Yoga Aging column

Dealing with the stress of change can be easier when doing a spiritual practice such as yoga, tae kwon do or walking on the beach.

A friend’s unmarried brother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she is his only family. He needs to be in assisted living but is very resistant to leaving his home, where increasingly she is becoming his caretaker. She feels the kaleidoscope of her life turn; the pattern of her days is changing, today a little, tomorrow big-time.

A woman loses her husband of 52 years and feels lost; he was always the one who “looked after things,” including finances. “I’m scared,” she says. Her world has changed.

A woman who stopped working outside the home to be a homemaker sends her last child off to college and wonders what she will do now. Who will she be now.

A man has a stroke at age 68 and can no longer do the things he had most counted on doing in retirement. Physical changes affect his sense of the future.

“Now? Everything change up now.” That’s what a long-time Edisto Islander said to Nick Lindsay when Lindsay was compiling his oral history of the island. He was talking about the vast changes his old, familiar landscape was undergoing.

But consider: “Change” is another word for “aging” too.

Just about everybody I know over 70 is saying it: “Everything change up now!”

Some of the changes that affect aging bodies are slow and steady and we adapt to them. Our hearing gets worse, our knees wear out, we don’t sleep as well. Some of the normal changes that come with aging seem negative, some positive, and they cause different degrees of stress, but most of them we account for and then deal with pretty well.

Some changes, though, are major transitions that challenge us in more radical ways. And sometimes the changes that happen move us beyond our human limits and capacity to cope.

We’re hit by a “perfect storm” of stresses. We feel like we’re in over our heads. Maybe we all have that out-of-control feeling at some time in our lives. When we’re especially vulnerable, even the changes we could have normally coped with can practically knock us out.

True, old age is not the only time that people experience significant change in their lives. But it is certainly a time when change accelerates. “Everything change up now.” That’s why the question is so important for people who are aging: How can we get ready to cope with change so that when it comes, we can not only survive it but maybe even grow from it?

When people who are coping well enough with change talk about what they’re doing, two things keep coming up. I think both are essential.

The first thing is to find, adopt and follow an inner spiritual practice. For some people, a regular time of thoughtful reading and prayer stabilizes them and gives them peace and confidence. Others have a meditative practice grounded in a spiritual tradition, such as Buddhism, that teaches them not to waste their energy resisting change but to accept impermanence as the condition of life.

Another kind of spiritual practice might involve the physical body, such as yoga, tae kwon do or walking quietly on the beach in the morning. The secret is that the practice has got to be personal, disciplined and connected with the heart.

An inner spiritual practice is often religious, but not necessarily. The great cellist Pablo Casals, when he was 93, wrote about what he did every morning. “It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.”

There is no substitute for an inner spiritual practice to provide grounding and balance when your life is changing. The practice becomes “something essential to my daily life.” Your practice changes as your temperament, circumstances or beliefs change. Whatever practice you have, the deeper you go into it, the more it transforms you from within.

In sailing terms, your inner spiritual practice is the keel that keeps you steady and upright, the rudder that holds your direction, and the sail that catches the winds that keep you on the journey.

The second thing to do is have somebody you can call.

That means a family member, a friend or friends, a pastor or counselor, someone or ones who you trust and who you know have your best interests at heart. We use the term “support system” or “network” and it is that and more. Having someone you can call when you need a steady hand means you also get a caring heart that can beat with yours in empathy. You know you are not alone. And when the changes come, what could be more important than that?

Having somebody to call also means knowing where to get the information or help you need, when you need it, to stay on top of things. I’m talking now mainly about practical help such as health care, housing, legal and financial information. All this can be perplexing. One comprehensive place to find somebody you can call is the resource and referral directory, “All About Seniors,” available for free in public libraries and health care facilities. Pick one up.

Also, Aging in Place neighborhood networks are outstanding in providing somebody you can call. Does your neighborhood have one?

Bottom line: Get ready for change to occur in your life. Expect it, prepare for it, don’t resist it or resent it. As best you can, be with the change.

Like catching a moving train, don’t stand in front of it and try to stop it: Walk or run alongside until you can safely move with it. Then get on.

A human being is never complete or whole. We are a work in progress, a self in process.

As one of Gail Godwin’s people says in "The Finishing School," “‘There are two kinds of people,' she once decreed to me emphatically, ‘One kind, you can just tell by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. ... Whereas, the other kind keep moving, changing. With these people, you can never say, 'X stops here.' That doesn’t mean they’re unstable. Ah, no, far from it. They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young.’”

Bert Keller and Bill Simpson write the occasional column, “Aging for Amateurs.” Keller, a retired minister and bioethicist, wrote this installment.