On Mortality and Ageing

mosaix

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I’ve been thinking about writing this for some time. Some days I’ve wanted to write it then stopped myself as it didn’t seem important. But recently a few things have happened that make me want to put my thoughts down. Why? Firstly, to rationalise things for myself and secondly for anyone else reading this that might find it useful. I think most people, if they’re lucky, will reach a time when they’re verging on ‘old age’ and have similar thoughts.

I’ve never been worried about getting old or dying. I distinctly remember waking up on the morning of my 50th birthday and thinking ‘my life is probably more than half over’. But that was just an incidental thought, not something that caused me any worry. I’ve never suffered from a mid-life crisis or anything like that.

As I said I’ve never worried about dying. One of the things that annoys me about some religions is that they make people frightened of dying – going to hell etc. I don’t worry about it but that doesn’t mean to say that I don’t think about it – especially the implications for my family and especially my wife.

So what prompted me to write this? From the early 1980s I’ve played chess every couple of weeks with three friends. We meet at each other’s houses, toss coins to decide on pairing and spend a couple of quiet hours together. Our families also meet socially.

Last February, the youngest of these friends (68 years old) caught covid and was dead within ten days. Three weeks ago, the oldest member (85) had a stroke and on Monday of this week the last of the three (78) reported that he has stage 5 prostate cancer (the most advanced stage – life expectancy about 3 years). I’m not underestimating the devastating effect that this has had on their families and I’m hoping that people reading this don’t think I’m being selfish and self-centred in just relating here how all this has impinged on me personally. My thoughts for their families are for another place.

I’m 75 years old and hope, and expect, to go on for many years yet. But, no doubt, so did my three friends.

When I was invited to the local surgery for a ‘well man check’ a couple of years back the specific doctor I saw was not really enthusiastic about whole process. He told me that the three main things that determine life span are ‘your age, your parents and your gender. As long as you don’t smoke, keep relatively fit and look both ways before crossing the road then there’s not a lot more you can do.’

Both my parents died in their 90s, so I have a reasonable expectation to reach, say, 100. That’s another 25 years. Is that a long time? Looking back 25 years I can remember quite clearly my 50th birthday in 1996. I only hope the next 25 don’t go as quickly.

My long-term squash partner, who I played practically every Saturday between 1983 and 2008, died three years ago. He’d been ill for a while and had asked the doctors to stop the medication – it had some unpleasant side effects. He knew his time was limited and told me that he was counting the number of things that he wouldn’t experience again – Christmases, family birthdays, summer holidays and watching Wolverhampton Wanderers. I can relate to all that, except in my case it would be Manchester City.

This all sounds morbid, but it doesn’t feel like that to me. I’m just relating my thoughts.

I’m reasonably fit – I can run a mile in under nine minutes, 5k in under 28 minutes and I go to circuit training twice a week – but I wear glasses and hearing aids, apply drops each day to maintain my sense of smell and my memory is dreadful. On top of that I’ve just finished writing my Chrons Christmas cards and it’s been a struggle to make things legible, my handwriting is that poor. But, whilst some of that is age-related, I’ve no doubt the main problem is that in 1972 I stopped writing by hand and started using a computer keyboard – I’ve just got out of practice.

That’s probably enough for now. I’ll probably return to this at some time – hopefully in 25 years.
 

Justin Swanton

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“Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” - Samuel Johnson

I got covid, badly, at the end of 2020. At one point I was pretty convinced I would not survive. Having to accept I might die was very difficult. We manage death by convincing ourselves it isn't going to happen any time soon - we humans have a peculiar propensity for being unable to think seriously about anything that is more than five years in the future. In my case I realise just how fragile the human body is and that I have no guarantee I'll survive until tomorrow (I ride a scooter to work and nothing makes you think of eternity more than the utterly reckless driving of Durban taxis). Taking death seriously has the marvellous effect of putting priorities in order. What is one really supposed to do with one's life, and what would make one think at the moment of death that one's life was wasted? Covid brought that home to me.
 

Biskit

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My father, who is in his 80s, has complained about the way his friends keep dropping off the perch, that he now needs a walking stick when he first stands, that his dentures are a pain and, just occasionally he will complain about his deteriorating eyesight. To put that last one in context, he is now registered blind.

However...
Whenever we speak, he tells me about the various recent lunches/dinners/etc he's had with his surviving friends.
He still regularly walks the 7 mile round trip to visit his cousin. (Actual visiting curtailed by COVID, but he is still doing the walk)
He still goes out dancing and to folk festivals.
He still swims regularly.
He catches the train into Bristol at least once a week to keep up with his friends there.
I get the impression that he mostly listens to the radio these days, on account of the eyesight, but he still writes his daily diary, with the aid of all sorts of lights and lenses to get the most of the tiny bits of sight he has left.

