Why we should perceive death as liberation

At 90, my friend Gina still lives a youthful life. She tells me how the older she gets, the younger in spirit she feels.

When I was living in Italy in my early 20s, I used to volunteer at a retirement home. There I came to terms with a different reality to the one I was exposed to as a happy-go-lucky university student. Twice a week, I would spend my mornings at the Casa del Pensionato attending to old people’s needs, be it feeding, cleaning, going for a short walk or having a chat. It was both demanding yet rewarding and gave me a lot of fodder for reflection about ageing.

We seem to age on multiple levels: internally and externally, individually and culturally, physically and spiritually. Unfortunately, most of us soldiers of ageing trample through the process as if it were a war zone, laden with fear. We fear what our bodies might become: frail, wrinkled and ugly. We fear loss of strength, vision, agility, stamina, independence and loved ones. These fears are real. But living in fear of ageing will keep us from living our lives fully.

Academics explain that the problem might not necessarily be ageing, but rather ageism, the discrimination we face based on our age. Our personal narrative of who we would like to be is often blurred by society’s norms and values. In our culture, ageing is perceived as an undesirable phenomenon, one which reduces beauty and brings us closer to death. But what if we were to stop perceiving ageing as a threat and affirm it as a significant part of life?

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Gina Dall’Aglio with the paintings on her garden wall. 

One of the friendships I formed at the retirement home was with a former volunteer. At 90, Gina Dall’Aglio is still fully engaged with life. She lives alone in the house she built with her late husband straight after World War II. She still shops, cooks, and takes care of her front garden. Whenever inspiration strikes, she paints her favourite flowers: papaveri, gira sole and margherite. But mainly, she spends her time nourishing her spirit in prayer.

Gina is an ageless soul. So many people limit their own capacities by allowing their fear of ageing to take over. Most of the time, this leads to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy which could further accelerate the ageing process.

Gina is humble and grateful for all the hardships she has been through and celebrates the beautiful moments, even if it’s merely sunshine on a cloudy day or a piece of cardboard she may come across on the street which she can use to paint on. Spending time with her taught me what it means to live a long and youthful life without the fear of ageing.

“Our body is like a dress,” she says. “And a dress you wear every day will naturally have a hole here and there, especially after 90 years. My body may be frail, but funnily enough, I seem to be ageing in reverse, because the older I grow, the younger I feel. My spirit seems to be more youthful than ever.”

We could call this the paradox of ageing, where our bodies and spirits age inversely proportional to one another. As our bodies become frail, we tend to feel we are growing younger. In fact, a 2009 survey on American attitudes towards old age showed that almost half of the respondents aged 50 years and over reported feeling at least 10 years younger than their actual age.

“I have no idea where these past 90 years have flown,” Gina says. “Mamma mia, I’ve had a long life and survived the war and poverty. I was so poor I had to borrow a pair of shoes to wear for my wedding. I’ve had a lot of loss, pain and pleasure. But having faith and focusing on the beauty of life has kept me grounded.”

As we get older, we seem to become more familiar with our daily routines and this seems to make the seasons roll by quicker. The fact that we live our lives forward but understand it backwards means that the older we are, the easier it is for us to connect with ourselves on a deeper level.

“I find it hard to be friends with other old people because they aren’t always in a good place,” she says. “They prefer to spend most of their time indoors, moping. I try to pass on a bit of my energy but some prefer not to listen. And so I’d rather spend time with myself in that case. I’m never alone. My spirit always keeps me in good company and gives me the inner strength and energy to spur on. I nourish it with prayer every day.”

Society has constructed a stigma surrounding ageing. As women especially, we tend to grow concerned about becoming invisible or sidelined in life, while men may mourn their loss of strength. Messages in the media repeatedly tell us to fight ageing and so we start to believe there is an age limit to certain things.

“Because I ride my bicycle everyone thinks I’m some kind of phenomenon. It isn’t every day you see a 90-year-old on a bicycle, yet here I am. It’s way beyond the norm, but it’s my only means of being mobile.”

Gina cycles to mass every morning and later visits her friends and husband at the cemetery. On weekends, she has lunch with her daughter, grandson and great-grandchild on their farm in the countryside. She doesn’t allow her age to stop her from living her years filled with adventure. Despite having lived for almost a century, she is still busily engaged, connecting to the world and immersed in her faith.

“Life is a gestation for eternity. I’m ready to leave this body behind. At least I’ll stop worrying about all the pain it causes me. I have no teeth, so I can’t eat whatever I want. My legs are fragile, so I can’t travel long distances without my bicycle. Once I’m dead, I won’t need my glasses to read my beloved gospel – I’ll be free.”

She admits to having lived a full life and is ready to let go of her body or “worn out dress” as she calls it. She perceives death as liberation from any physical pain.

I guess this is the gift that comes with age. You start to become more comfortable in your own skin, even if your body doesn’t quite fit so well. You learn who you are and who you aren’t.

And this is why we shouldn’t give in to ageism.

Embracing our age without feeling ashamed of it is the secret to ageing gracefully. Perhaps we do remain in some sense all the ages we’ve once been, as well as the age we are now. We find ourselves acting more like the old selves we were in certain situations, sometimes playful as a child and rebellious as a teen, but it’s still us. We need to look at ageing as part of a process, because if we’re going to keep thinking like soldiers battling against ageing, we’ll never be happy, because it will happen anyway.

Originally published in the Times of Malta in October, 2015.

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