I sometimes think about death too much for my own good. I imagine myself on my deathbed thinking about how I would feel about my life. How satisfied I'd feel with the way I lived. How I'd deal with the fear of pain and having to leave this world.
Dealing with these issues have intrigued philosophers, psychologists, and writers for millennia. And they're some of the questions that Professor Monika Ardelt tries to answer in her research.
In this part of the interview, she answered questions like who faces these difficulties with a good attitude and who doesn't? And how can you help a loved one going through this process?
"I find it funny that we still have to look good while we’re dying."
I wanted to talk about aging and dying well. I know that’s a big theme of your work. What do you mean by those terms?
Well, for me aging well means, very simply, experiencing subjective well-being despite aging-related illnesses. How do you keep your cheerfulness? How do you keep meaning in your life?
If you developed wisdom, it’s easier to accept these inevitable losses. A wise person understands that this is just a part of life, and that there’s nothing you can do about it. How do we accept it?
One of the things that has been shown to help is having good relationships with your friends and family. There is a time where you have to give up control and trust somebody else to take care of you. At the very beginning, you have to depend on other people and at the end you also have to depend on other people. So you have to have enough trust and good people around you.
I define dying well as being able to let go, to accept it, and to maintain your sense of well-being, even though you know it is the end.
Is there a way to develop acceptance without having to go through difficulties in life?
It is really done through meditation by sitting there and accepting the present moment. If someone can sit there and can accept each and every present moment, that’s a good training.
How can families and friends help older people age and die well besides taking care of the practicalities of taking them to the hospital, feeding them, etc.?
Just to be there with them and to not be afraid of death.
I’ve volunteered in hospices, and I've seen that sometimes family members seem to be afraid of the physical deterioration that happens to their loved ones at the end of life. It’s almost like they're worried it's contagious.
One family said that they didn’t want to come and visit their mom at the very end because they wanted to remember her how she looks before. I find it funny that we still have to look good while we’re dying.
It helps to just be able to accept the physical changes and to be with the person. Not being afraid of what’s happening does a lot of good.
"We're scared to catch death, but we're already infected."
There was no question that they loved her. She said, ‘You know I think my daughters put me in here because I remind them too much of their own deaths.' That's exactly right. A person dying reminds us that we are mortal, and we don’t want to be reminded of that.
We're scared to catch death, but we're already infected. We are already mortal. We shouldn’t be afraid. We can accept it and be with our loved ones at the end of life. It’s such a relief for people for you to be here with them and not have to pretend. It’s a relief because, otherwise, they feel they have to keep up the pretence that they’re going to get better. You don’t need this at the end of life. It’s down to the present moment and to be able to share it is such a help.
What role does religion or spirituality play in the aging and dying process?
What I found in my research is that what helps with religion and spirituality is having an intrinsic religious orientation. Intrinsic orientation is really when someone has dedicated their lives to God or a higher power.
And people can be religious for extrinsic reasons, which means joining a Church to find companionship or to find a place solace in times of hardship. They often have a harder time. They’re often more afraid of death because they didn’t necessarily live a religious or spiritually guided life. But at the same time they were exposed to the teachings of the Church, and they didn’t necessarily live how they thought they were supposed to live. They’re afraid of death because they don’t know what will be coming in the afterlife.
So you have this paradox where those who were very committed to spirituality and those who were not religious at all have the easiest time with death. It’s the people in the middle who are more afraid.
In one of your papers you wrote, “For a group of five female and three male older retirement community residents, their advanced life stage rather than their religion gave meaning to their serious illness.” Why is that?
We were looking at cancer survivors and other folks with serious illnesses. Young cancer survivors became more spiritual after their diagnosis. They felt a deeper connection with a higher power.
Having an illness where it wasn't expected really shook their whole belief system. They suddenly felt this closer connection to God and a higher power. But for older folks, even though they had serious illnesses, nothing happened. We thought the reason for this is that illness is expected. It's not such a shock to the system that puts you into another stage of consciousness that’s really what it was for these younger folks.
Were there any factors in developing wisdom that surprised you the most?
It's not something that I have published, but I looked at longitudinal studies where the subjects they measured them on the wisdom scale in their 50’s and then in their 80’s.
There was one man who scored very low in both points of time, and he had a miserable life. But, objectively, his life wasn’t so bad. He was very self-centred. He never had enough.
I think if you ask me the one factor for developing wisdom, it’s self-centredness. People who are self-centred can never be really satisfied with what they have. They always want more. And the price is continual dissatisfaction. It's the exact opposite to aging and dying well.