This getting old business is a pain in various bits of the body (I've heard it said that if you're over 40 and wake up in the morning and nothing hurts, you probably died in the night) but if you're still living your life, and enjoying it, that's about as good as it gets.

From my own perspective, you don't have to be old to turn your toes up. A chap I grew up with in Bristol died suddenly at the age of 29, which was a serious shock when Mum rang to tell me that he'd died. In 2016 someone I worked with in the 90s had a fatal heart attack - he was two years younger than me - and when I tried to get hold of our mutual boss from those days to pass on the news, I learned that he had died suddenly literally the week before at the age of 61.

I'm not from a large family, and we're geographically spread out, but we catch up from time to time, and right here, in Cornwall, I have everything I need to be contented - the Biskitetta, writing, the farm, the cats. It sounds like a very short list written like that, but standing here, thinking and typing, and trying to pick out the essentials, that's it. If I poke at the thought a little more, the writing takes me all over the universe from the comfort of my own keyboard, the farm is 20 acres of trees, livestock, ongoing work and continual delight, all shared with the Biskitetta. The cats just are.

I think that bring me back to what I said above. If you're still living your life, and enjoying it, that's about as good as it gets. :giggle:
 

Montero

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When I was 11, another 11 year old kid in the village suddenly appeared with a false leg, up to mid thigh. They'd fallen over playing netball and broken their leg - rather too easily. X-ray showed aggressive bone cancer weakening the bone, so major amputation. They were dead three months later.
I was raised on stories that included one grandma having a younger brother and sister who'd died in a scarlet fever epidemic, and my other grandma had a still born baby that my father saw as it was a home birth - he peeked in to see what was happening to his mother and there was the blue body of a baby lying on the wash stand.
So the consolation about getting old - you didn't die young.
Oh and I know people years older than me who can still walk far further than I ever could, are sharper, more energetic etc, etc. So growing old is pretty variable.
Heck, my first fencing master at University was 76 looked to be in his fifties and could teach fencing flat out for an hour, and then go off to teach afternoon classes at a school. One of the things I learned from fencing was that old fencers have decades of practice behind them, they might have slower reflexes and be less fit than an up and coming early twenties fencer, but that experience means they see you coming a mile off - they don't have to rush around, they just know where to be.
 

Elckerlyc

"Philosophy will clip an angel's wings."
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My older brother (by 3 years) died when he was 59, after he had fallen ill 9 month earlier. I could write a book about that period, but it is not the type of book I wish to write. Illnesses can be cruel, as can be the side effects of well-intended heath care.
About 6 months before this started my mother (87) got pancreatitis and passed away in 3 weeks time. Three years after that my father, aged 90, died of a brain tumor (like his father did when he was 56). The tumor had changed his personality, some part funny, some part not so.

I don't think it is morbid to realize your own mortality. We tend to be more acutely aware of it when people close to us fall away. It took me some time to deal with the above, but eventually normal life ensues. Talking about it helps and as such this is a healthy thread.

There were times when death was a daily reality. Death is one of the few absolute sureties in our life. It is modern society that tries to push that awareness away, that hide the ugliness of illness and dying in hospitals or care centers. It is modern society that, with the stress on living a healthy life, with enough exercise, balanced diet and medicines for whatever ails you, might give you the idea that you can live forever. Reaching 100 is the aim to go for.
It would be morbid if you let mortality rule your daily thoughts or even your daily life. Yet at the same time the awareness that each day could be your last shouldn't be pushed away. Enjoy your life while you can but don't let the end come being unprepared, for yourself or your loved ones.

When I was told I had COPD I initially thought I would be dead in 2 years or so, convinced it was a progressive disease. That was 6 years ago. The situation is stable. I checked this morning and can confirm I'm still alive. Not in the least part because I acutely quit smoking when I heard, smoking being the main cause of COPD.
I used to wonder if there would be life after you quit smoking. What joy could there be without? People are silly creatures.
 

Mouse

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My best friend died in 2017. She was in her 30s.

I'm hitting a big birthday next year and it occured to me the other day that if I'd had a kid when I was the age that mum had me, I'd have a frigging adult child already. And I've only just got married for the first time, and I don't have kids, so I'm pretty much in that "20s" sort of life stage, I guess, whereas in reality, I'm a whole lot older than that. So it's a weird one for me, because I feel like I haven't started adulting properly yet whereas I'm almost halfway through already. Which is kinda depressing.
 

