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August 09, 2015

Men, Women, and Aging

 

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Several months ago, I was driving my car near our home with my son and daughter and Ryan's three-year-old friend, Kevin. As we turned a corner we drove past a very old man who was so bent and crippled that he could hardly walk. We talked about how the man must feel, and then I told the kids that they would someday grow old, too. That bit of news was particularly shocking to Kevin, and he refused to accept it.

"I'm not going to get old!" he said, as though insulted by my prediction.

"Yes, you are, Kevin," I said, "all of us will grow old if we live long. It happens to everyone."

His eyes grew big and he protested again, "But it won't happen to me!"

I again assured him that none can escape.

Kevin sat in silence for fifteen or twenty seconds, and then he said with a note of panic in his voice, "But!  But!  But I don't want to grow old. I want to stay fresh and good."

I said, "I know Kevin! How well I know!"

The inability to stay "fresh and good" produced the tenth most common source of depression for the women who completed one questionnaire. Once again, the young age of the individuals surveyed certainly influenced the relatively low ranking of this item. I'm sure that it will move up on the scale in the next few years. There is something distressing about watching yourself disintegrate day by day, especially after it dawns on you that life itself is a fatal disease. None of us is going to get out of it alive!

I heard a story about three elderly people who were sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch of their rest home. One said to the others,  "You know, I don't hear so well anymore and I thought it would bother me more than it does.  But there isn't much that I want to hear anyway."

The second woman said, "Yes, I've found the same with my eyes.  Everything looks blurred and cloudy now, but I don't care.  I saw just about everything that I wanted to see when I was younger.

The third lady thought for a moment and then said, "Well, I don't know about that. I sort of miss my mind..."

We can laugh together about those experiences which are inevitable for all of life's survivors. (It happens so quickly, too: about the time your face clears up, your mind gets fuzzy!) But I have a special empathy for those who are locked in the loneliness and isolation of old age. Physiologically, there is a predictable pattern which is typical of the aging process, beginning with the malfunction of the sensory apparatus. At first, the ability to see, hear, feel, taste, and smell all begin to deteriorate. Then the cardiovascular system becomes less efficient and the muscles and joints refuse to operate properly. This is a difficult state in life because the mind is then captive inside a body that no longer serves it. Finally, as the last phase in the decline of a normal but aging body, the neurons begin to break in the brain and senility robs the mind of its capacity to reason.

Oliver Wendell Holmes has offered the best analysis of old age in a timeless poem that I have enjoyed since boyhood. This piece describes an elderly man who outlived all of his friends and loved ones, and now clings to an old forsaken bough as "The Last Leaf on the Tree":

I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door,
And again
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o'er the ground
With his cane.

They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of Time
Cut him down,
Not a better man was found
By the Crier on his round
Through the town.

But now he walks the streets,
And he looks at all he meets
Sad and wan,
And he shakes his feeble head,
That it seems as if he said,
"They are gone."

The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.

My grandmamma has said--
Poor old lady, she is dead
Long ago--
That he had a Roman nose,
And his cheek was like a rose
In the snow;

But now his nose is thin,
And it rests upon his chin
Like a staff,
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
In his laugh.

I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
At him here;
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches, and all that,
Are so queer!

And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.

This weird old man is not the only leaf that clings to a forsaken bough.  There are other trees in other places. I will not soon forget a television program aired in Los Angeles which was devoted to the topic of aging.  It was one of those unusual documentaries which burns its way into the viewer's memory forever. The subject for the half-hour program was an eighty-eight-year-old woman named Elizabeth Holt Hartford. She lived in a tiny room of a decrepit hotel in the slum section of Los Angeles. The film crew for the station selected Miss Hartford to dramatize the plight of the poverty-stricken, sick old people who populate the central part of the city. Though she was wrinkled and bowed by time, Miss Hartford was remarkably lucid and eloquent. Her message still rings in my ears, and it sounded like this: "You see me as an ancient old woman, but I want to tell you something. This is me inside here. I haven't changed; I'm just stuck within this body and I can't get out. It hurts me and it won't move right and it gets tired whenever I try to do anything. But the real me is not what you see. I am a prisoner within this decaying body.

Elizabeth Holt Hartford is a prisoner no longer. She died a few months later, and the ashes from her cremated body were scattered among some rose bushes near her shoddy hotel.

I must share a personal conviction with each of you at this point. Aside from the anticipation of eternal life on the other side of the grave, old age offers few compensations and consolations. It is often a rugged experience, fraught with loneliness, sickness, poverty and low self-esteem. To pretend otherwise is to deny the reality which exists behind the doors of any home for the elderly. Death never seems to arrive at the right time; it comes either too early or too late. However, those fortunate Christians who rest in the assurance that a new and better world awaits them beyond the grave, the gloom and pessimism give way to expectation and hope. The final heartbeat for them is NOT the end--it is the grand beginning. I intend to be one of those confident old people, if I survive to that time.

My father has always had an enormous influence on me, not only throughout my childhood, but during my adult years as well. He told me recently that eternal life for him was not a matter of great value when he was younger. He had enjoyed his youth, and the thought of an existence beyond the grave was like a pearl that was crusted over with scales and grime. The beauty of the pearl was assumed but not realized. But as he grew older and began to experience some of the inconveniences of aging, including a serious heart attack and assorted aches and pains, the encrustations fell from the pearl of eternal life, one by one. Now it shines brilliantly, more prized than any other possession in my father's grasp.

In conclusion, let's return to the relationship between men and women as it pertains to the process of aging. What does a woman most want from her husband in the fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of her life? She wants and needs the same assurance of love and respect that she desired when she was younger. This is the beauty of committed love--that which is avowed to be a lifelong devotion. A man and woman can face the good and bad times together as friends and allies. By contrast, the youthful advocate of "sexual freedom" and noninvolvement will enter the latter years of life with nothing to remember but a series of exploitations and broken relationships. That short-range philosophy which gets so much publicity today has a predictable dead-end down the read. Committed love is expensive, I admit, but it yields the highest returns on the investment at maturity.

From Dr. Dobson’s book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. Request your copy today, HERE.


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