A few weeks ago, the nurse in charge of planning my discharge from rehab announced, “Katharine, you are going to need to use a walker for some time… because of your balance issues and your weak ankle. We just want you to stay safe.” I thought, “No, no, no! Not me, really? I am strong. I can walk very fast. I am not a person who needs a walker.” But all I said was, “Okay.”
Once home, I dutifully used the walker whenever I left the apartment. But I continued to resent the idea that I needed a walker. It hurt my pride!
Then the nurse’s fear came true. I fell. In my apartment, not using the walker. My foot with the weak ankle and the foot that drops stuck on the carpet. I landed on my side grazing a chair before I landed on the rug. No serious harm, but a sore arm muscle. However, it was another blow to my self-image.
It upset me that I was not the same as before my recent surgery. Right now, as I recover, I often take a nap after breakfast and another after lunch. At 8 pm all I want is to be back in bed. I think I shouldn’t need all that sleep. I feel cautious when I leave the apartment and I feel a new vulnerability driving my car. I shouldn’t feel that way either. I am impatient to get back to being happy and being ‘me’.
This disgruntled mindset changed when I ran across a comment from bestselling author, Mandy Hale. “Happiness is letting go of what you think your life is supposed to look like and celebrating it for everything that it is.” An aha! moment for me!
I saw in a flash that I was having trouble letting go of my old self-image. I was trying to hold on to what I supposed my life should be like. My problem, I realized, was not my walker—it was my attitude.
Now I get it: the old me is not here and won’t be back for at least some weeks or months. I am no longer the sure-footed, high-energy person that I used to be before my surgery. I need to accept that the changes I am experiencing are my reality. A phrase from Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem spoke to my situation.
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.
I have said many times that research has shown that older people are happier than most other generations despite the changes they experience and the inevitable losses! But to be happy, older people have to grieve their losses, accept them, and learn how to enjoy what remains. Everyone in the 70+ generations has to deal with letting go of their old self-image over and over. It is not a one-time-only event.
When we can successfully accept what is gone is gone, then we can stop the flow of self-criticism and the I-should-be-different judgments. Possibilities emerge and doors open come to us. We are less driven, less busy. We usually choose to say “No” to those things we don’t enjoy. And that makes us happy.
There is freedom on the other side of letting go. The future is more uncertain than ever and most older people finally get that there is nothing to wait for. The only thing that is, is the present moment. And moreover, without our busy schedules, we find time for friends, for sleeping late, and for naps. And laughter.
There is also time for a journey inward. So many of us neglect our inner life during our healthy and vigorous years. But as we age, we have time alone, to meditate, to be mindful. We can take the risk of dropping our masks and daring to become our authentic selves. And, maybe even, letting the fool in us step forward.
For me, it played out like this. Slowly, I began to enjoy my life again as the new me, not looking back at what was before. I began to enjoy the small pleasures of each day, even in their ordinariness. A scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, the patter of the rain, bunnies racing through the garden, the moon peeping out between the clouds, playing Upwords each day with Peter. I attend a brief Buddhist morning zoom meditation. I write in my dream journal.
I am still a work in process —of letting go and adapting to my present realities. My physical therapist pronounced I do not need to use the walker anymore, but wants me to use hiking sticks for walks outside. The walker remains in the apartment, for now, a cautionary reminder.
My reduced energy has made me re-evaluate how I spend my time and where I want to focus my efforts. At age 87, after 30 years as a psychotherapist, I’ve decided to close my private practice over the next few months. It seems the time is right and the gradual ending works for me and my clients.
I want to have more space in my life, but I’ll continue to write and to help others to age well. I’ll still make media appearances. I am reading more, even reading novels in the morning. I follow a daily newsletter by historian Heather Cox Richardson who brings a long-view perspective to our crazy world situation. I have joined a weekly Tai Chi class and a gentle dance class. I am happy most of the time.
My goals today are: to be balanced, to be mindful, and to walk slowly.
And I remind myself often that I am the story that I tell myself.