Cover image for A life complete : emotional and spiritual growth for midlife and beyond
A life complete : emotional and spiritual growth for midlife and beyond
Henderson, Sallirae, 1941-
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Publication Information:
New York : Scribner, [2000]

Physical Description:
222 pages ; 23 cm
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BF724.6 .H46 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A Life Complete explains how the choices we make in midlife can become distilled and irreversible by the time we reach our last years. Having worked intimately and rewardingly with countless people in the last years of their lives, psychological counselor and ordained minister Sallirae Henderson offers a practical plan for healing in middle age so we can avoid elderly regret, unexpressed grief, and unresolved spiritual issues before it's too late. In a culture that ranks the fear of living in a nursing home above the fear of death, this book serves as a reminder that the end of life is also an organic part of life. It is an indispensable guide for those seeking to grow old gracefully, with a sense of meaning and purpose. Breaking new ground in the literature on aging, this powerful book teaches six emotional and spiritual skills necessary for finding purpose and contentment in our later years: BEFRIENDING YOURSELF LEARNING TO GRIEVE RECOGNIZING THAT YOU ALWAYS MAKE A DIFFERENCE MAINTAINING A SENSE OF PERSONAL EVOLUTION FINDING A LARGER CONTEXT FOR YOUR LIFE ACCEPTING THE HELP OF OTHERS Sallirae Henderson combines her vast personal and professional experience with a wide range of anecdotes guaranteed to strike a chord with readers from all walks of life. A Life Complete also serves as an excellent reference tool for analysts, psychotherapists, and both personal and professional caregivers. It is a remarkably timely book.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Are Americans prepared for their last, physically limiting years, when they may be disabled or chronically ill? Can preparing for death transform their final years from a time of depression, despair or numbness to an affirming experience of courage and creativity? Henderson, an ordained minister and psychological counselor who has worked with many elderly people, offers rather murky guidelines for coping with this transition. Her advice ranges from the practical (make younger friends so you won't feel so bereft when contemporaries die) to the inspirational (have a working faith in God). At times her prose is mired in abstract verbosity. Instead of calling what follows life "death," she calls it a state of completion, and suggests that once we recognize our "destination," that can "help us discover and evolve the values that will realign us when we are in danger of wavering from our desired course." In the book's first section, which deals with emotional preparation for aging, Henderson exhorts readers to define their identity and worth. Learn to let go, she says, and adjust to changed circumstances; face the reality of loss by finding ways to make a difference. A chapter on Alzheimer's disease, although enlightening, seems out of place in this section. The next section, addressing spiritual preparation, is shorter than the one on emotional preparation because, Henderson notes, "the mind is the seat of language, and spirituality... is a function of the heart." Henderson's sincerity and feeling are evident, but her uneven writing and a lack of clarity hamper the message. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Introduction The birth of this material took place at the end of life, unfolding itself as I counseled elders in their last years. Each person's sharing of experience opened a window to the decades he or she had lived before. Standing at the end of these long lives, I was intimately involved with the final consequences of their early choices and learned more about living than I'd ever thought possible. Beginning with the internal strengths of elders who were coping well, I backtracked into their early decisions about life, their values, beliefs, philosophy, and theology. On the flip side, exploring the history of elders who were unable to cope with old age revealed early choices and attitudes that had resulted in unresolved despair, rage, and general misery. Stepping back for a wider view, I looked at these elders' experiences in the context of our culture and gained new insight into how deeply our society's values and negative attitudes toward aging impact the quality of our lives. As the moon's gravitational pull determines the earth's tides, so do the values and expectations of society pull on our potential for individual choice, often blinding us to our options altogether. It became alarmingly clear to me that what I choose now in middle age will have a direct bearing on the emotional and spiritual quality of my last years, and that these same choices are foundational to my current experience and whether I will die a completed human being or an unfinished one. Alerted to the long-term consequences of my current beliefs and actions, I began paying closer attention to them. Now I could see where I was putting important things off, risking