“Life is suffering for all life ends,” the Buddha said. “And the cause of suffering is attachment.”
I thought of these words when visiting my 86-year-old neighbor this week. Opal suffers from heart disease and Parkinson’s as well as the assorted pain, feebleness, and general perversity of her aged body. Opal lives alone. Despite dizzy spells and blackouts, she drives when she has strength enough to walk to her garage. “I told the bishop that there’s people in the ward older and in worse shape than me still driving their cars,” she said—reminding me of a kid ratting on her siblings when caught with her hands in the cookie jar.
Opal’s care has worn out our ward. Her next door neighbor checks on her each morning and administers eye drops at bedtime. Opal needs meals brought in, laundry and yard work done, groceries and prescriptions picked up, and transportation to doctor appointments. She should be in assisted living. The bishop has told her this. Her son has taken her to visit several facilities. I tried to talk her into making the change. She argued, “I’m just so attached to my house and to my neighbors and our ward.”
Opal suffers from loneliness and worries about being a burden to the ward. Her attachment to her house and ward—to the past—cause her inability to make the change that would improve her quality of life.
I’m beginning to wonder if our ward’s compassion is part of the problem. Help from ward members enables Opal to stay in an unsafe, unhappy situation. Of course, it’s great for older people to be independent and to enjoy their home and yards while they can care for them. Still, the time comes for nearly everyone when houses and yards become burdensome. And here is where I see a role for churches.
For generations the Mormon Church has emphasized preparedness for the Second Coming, for natural disasters, and for hard economic times. Now that many people are living into very old age with its accompanying limitations, I think these teachings should be expanded to include preparation for declining years.
Golden oldies need the message that the Second Coming likely will not happen soon enough to remedy the decline and fall of their frail bodies. They need to deal with the fact that even with clean living and priesthood blessings, at some point they may not be well enough to live alone. Checking out alternatives ahead of time is wise. Why not some RS/PH lessons on accepting change, on not being attached to houses—even seeing the positives in no longer having windows to wash and rain gutters to clean?
The pain of losing healthy, functioning bodies and leaving long time homes is inevitable for most of us—but suffering can be diminished if we’re emotionally prepared. Buddhist non-attachment is a good principle to practice when dealing with temporal possessions.