Biskit

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And I've only just got married for the first time, and I don't have kids, so I'm pretty much in that "20s" sort of life stage, I guess, whereas in reality, I'm a whole lot older than that.
The world is full of "normal" people who do all the expected things at the expected time. I'm contented being one of the outliers. I met the Biskitetta nearly 30 years ago, we don't have children (just cats), and I have no idea how you would characterise our "life stage". In a twist of fate we got to "retire" about 14** years ago with enough money to live at roughly the equivalent of a minimum wage, with a lifestyle not dissimilar to being students again**. The house and the farm got patched up with lots of recycled stuff, freebies and things off freecycle.

Am I really living like I did in my 20s? Perhaps, but moving more slowly because my feet hurt.
Have I started adulting yet? No idea.
Do I care. Definitely not.

When I finally got to visit Dad earlier this year he did say something interesting. I can't recall the exact words, but he was expressing a touch of sadness or perhaps even disappointment that I had gone from PhD scientist working in a high-tech career to looking after a bunch of sheep. I think that in a sense he hit on something fundamental - I have never really had a traditional career, nor the sort of focused ambition to claw my way to the top up a piled heap of the carcasses of my peers, but rather I have followed my heart to do the things I wanted to do and when the science research no longer gave me the buzz I moved on. The only real constant since my early teens has been the writing.

* Just after my 45th birthday
** Except when I was a student, I would never have imagined living on a small farm with a flock of rare-breed sheep.
 

Mouse

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The world is full of "normal" people who do all the expected things at the expected time.
Yep, I know. And it doesn't particulary bother me (I'm very excited for my birthday next year, hopefully I'm going to have an awesome cake!), it's just that because most people have probably done most of their life stage stuff by my age it kinda feels like (to me) that I've got longer left to live (when in reality I haven't). If that makes sense.
 

Elckerlyc

"Philosophy will clip an angel's wings."
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Becoming and acting mature is highly overrated. I'm on one mind with my 8 year old niece who once started crying because "I don't want to grow up."
I never married and have no children. Not choices of my own, but it allowed me (up to a point) to evade acting mature and responsible. Make the most of what you have.
Of course, life doesn't present you always with the things or choices you desire, but to be able to follow your own heart is more likely to allow you a fulfilling life than doing the things others expect you to do would.
 

Montero

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One further thought - if you are past half-way and thinking "oh goodness me, so many things left to do, am I running out of time" - well that is a heck of a lot better than running out of things to do and just sitting and waiting for the end.
 

asp3

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I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your chess buddies.

I don't think about dying so much as I do making sure what I'm spending my remaining time on is worthwhile. Sometime between 50 and 60 I became more aware that my remaining time on Earth was getting smaller and smaller with each day. I kind of use that as a measuring stick for determining whether something is worth investing my time in.

Sometime in my late teens or early 20's my view of life was that it's a time vs money balance with money taking the upper hand. The more money one has generally the more time one can afford. I find that it kind of plays into my current view of life in that I try to find things that I enjoy doing that aren't that expensive but give me a good return on my time investment.

I'm fortunate enough to not have a lot of death around me. My mother passed away just under a year ago but it wasn't completely unexpected. She had made herself a virtual hermit in the condo she and my dad had. Granted it wasn't an unpleasant hermitage because she had sweeping views of the Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz and the northern San Francisco Bay. However she wasn't that happy. I want to avoid ending up that way.

My wife's ex step father who we were very close to died about 5 years ago after a year and a half of brain cancer. My wife spent a lot of time with him during his final months but we miss him quite a bit.

Besides that the only person close to me was a friend from high school who died of colon cancer about 10 years ago. He'd beaten it once but it came back after five years and took him down quickly. I miss him as well.

I'm not afraid of dying because I'm convinced what's going to happen is that my body and brain will stop working and I may or may not be aware of those things occurring. I'm just hoping for an easy passing.

I don't have any specific plans for my remaining years but I'm going to fill them with as many wonderful experiences as possible. I'll be listening to music I love and discovering new music to love. I'm going to see as much art as I can. I'm going to enjoy as much food and wine as I can. I'm going to enjoy as much time with my wife as possible and I'm going to try to do things that I think are important for those living beyond my passing.
 

Abernovo

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I hit a milestone this year. I'm now 50 years old, so half way through my expected life span. Or, a third, if I can wing it. ;)

In 2020, both of my uncles died from cancer. One was young, still in his early 60s, but it's thought his work with asbestos when younger contributed to it. My father is 75, but his health is failing. Let's say we've not really ever got on, due to his absence from much of my life, but we're rebuilding a semblance of a relationship, as I've had to intervene a couple of times to get him care, and so we now talk regularly on the phone.