compromising my values, not paying attention to what was true for me and to what I needed to stay healthy emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I began examining my values, asking if they were relevant to the whole of my life or only the immediate, culturally defined issues before me. And with no small amount of grief, I finally reconciled myself to the reality that the only permanent fact of life is that nothing is permanent. Twenty years ago, as a hospital and hospice chaplain, I began working with dying people. Most of the patients I saw were young to middle-aged adults with a terminal illness. Later I worked with elders, first as the pastor of a church and then as a full-time counselor to the six hundred residents of a continuing-care retirement community. Dying young and dying old are different. Young and middle-aged adults are still creating who they are. Knowing that this process is being cut short, many take stock of their lives, facing who they have been and what they will never be. Their self-exploration can, and frequently does, bring about startling transformation in their final weeks or months. But this kind of life examination is not so easy for a person who has done things the same way for fifty, sixty, or seventy years of adulthood. When we are old, we are more ourselves than we have ever been before; over the decades our personalities and habits of thinking have solidified. After so many years of reinforcing familiar patterns of behavior and thinking, most people simply don't know how to perceive things any other way. Or, to admit they have lived for so long mistaking the superficial for reality is to face the fact too late that life could have been more satisfying and meaningful. For most, such a realization would be too devastating to bear. This book describes the basic emotional and spiritual skills that are necessary to ensure continued growth and meaning into our last years, even if we are ill and disabled. These tools are what it will take to attain what I have named "completion of self" before we die. It is necessary to begin considering these skills early because it can take decades for them to grow and develop into the best fit for your unique experience and personality. Looking at your current life from the perspective of the end of it may feel to you like having a bucket of cold water thrown onto your psyche -- that's how it felt to me in the beginning. But now that I have lived with these concepts for several years, I have experienced a relaxing into my life, seeing and appreciating its shapes, dimensions, and colors. I am in an ongoing process of discarding beliefs and values that can't reach deeper than the surface, while at the same time my core values are expanding, becoming stronger and more carefully defined as I consciously test them. I spend less time living by default and more time conscious of the beauty and pain and love both within me and in the world. Living with the knowledge of the end, I sense, more than ever before, a purpose for my living. I have become -- and am becoming -- more truly and authentically alive. Throughout this book I will use the last years of our lives as a reference point and goal to guide us in the present. When I refer to these last years or the last stage of life, what I'm not talking about are those golden years following retirement when you and your spouse and friends travel all over the world, attend exciting Elderhostel programs, play tennis every day, and take up skydiving. The stage from which I derived these concepts comes some time later. I'm talking about the years after you've had to give up your car because slow reflexes have made you a menace on the road; the years after your spouse has died or has gone into a nursing home; the years when your busy family members may be lovingly attentive but you worry that your needs are preventing them from living their own lives. Your energy and stamina levels may be so low that getting out of bed, getting dressed, and preparing two meals a day exhaust most of your physical resources. Many or all of your longtime friends have already died and your best friend is in a nursing home across town; she has had a stroke and cannot speak, so you have no way to be together, even by telephone. Poor vision limits your reading to twenty minutes, and the print has to be large; or hearing loss makes it difficult to follow conversation, which causes you to respond inappropriately at times. A less efficient digestive system has forced you to give up your favorite spicy foods -- and chocolate. Palsy or arthritis, or both, prevent you from the needlework, gardening, woodworking, or writing that calmed and nurtured you in the past. Now, even cold sober, you're unsteady on your feet so you can hardly risk the glass of wine you used to enjoy every evening. In spite of these limitations, your major organs -- those miraculous components that keep the body operating for so many years -- continue to work more or less faithfully. They may function well enough to keep you alive for another decade or more, perhaps with enough energy to care for yourself at home. Or your limitations may make it necessary to hire in-home health aides or to move to a nursing home or