Lessons in Strength, Dignity, and Laughter From 3 Special Women
What aging with grace can teach us about living with rare disease
“The older people get, the more positive they are about aging and the more adaptive they are to their limitations. Social science tends to define old people by their disabilities. But people don’t define themselves that way.” — Laura L. Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, as told to The New York Times
Recently, my myasthenia gravis (MG) landed me in the hospital and necessitated two surgeries. As my health deteriorated, the walls closed in and a dark cloud settled over me. I needed someone to show me how to get through this.
I didn’t find someone. Instead, I found three remarkable women: Helen, 85, Virginia, 94, and Jodie, 101. What can a few women in the sunset of life offer those living with rare diseases? Turns out a great deal. I believe their insight into aging with grace can help us live richer, better lives.
Lessons from Helen
Helen’s husband died when she was 51. Her future with him disappeared, forcing her to create a new life.
In response to her hometown’s homelessness crisis, she began serving lunch at a soup kitchen. When a tenant in her building was left without family, Helen looked after her until she died at the age of 99.
On Wednesday afternoons, she picks up her great-grandchildren from school and often stops at the dollar store so they can get treats. They’re crazy about Grammy Helen.
Two years ago, she spent her days working on renovations in her grandson’s new house. After hours of painting walls, she left to assist her much younger cousin who had recently been disabled by a stroke.
Helen has done all of this while coping with high blood pressure, heart issues, and other age-related challenges. After shoveling snow, baking Italian cookies for her church festival, or making meatballs for Christmas, she’ll say, “I can’t do what I used to do.”
Helen can teach us a few lessons. Get out of bed, stay involved with people. If life takes someone from you, build new relationships and love again. Be kind. Be generous. Be tolerant and accept others’ differences. Don’t always think about yourself. Cook good food for family and friends.
Lessons from Virginia
At 94, Virginia lives in the same house where she grew up and raised her four kids. Throughout her life, she’s met difficulties head on; nothing can break her spirit.
A few years ago, Virginia was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Death seemed close at hand. Thanks to determination, pluck, and decent medical care, she survived and thrived.
When speaking about those rough times, she’s upbeat and positive. She’ll tell you how lucky she was to have wonderful kids who took such good care of her. She finds the silver lining in any dark cloud. I’ve come to believe she’ll live forever!
As I struggle with MG, I frequently receive notes and cards of encouragement from her. Every day Virginia prays for those on her prayer list and assures me I’m at the top of it. I greatly value this.
Most of her friends are gone now. She’d be forgiven if she sat home and thought of days gone by. Nope! For Christmas, Virginia joined her church’s choral group and took part in the performance, bringing new friends, new interests, and new challenges. She’s amazing!
Lessons from Jodie
Jodie is in her 102nd year, and age has brought infirmities. Although she was once a devoted crossword puzzle player, macular degeneration has restricted this pleasure. Arthritis has limited her ability to get around, and naps are now a regular part of each day. Her husband has been gone for many years, and her siblings with whom she was close have passed away. Winters in Florida and trips to Vietnam, China, Europe, and elsewhere are memories.
One might expect Jodie to look wistfully at her past. Not at all. No matter the day, when asked how it was, she has the same response: “It was wonderful.”
Forsaking regret, she spends time each week playing the trumpet, enjoying “her” TV shows, and keeping daily contact with children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She regularly has her hair and nails done. Dressed to the nines, she enjoys eating out and recently attended the symphony and a Judy Garland retrospective. Jodie’s pleasure in the company of others fuels her days.
As the author of the aforementioned New York Times article wrote, “A paradox of old age is that older people have a greater sense of well-being than younger ones — not because they’re unreservedly blissful, but because they accept a mixture of happiness and sadness in their lives, and leverage this mixture when events come their way. They waste less time on anger, stress and worry.”
As I struggled through recent health difficulties, I found inspiration in Helen, Virginia, and Jodie, who model acceptance of limitations. Each of us has similar individuals in our lives. We can learn from them how to accept the mixture of happiness and sadness that comes our way. Like the queen in Proverbs 31, we can be “clothed with strength and dignity” and “laugh at the days to come.”
For inspiration, feel free to borrow from Helen, Virginia, and Jodie.
Note: Myasthenia Gravis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Myasthenia Gravis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to myasthenia gravis.