I have often been haunted by the idea how to die well. My career is providing housing and services to older adults. I have many senior friends who have finished their careers, who are retired and who continue to pursue their life passions as best as they can. I see them in many stages of aging until they die. I have seen seniors gracefully age and some are not graceful but ugly.
David Brooks in The Social Animal follows the life of two fictitious characters and explains the social and psychological research behind the many decisions Erica and Harold make throughout their lives. I was attracted to his last chapter explaining the retirement and meaning of Harold’s life as he journeyed from his own tour business to becoming frail and dying at his Aspen cabin (Brooks 2011).
The last chapter starts with the concept of the “immortals.” The immortals are the 70 year olds who are running marathons, eating organic food and trying to cheat death. Actually, exercise later in life is very important. At ABHOW, my business, we have contracted with Master Piece Living to help manage our Activities and lifestyle programs. Studies have shown that having a balance in life: mental, physical, social and spiritual can help the older adult live longer, healthier lives in their retirement years. Roger Landry in his new book Live Long, Die Short shares the research of this phenomenon.
Most of Brook’s last chapter focuses on the meaning of life. After eight years running a tour business, Harold becomes infirmed as his knees no longer worked properly and he needs two canes to get around. Harold finds himself sitting on this Aspen cabin porch reflecting back over his life. Questions posed are:
- Had he contributed to the river of knowledge, left a legacy? He had written a few articles and delivered a few lectures.
- Had he transcended this earthly realm? Harold had a vague belief in God.
- Had he loved? Harold had a wife he loved dearly.
The last moments of Harold’s life experienced life experiences flash backs then he loses consciousness, never to be conscious again (376).
This chapter left me pondering the meaning of life and how to finish strong. Is this all there is to life? I am in an awkward stage in my life. My in laws and mother are infirmed. My mother is now 96 and has been wheel chair bound for over two years in a Skilled Nursing facility. She is semi paralyzed on her left side yet she maintains a thankful attitude while experiencing such limitations. She is a testimony to me on how to age gracefully amidst such diversity.
My Dad died well. He died over 20 years ago of prostate cancer. He lived a full life, toured people to the Holy Lands as a pastor in retirement. In the last weeks he spoke to each of us children and shared how proud he was of us. Most important, he encouraged us in our relationship with Jesus. We heard stories how he would share his faith with the nurses and prayed for their salvation at night. In his last moments he said to my sister “I can’t believe how beautiful heaven is… I never imagined how beautiful it is.” I believe he had a glimpse of heaven to share with us before we died.
I believe Harold’s fictitious death was missing the spiritual dimension that only comes from a relationship with Jesus and purpose of eternal life. I desire to finish well and die well. What has been your observation about meaning at the end of life?
David Brooks. 2011. The Social Animal: the hidden sources of love, character, and achievement. New York, Random House Publishing.
Roger Landry, MD. 2014. Live Long, Die Short: a guide to authentic health and successful aging. Austin, Texas. Greenleaf Book Group Press.