May is Older Americans Month Ever since 1963 when President John F. Kennedy declared Senior Citizen Month, every President has declared May the month to celebrate the contributions of older Americans. This year President Obama in his declaration made the following point: “[O]ur Nation must make it a priority to ensure they are able to retire and live with dignity and respect.”
He had in mind most clearly financial security. Yet the challenge we, older Americans face, (I am 70 years old) might well be how we experience the journey toward end-of-life not only for ourselves, but also for the people we love. In fact, it occurs to me one of the most significant and universal aspects of getting old is confronting our own mortality. A different way of saying that we are getting ready for The Actual Dance – either for ourselves or those we love.
“There is a dance, a dance that one day each and every one of us will dance. “ This is the opening line of the play which at times feels like a throw-away line. Yet it is in some ways the most important line.
Oddly, in my own journey, end-of-life has been front and center from the beginning. My first recollection is of being aware that my Grandfather had died. I was 5 years old and the house was in an uproar. I asked “what’s going on.” I was told “Grandpa Simon died!”
In the play I enumerate all the times I had been personally involved with end-of-life rituals before facing what I believed was going to be the loss of my wife of 34 years: “One grandfather, two grandmothers, four aunts, two uncles, Susan’s father, my father, my sister, Susan’s mother, my mother.” The suggestion is that this extensive experience fully prepared me for what I was being called to do: be with my wife at her very last breath. It was the year 2000 and I was 55 years old. There was a revelation for me – and understanding of “beauty and dignity” in the process, but…
It was not until 2012 that I began to put the pieces together. It was not until I was 66 – an “older American.” Indeed, I needed to evolve and grow for over a decade. Everything was “in me” but it wasn’t until I was an “Older American” that I began to truly understand the meaning of my own experience.
There are many challenges faced by older Americans. Economic security and medical care are critical. There is however another aspect of getting older – the journey to the end. As we become “older” we acquire a deeper relationship with life and love.
Every year in declaring “older American month” the President picks a theme, and they are usually around the economic. I suggest that next year the focus of “Older American Month” be on the issues around “The Actual Dance.” Raising awareness and community resources around finding the “beauty and dignity” in the end-of-life process. There is already a “death with dignity” movement. Death with Dignity however is about giving people choices about time and place and circumstance. The dignity I talk about is internal. It is about discovering the existential dignity of peace at and through the end-of-life process. It is about acquiring the skills – Dance skills if you will – to Dance the Dance that one day each and every one of us will dance -- The Actual Dance.