So much of young adult life is about acquiring. Throughout our twenties and thirties, most people look for a mate, a good job, financial security, a good car, a fit and healthy body, a circle of friends, a home, perhaps children. During the thirties and forties, most people look for a better job, more money, a bigger home (or an addition), a better car, perhaps more children, a deeper relationship with their partner (or perhaps their idea of a better partner). It seems to be a natural part of growth to keep questing and adding.
Until — one day — the balance turns, and we start to subtract. The kids leave home. The house is too big. The job loses much of its importance. Driving becomes dangerous. Resources start to decline. Health starts to fail. Friends and perhaps the partner get frail and die. It’s an equally natural part of life to have to let go.
For some, the downsizing that inevitably comes with age is like living in a mournful country- western song, suffering one loss after another. Angry and embittered, they become cranky or depressed. For others, it becomes a kind of spiritual journey, an opportunity to affirm what is really of value. Finding new interest and meaning in life around them, they become wise and content.
I remember watching the process with my grandmother. Over the last 15 years of her life, she was widowed, lost more friends than I’ve ever made, gave up most of the activities that had defined her adult life, and distributed family memorabilia among the relatives. Year by year, she gradually reduced even the amount of space she occupied in the world. First there was the move from her large house to a mobile home, then the move to my parents’ house, then the move to a bedroom in mine. During her last year, “home” was a shared room in a nursing home. At each stage, more of her possessions seemed to evaporate. When she was in her 90s, I remember thinking that she had become a kind of upscale bag lady. By then, everything she owned fit in three suitcases, one cardboard box, and an oversized purse. As long as she had her Bible, some scrapbooks, her stationery, a book or two, and her knitting, she was content.
Although financially dependent on family, my grandmother was not impoverished. She was clear that it was her relationships with others that mattered. With each passing year, “stuff” became only annoying responsibilities. She saved her energy for maintaining connections with people instead of things: writing letters, enjoying long conversations on the phone, visiting, playing with her great-grandchildren, and remembering. Sure, she would have liked to have more money, ironically because she wanted to be able to give family members who were still in the acquiring phase things they thought they had to have. But she was also clear that family members take care of each other at different ages and stages and that it was okay for her to have a turn on the receiving end.
For the elderly whose basic needs are met ( by family or good retirement planning), the final years can be among the most precious. By example, my grandmother taught me that we each have a choice about how we use them. I’m grateful.