
- How can I help Sandra to physically and emotionally plan for the fact that she’s going to be eventually be dependent on a wheel chair?
- How can I help Stella to nest in her own apartment, creating a life for herself when her husband of 40 years has left her and moved in with another woman, without ever getting a divorce?
There is very little I can do for my friend Katie, who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It’s an aggressive killer, and few people survive even five years with aggressive treatment. Katie, who is a single mom with a son who had just graduated from college, may need to move back in with her own parents. She doesn’t know yet whether there’s enough upside to warrant going through cancer treatment. I haven’t had the courage to call her yet. I’m trying to come to terms with my own grief about losing Katie before seeing her. I want to offer support, not become someone she needs to comfort. While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast.
If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past. Children have no trouble with this. Unencumbered by habits and expectations, they can always change course and learn something new. Adults who aspire to a measure of emotional wisdom have to consciously practice to attain a state of “beginner’s mind”.
Like adolescence, aging is marked by continual change. To fully live while passing through those changes, we need to be able to learn from our own mistakes and failures (including the failure of bodily functions). We also need to be able to learn from the object lessons of those around us. I have been consciously trying to do that for several years – to create a design for aging – that will enable me to sustain my quality of life despite living with loss. I want to avoid some of the object lessons I have seen along the way:
- One older woman I know has become completely isolated following her husband’s death. He was her whole world, and when he died, she was left without sustaining relationships.
- Another older woman has maintained a suburban house which is now falling into disrepair because it’s much too large for her to maintain, and it has also made her wholly dependent on her car – a huge problem when she blacked out at the wheel and lost her driver’s license.
- A gentleman I know thinks he’s losing his ability to find things in his house. That’s partly true, but a huge contributing factor is that he’s clinging to possessions which have become a tide of flotsam and jetsam shifting through his house. He needs to both improve storage and learn to let go of things that are now physically blocking his path.
As I have written elsewhere, I have been prompted to design my own plan for aging both because of the awareness of the difference in my husband’s age and my own (he’s a generation older than I am, and so he’s almost certain to go first), and by watching older relatives who have dealt well and not-so-well with the challenges of aging. My plan includes the launching of Comfort and Joy Interior Design, and also a move that should allow me to age in place. Last year, I moved to Valley Street to anticipate and accommodate social issues related to age. Among the advantages I gained in this “sustainability move” are the following:
- I am not car-dependent; I can walk to the grocery store, the bank and the hardware store.
- Socially, I have a good friend living just steps away, which means that I won’t be isolated when my mate dies.
- I have room to grow my interior design business – an endeavor that will allow me to work as long as I want, making contribution to those around me.
- I have a garden where I can putter to my heart’s content, tend my roses, and reaffirm my connection to the earth.
- Because it’s in a sunny area of often-foggy San Francisco, I mostly escape the blues that come with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
- I have strong supportive relationships with several good friends who I see several times a week in the normal course of events. (I don’t have to make an appointment!)
- It’s a beautiful house, and an attractive interior. Beauty feeds joy, and joy gives root to energy.
In closing, I’d like to recommend a couple other blogs and websites that you may find helpful if you, like me, are conscious of the need to design a plan for aging. (I seriously doubt that you would have read this far if that wasn’t the case!) So here are some recommendations:
- Intuitive Movement. Author and teacher Stan Cohen is helping older adults to maintain their mobility by getting back in touch with their bodies, increasing their physical capabilities and living a more vital lifestyle through a combination of Martial Arts, everyday life activities, movement theory, meditation, fun, and traditional exercise. He’s also a wonderful writer and thinker.
- Consumer Reports on Aging in Place and “Universal Design”
- Aging in Place – a compendium of resources
- Coping Skills and Counseling Reduce Arthritis Disability
- Coping with Disability in Later Life (a medical study – interesting correlations here with mental health)
- Aging in Place Technology blog
- Fifty Plus Deals – No wisdom here, just a nice compilation of senior discounts!
How Can I Keep from Singing
(excerpt: Full lyrics)
My life goes on in endless song
above earth’s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
it sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
— Traditional Shaker hymn