other institutional care setting. Having cured most of the illnesses that used to kill us, medical science can take credit for buying us better health and additional decades of living. These new years are a new stage added onto our life span. But the same medical victories that have prolonged our lives have also preserved us to live into those years most associated with chronic disability and illness. In past generations, only the very healthy lived into their eighties and nineties; now most of us will, healthy or not. Around the time I began organizing this book, I received a postcard from a ninety-seven-year-old gentleman touring obscure corners of China. Two years earlier he'd had his ninety-fifth birthday picture taken while he was standing at the North Pole. Back at the retirement community, I saw a couple in their eighties playing tennis every day. By the time I arrived at work in the morning a group of women in their seventies and eighties were already out walking their daily two and a half miles, and another woman was just leaving for her daily Jazzercise class. I would see her later in the day dressed in high heels and a business suit, looking fashionably smart and twenty-five years younger than her age, which was eighty-six. Frankly, I was annoyed by all this vim and vigor. These exceptional people had become the standard for "how things ought to be" for everyone. Disabled and ill elders used these examples as proof of their own failure. I spent an inordinate amount of time undergirding the plummeting self-esteem of those who held themselves to a standard that was personally impossible for them to achieve. Our entire life span is made up of challenging tasks that can bring frustration at every turn. But they can also bring -- if we're open to them -- new insight, understanding, and a glimpse of possibilities we were unable to see before. I have seen this same process of discovery alive and vital, both in healthy and in sick and disabled elders, right up to the time of their death. Like the previous stages of our lives, this last one has its own territories to explore and to learn from. Finding meaning in late life, especially if we are afflicted with chronic illness or disability, can be difficult, intricate, and tedious work, but it consists of the details that complete the structure of our lives. This productivity takes place on the level of the heart and the mind. Like constructing a home, building the infrastructure of our lives and applying the finishing touches can take a long time. But when it is done, if the work and material are of good quality, we get to experience the exquisite satisfaction of knowing it is complete and sound. The word "completion," as I use it in this work, is not the same as being "finished." I bought a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle a few years ago and set it up in my living room. Four months later the joined and unjoined pieces had gathered so much dust that I couldn't stand feeling the grit on them. I'd also become tired of the project and discouraged by its difficulty. I boxed it up and gave it to a friend whose teenaged son put it together in a couple of weeks. I had finished with it -- was sick of it, in fact; it was my friend's son who completed it. This is what I mean by the difference between being finished and being completed. Many elders I have worked with have declared themselves "finished," meaning that they were sick and tired of being sick and tired and dependent on others. They wanted to die, the sooner the better. This state of mind is usually accompanied by depression, passivity, anger, and withdrawal. An elder's statement that he is "finished" may mean that he feels complete, but more often it means that he feels depressed and hopeless. I want to come to my final stage and say that the project that has been my life is complete -- that I am a completed human being, or more specifically a completed Sallirae. I've lived long enough to know that the process of creating and working through one's life includes discomfort and often heartbreaking emotional and spiritual work. There are facts of my life that I would just as soon not stir up or even remember, things about myself that I don't want to acknowledge, both good and bad. But the integration of even these uncomfortable realities is important to arriving at completion before I die. It does not help that we have few -- if any -- media role models for being old and disabled. Our contemporary culture does not offer us a framework of meaning or any teaching or guidelines for this last stage of life. Because of the lack of personal preparation and respectful acknowledgment from our society, most people currently enter this stage of life without the skills, support, or hope from which they can derive strength and nurture. It's no wonder many of us who are younger spend so much time and money trying to prevent ourselves from becoming old -- or, as one cosmetics commercial puts it (using a model who must be at least thirty-two), "I don't mind growing old, I just don't want to look old!" If we have bought into our society's myth of eternal youth, we will come to our last years in a state of arrested development. The pressure to remain forever young