My mum is also 75, but barring the obvious aches and pains, and a slightly lower ability to do everything as fast as she used to, she's in very good health. The difference is, she doesn't act like an old person. She still walks a lot, and looks after her chickens. In fact, her biggest issue is forgetting that she's no longer as young as she was. So, a recent injury was partly overdoing chopping of the wood for her fire, and partly not being able to move her foot in time when some moved - she can't jump back as fast any more - and she ended up with tissue damage to her toe. Nothing broken, but lots of swearing, I'm told.

I think a lot of it, barring illness, can be to do with mindset.

As for me, I've apparently missed out on a lot of things, and 'left it too late' for some things (no, the choice was not mine alone), and I've let some of that get on top of me in the past. But, I've also just moved in to a place with my best friend. I plan to have plenty of time to do things in the future, as there's still a good way to go.

That said, I could get hit by a bus tomorrow, so I plan to just enjoy as much as I can. After all, I know I'm getting older, and I know, one day, I'll peg it, but I will also live forever, as they can stick me in the ground, and plant an apple tree on top of me. That way, someone in the future can admire, or eat, the fruit of my loins and other body parts. Eventually, the Sun will expand, and the Earth and all its components will be returned to stardust, or similar. We'll recycle into new compounds, and grow again, until the heat death of the universe -- following which, who knows, perhaps there'll be another phase, a brane collapse and new big bang, maybe.
 

Danny McG

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I hit the Beatles milestone back in May and started thinking about my mortality, then I looked at this old bloke in the mirror and laughed in his face.

That's not me! In my head I'm about 14 - and I hope to keep that mindset until I pop my clogs.
 

Justin Swanton

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I hit the Beatles milestone back in May and started thinking about my mortality, then I looked at this old bloke in the mirror and laughed in his face.

That's not me! In my head I'm about 14 - and I hope to keep that mindset until I pop my clogs.
My brain says I'm 27. My body says not a chance. Brain and body fight a lot.
 

Dave

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I lost my younger brother when he was 24. He was crossing a road with friends and work colleagues, and was hit by a car, legally going at 50mph. It was a long time ago, but it changed the way I viewed things compared with my peers. Nothing in life seemed certain any longer. You need to "seize the day"! Don't put off to tomorrow what you can do, or can plan today. When I die, I'll be happy that I've achieved most of what I even wanted to do, and some more. I'll still have the "what ifs" of course, but I know that if I was given the choices I've made in the past, I'd make those same choices over again. You can't really wish for more than that.

I don't worry about death, but it would be nice to know how long I have left. Unfortunately, you can never know that, and my family seems not to go in for the long drawn-out illnesses before death, but has a habit of the being perfectly fine until they fall down dead. I saw my aunt and uncle three weeks ago (the first time in two and a half years due to Covid-19 and the distance to travel). Shortly after I left them, he developed vascular dementia and now has periods when he can't remember anyone or how to walk. She died of a pulmonary aneurism within a few days of that. I was one of the last people to see them together at their home. So, I've just been back again for an unexpected funeral. It's a shock, but I feel that it hasn't shocked me as much as it ought to. My mother had a brain haemorrhage and died 12 hours later. My dad died suddenly from internal bleeding. What I do feel, is that I am getting very old as I only have a few family members who are older than me still left alive (and I'm not even 60 yet.)

People have told me that it was good that I saw my aunt and uncle when I did. I know they are well-meaning, but I can't help feeling that I'd rather not have seen them and that they were still alive and well. We also have friends who complain about their own parents constantly. They complain about them being old, for having to visit them, their arguments with them, their needing care, needing lifts to the hospital or shopping, all the time they take up in their very busy lives, and the expense of it all. And I'm always sitting thinking that they are so selfish, and at least they still do have parents to complain about!

My advice would be that if you haven't seen family for a long time, to go and visit them, and if you don't speak with someone, make an effort to do it now, before it's too late.

My other observations are about three feelings that you have you never expected to have, and that nobody really tells you about beforehand:-

  • The first feeling is when you first become a father - you are suddenly totally responsible for something that is totally helpless and reliant upon you, and if you've only ever thought about yourself until that point, then you are in for a huge shock.
  • The second is when you become a grandparent - you don't really expect anything because it isn't your own child, but it brings back all the same feelings you had as a parent, only now you see them through the eyes of your children.
  • The last is when your parents die and you become the head of the family - you begin to realise how much, even though you felt so confident and adult, that you had liked to run things by your mother and father first for their advice. Now you have no higher authority to go to. You have become like some a Mafia Godfather and instead people will come to you for advice, you, who have no idea yourself.
 

Wayne Mack

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My father used to describe old age as "attending too many funerals and too few weddings." I hope that, as time passes, you will overcome the feeling of loss and retain the memories of togetherness with your friends.
 

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