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Fear Factor

I just had a colonoscopy. No one likes to talk about such things, but there I said it!

Colonoscopies are a blend of a symbol of getting older, since you don’t start experiencing them until age 50, added to an uncomfortable preparation (drinking, bloating, emptying and not eating), all mixed with a part of the body that we really don’t have an easy time discussing. Stirring all those together leads to avoidance, procrastination, and the silent treatment. Bottom line, though, they do need to be done if we want to stay on top of our health and wellness.

I passed my test with flying colors, so to speak- even though the hypochondriacal part of me was sure my doctor would find cancer: Sometimes I would experience cramps; I lean toward constipation; and to top things off—during my last colonoscopy, they found a few polyps. What a relief that this one was all clear-and a reminder that I am not a physician and that I should not use WebMD to provide my own self-diagnosis! The internet makes it way too easy to land on the worst case scenario.

Aging is full of scares, some of which we create ourselves, some of which emanate from the outside. And we do an extra fine job of exaggerating them. Often the fear starts with aches and pains, symptoms and signs. Since we are all waiting, in some respects, for that SIGNIFICANT diagnosis, the thought remains with us, sort of at all times, “Is this the one that really counts?”

Senior Scares

But the fears we face are not just physical; they don’t all belong in the terminal, chronic disease or disability categories. Our physical sense of vulnerability may be small compared to the assumed vulnerability by the world at large. The face of fear surrounds our world socially, financially and psychologically.

How many times have you opened a magazine or newspaper only to read a headline about the mistreatment of an “elderly” person? I put elderly in quotes since so often the media follows elderly with a number like 68 or 71, an age, in my thinking, not to be considered actually elderly. All the same, crooks are out there, ready to take advantage of us ‘old folk”, through scams, mistreatment or highway robbery. Just the other day, a friend told me about getting a call that asked her, just as she was saying hello, if she could hear the caller. She later learned that such calls were a way to record the word “yes” and then reuse that agreement for an unsolicited contract. With the “grandma, I’m in jail” scam, home repair hoaxes and added “needs” and costs for home remodeling, no wonder we have a difficult time trusting the world around us.

Living on a fixed income generates another whole set of fears. Financial advisors and well-meaning magazine editors put the fear of God in us. I have read more articles than I care to admit about seniors not being adequately financially prepared for retirement. We never really know how much money is enough and we rely on these experts, whose expertise isn’t really tested until it’s too late. They may suggest working a bunch more years in order to be “ready” for retirement, years beyond our interest and energy. On the other hand, their recommendation that “now is a good time’ may or may not pan out to have been the right time. How do we really know if enough is sufficient?

Transition Trepidation

Life transitions generate fears. As William Bridges, author of “Transitions” discusses, it’s not just the loss of loved ones that we fear, but the loneliness generated by the loss that can be so devastating. The “neutral zone”, as Bridges calls the time between letting go of what was and embracing what is next, is particularly challenging. We have a hard time imagining a new beginning and can only visual nothingness. The lack of anything happening, as we stay in the neutral zone, can be very frightening.

So where is the net?

There is a great Zen saying that I return to frequently: “Leap and the net will appear”. At every stage of our lives we are faced with unknowns, requiring us to leap. Our elder years, however, are replete with greater uncertainty laced with increased vulnerability.

We don’t know when we will get a fateful diagnosis or if a chronic illness will eat up all of our savings. We have no idea if the person around the corner is out to “get us”, or the person in the next room will leave us sooner than we would like. Fears line up to taunt us, if we let them. They can paralyze us or we can choose to leap. I prefer to sit with my fear, kind of like at the end of a diving board, then take that leap- and trust that I’ll be ok. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the outcome may not be as I predicted, or even hoped, but my journey always brings me to new vistas!

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