Seniors shouldn’t lose will, ability to stay productive

Modern medicine is working miracles in extending life expectancy. But the life experiences of three women have me wondering…
1. A local woman recently passed away at the age of 92. She had a long and distinguished career working with youngsters — she was a teacher of elementary schoolers, and the author of children’s books. Her extraordinary productivity was honed by a life of non-affluence; she had to work hard for everything she did that led to her many accomplishments. She even had to defer her second year of college and work instead to earn the money to return to school. But she did it!
However: the last few years of her long life were not productive at all; they were spent in the care facility where Alzheimer’s disease had sent her. I wondered: Even though she could no longer communicate in words or movements — could she think? And, if so — how could anyone know if — or what?
2. A woman recently called me — someone I had known well for a long time when we lived in the same city, but had seen only once since she moved away years ago. A voracious reader, she always shared her knowledge of books with others; she knew what would spark discussions in groups, what would enlighten people in classes, what would sharpen individuals’ knowledge and bring them joy.
She taught our Jewish teenagers in Sunday schools for more than half a century. But now — she is 96, with all the problems that old age can confer: Her physical mobility has waned; her hearing has virtually disappeared; her mental outlook even slid downhill to the point where she actually considered suicide. But of course she did not act on that, although she mourns her lack of productive activity more even than she would mourn her own death.
3. A woman in my old home town recently received something so simple, something most of us take for granted, something she had wanted for her entire life: a high school diploma. When she was a young child in a large family so many, many years ago, she was forced with a choice: Stay home to help out because of her mother’s illness, or continue in school. She was the good daughter who chose Option 1. But recently, at the celebration of her 105th birthday, surrounded by her grandchildren, great-grands and great-great-grands in the care facility where she lived, she finally achieved her goal: The same school district in which she had grown up presented her with an honorary diploma! Then, exactly one week later, she died.
Was this the final — maybe the only — item left on her bucket list? Was it fulfilling her life’s dream that gave her permission to say goodbye?
Old age is the growth industry of our time. Look at the number of care facilities already in operation, and the new ones being built. Reality says long lives await most of us. But within those lives, there are no guarantees. The first woman’s mind gave out long before her body. The second woman’s body has given out long before her mind. For both, productivity has come to an end. Does the first one even know that? The second one does, and the knowledge has threatened to kill her. But the third had a specific goal…
Years ago, I was privileged to hear Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross speak on caring for the aged. Her stress was on productivity: “When a person is lying in bed and can move only one finger,” she said, “we must find something productive for that person to do with that one finger…”
I hope the doctors working their miracles to extend life will also think of that. If we are to live long, we must have lives of productivity in mind and/or body, or at least with the possibility of achieving long-desired goals. The cures for these ills must come soon …

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