prevents us from allowing the natural changes of age to shape us into our elder selves. We cannot, under these circumstances, adjust to the reality of being old, especially if we are ill and in need of assistance. Our last years of declining stamina and failing physical systems are a process of stripping away the nonessential. We learn, frequently with great pain, that the roles, status, abilities, and activities that we thought we could never do without have in fact become irrelevant. What we are left with is the heart of the person we have become. For some, that will be life's blessing; for others, it will be a curse. In our busy lives it's easy not to be aware that the choices we make today could have long-lasting and ultimately devastating consequences. Take the example of Elizabeth, a woman in her late eighties who, still living independently in her own home, was deeply miserable. Her face tight with tension, she described herself as a lifelong good Christian. But she had never been happy. Her reactions to people and events had always been a litany of judgment and criticism. She told me that she should never have married the man she had been with for over sixty years; she could hardly stand to be in the same room with him and secretly hoped he would die soon. Her grown children struggled to love her, but to preserve their own sanity they made their visits infrequent and short. Whatever the original source of her unhappiness, Elizabeth had built her entire life on it. Never satisfied and always critical, she alienated everyone around her. Another example is Ethel and Bill, who in their fifty-six years of marriage had habitually chosen the safety of appearances and acquisition over a deeper engagement with life and each other. Bill spent the last months of his life in a nursing home watching television, occasionally making references to getting better and going home. Ethel fluttered nervously about his bed, trying to engage him in small talk about the weather, their neighbors, and the TV programs she had seen. The gulf between them was highlighted by his lack of response to her. Bill died watching a TV game show. He and his wife had never spoken of their shared lives, or of their appreciation for each other. They had never said goodbye. It was as if all those years together meant nothing, had never even happened. When we don't acknowledge the finish line, we have no cues for which direction we should take today. By the time we finally approach the end of the race, we will be so lost and disoriented that we'll be in danger of collapsing without ever reaching the goal. In avoiding the knowledge of our eventual decline and death we are not equipping ourselves for the difficult demands those final miles will make on us, and we may find out too late that we were never truly alive. If, on the other hand, we accept the fact of our mortality and integrate that knowledge into our current consciousness, we will be able to move closer to the essence of who we are. This is where we can discover larger meanings. This knowing will be our most powerful internal resource as we live out our lives. Consciously allowing ourselves to be honed and deepened by experience -- including loss and dependence -- we can attain the emotional and spiritual depth that is wisdom, plus an internal freedom that engages fully with life even as we are dying. These will be the crowning achievements of a long and completed life. Late life, even with chronic illness, carries the potential for depth of meaning and purpose not possible at earlier stages. It's not my intention to create a new standard for how we "should" live our last years. No matter how well prepared, how mature, or how wise we are, becoming old and ill will throw us into some hard places emotionally and spiritually. We will grieve, and our self-esteem may take some shattering blows. Even our hope may be crushed at times. This doesn't mean we've become weak in character or didn't do our preparations "right." The disappointments have more to do with the fact that these last years involve our whole selves more than any other stage of adulthood, and we'll have very few avenues of escape from that reality. I asked an elder what, if anything, she has gained in her last years. She replied that she has become quiet. "It's an inside feeling," she explained. "I have nothing to prove, and that is a wonderful feeling. It doesn't mean that I am cutting myself off from the goings-on in the world." She regularly writes letters to columnists and politicians, sharing with them what she has learned in her eighty-four years. Her stamina and energy are seriously compromised by her congested and failing heart, but even so there is a sense of well-being and resilient strength about her. "I feel settled within myself," she says. "I am at peace." Knowing that the end is moving ever closer to each of us, seeing how much energy and talent we squander on what is only temporary, I felt -- and feel -- a compelling need to share what I've learned. We are already planting the seeds of our last years of life. Whatever seeds we sow today will be the harvest we live with when we are too old to rework the fields. Copyright © 2000 Sallirae Henderson. All rights reserved.