In times of transition
by Sharon Simpson
Seniors face many transitions. One day, life seems completely normal and the next, something unexpected happens and life goes sideways. This could be a fall, a stroke, a diagnosis or a death.
Not all transitions that take place are negative. Some transitions may be very positive. It may be new love, a new place to live, a new friend or a new opportunity in ministry. In all of these transitions, you will experience stress. Stress is a physiological reaction to life events that induces fear, survival or fatigue.
In the mid-70’s an endocrinologist named Hans Syle explored the stress effects of major life events on the brain. He noticed that stress has the same physiological effect whether it is negative or positive. He spoke about distress (negative) and eustress (positive). This explains how a positive life event can have the same effect on a person as a negative life event. People who are experiencing stress on their system can be tired, confused, forgetful or less able to make decisions. There are some who say that your intelligence is lowered when you are in a stressful circumstance. You may do something “stupid” that you would never normally do. Your immune system may be less able to fight off illness and you may get sick. How can you best handle the stress in your senior years?
Know that you will have emotional ups and downs. If you are experiencing a new life circumstance, know that you will sometimes feel ok and sometimes be sad. The life event may be out of your control, such as a spouse having a stroke or losing your driver’s license. It may be in your control, such as moving to an independent living apartment or getting re-married.
You will likely experience anxiety. This is normal. Anxiety is the psychological and physical effect that happens when we worry about an imminent event or an event with an unknown outcome. We allow our minds to run through all the scenarios asking ourselves, “What if this happens, then this other thing will happen. If that happens, then the next thing will happen.” It’s a mind game of imagining the many outcomes that could take place from this one event. Anxiety can come in different levels, from mild to panic. Let others know if you are facing anxiety that is no longer allowing you to sleep or to participate in activities that you would normally do readily, such as take an elevator, cross a bridge or go out with a group of friends. There are exercises, such as breathing exercises that can help you to find your way out of a panic attack. There is spiritual support in prayer and there is professional support in a doctor or counsellor.
You may also experience anticipation. If you have been suffering with a painful hip, you may have a mixed feeling of anxiety and anticipation as the surgery for hip replacement approaches. This anticipation will aid in the strength you need to rehabilitate after the surgery.
Choose for yourself. It’s much better to be empowered than to feel victimized. If you are able to think through the choices and prepare for them, you will feel like you are still able to run your life. If the changes come upon you without your choice, you may be prone to feeling like a victim of circumstances. An example of this is when you decide to receive home support for your health care. It may be humbling to choose to have someone help you shower, but it enables you to live in your home longer. Make the choice by yourself instead of having the kids tell you it’s happening tomorrow morning.
Frame the changes as old and new. Allow yourself to love what you had while embracing what is new. With this new frame of mind comes grief and joy. I see one of my dear friends experiencing loss of his sight in his elderly years. He moved into an independent living apartment. The joy that I see is in the friendships he enjoys with the other men in the apartment. Several of them drive him to his appointments and church. These friendships have grown deep and precious.
Asking for help works better than being angry, irritable or critical. You likely need help when you are in the middle of a major life event. Ask for help. It draws people into your life. Anger, irritability and criticism push people away. It may be frustrating that you need to use a walker or wheelchair. It may be challenging that you are living in a smaller apartment or that you have home support entering your home four times a day. Even in these stressful changes, note how you are responding. Rather than yelling to “get away” when you try to transfer from your bed ask, “can you watch over me while I try this?”
Pray. Ask God to give you the strength that you need to move forward through this life event and transition. Ask God to bless you with the awareness of His presence, His unfailing love and His kindness. Ask God to show you the ways that He hasn’t forgotten you. Pray that God will help you to see – and appreciate the new. Ask Him for help to say goodbye to the old.
Knowing that the journey through stress is a common one with common characteristics helps us to be gentle with ourselves. We can learn to recognize exhaustion and stop pushing ourselves past what we are able to do. We can identify when we need support and hire or qualify for additional help. We can notice our irritability and let those around us know that it’s not how we want to behave or speak. We can have our eyes opened to see how God is blessing us – with kind nurses, with kind children, with a doctor who repeats what we need to hear. And in all of these changes, we can talk constantly to our best friend, Jesus, who knows our name, our situation, our sorrows, our joys and our weaknesses. He understands our path. He holds us in the palm of His hand. He will never let us go. He won’t abandon us. He will show us His love and grace through it all. There will be times when we are stressed beyond good behaviour, anxious to the point of immobility or snapping at the ones we love most. Even in those times, His grace and His love are abundantly poured out on us.
“For nothing can separate us from the deep and all-knowing love of God.” Persuade yourself of this…. that neither loss of driver’s license, nor loss of spouse, nor supporting a spouse with dementia, nor moving from your home, nor meeting with home health, nor hearing a difficult diagnosis, nor all of the things that you presently deal with, nor all of the things your mind can imagine in the future… which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.”
Sharon Simpson is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place in Abbotsford, BC