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Living a Vital Life

by Marylee Johnson, Wheatland Village Campus Member

Many of us fail to realize that life's later years can be a gift. If we recognize these years as a new chapter in our 'book of life', and not as a burden, we can then find the joy and richness of aging and be able to overcome many of its challenges.

We all have our dreams of how we think our life will be. Much as a captain sets a course for his ship at sea, we set a course for our life. Perhaps it means the purchase of that perfect house on the hill - the one with the white picket fence and roses blooming near the front porch. We have visions of rocking our grandchildren on that porch and family reunions under the large maple trees in the yard. We envision the perfect 'Norman Rockwell' painted scene.

Life has a way of changing our direction much as a ship must change its course. In my case, my husband's dual diagnoses of Alzheimer's Dementia and Lymphoma required us to sell our 'home on the hill' and move into a retirement/assisted living apartment. Although this change in our life style required many adjustments, it soon became apparent that it also offered many advantages. We found the men and women living here to be warm and welcoming - offering a wealth of interesting stories to tell, sharing their experiences and wisdom that can only come with years of living. We soon made new friends and enjoyed the amenities of this new life.

My husband was no longer able to drive so we sold our two vehicles and, wanting something fun and sporty, I decided to buy a Jeep Wrangler. After two months there was restlessness within me and I decided to drive to Missouri to visit relatives. This venture was so successful that a few months later I began to dream about driving to Anchorage, Alaska. Six months of planning and eager anticipation resulted in a one month drive to that beautiful state and Canada.

This trip provided much more than incredible scenery. While traveling the back roads of the Yukon I met women who single handedly split wood for heat, owned sled dogs for winter transportation and managed businesses. They were determined, capable, strong and happy. They were living the life style they chose, they had charted their course and were enjoying life. They were 60+ years of age.

We continued to enjoy our new life of leisure. My husband was happier than he had been in years. It seemed that daily I reminded myself of how much we had to be grateful for. It was at this time that I decided that I needed more intellectual stimulation. Enrolling at the local junior college and a course in Political Philosophy was just what I needed. Sensing my need for challenge and stimulation the college professor shared a video, Alive Inside, about using music to stimulate the brains of severely demented individuals in nursing homes. This re-ignited something within me and along with the staff of our affiliated memory care center; we implemented a new music program. Personally, this project proved rewarding beyond measure.

Someone once said that life is like a smorgasbord - like an endless buffet table of all varieties of food and that we should sample and enjoy each one. How sad it would be when the end of our lives comes to have had a lifetime of only "meat and potatoes"!

I continued to think about that incredible Yukon Country - the ruggedness and the beauty and the naturalness of the land and the people. Dreaming of snowy roads, snow laden trees and cold starry nights only reinforced my desire to make another trip north. Only one thing was missing- I needed a travel trailer to pull behind my Jeep. Last summer I purchased a vintage 1969 Shasta travel trailer and began restoring it. She is ready now for her first big trip. Instead of returning to Alaska, however, I am going to Yellowstone. The fantasy part of my brain says to go during late fall to see the animals and beautiful foliage and then stay for the first snow fall. By not having a return date, I plan to stay as long as it takes for me to tire of"living" near Jackson Wyo., at the base of the Tetons and so near Yellowstone. I plan to read, write and try to develop a few photography skills. Mostly I want to enjoy the sights and sounds of nature and perhaps have a taste of 'Yellowstone in winter'.

After returning home and during the long winter months I will re-enroll at the college and try another thought-provoking class. By September of next year I am planning to hook my little trailer back onto the Jeep and drive through the northern states to the east coast, then return by way of the south and Midwest. The plan is to see this wonderful country of ours by the scenic back roads. There is far more adventure that way, and one meets the most interesting people.

Many years ago I read Born to Win by James and Jongeword. They speak about winners and losers in life. They explain that winners are people who are authentic, trustworthy, responsive and genuine. To winners, "time is precious. Winners don't kill it, but live it here and now. Winners have a ZEST FOR LIFE!" These words have served me well. It is an excellent book, although hard to find as it is no longer in print.

Joan Chittister, in her book The Gift of Years says "We have to want the newness of older age in order to make it the energizing period it has the power to be." And that "A blessing of these years is to realize, early, that this stage of life is full of possibilities, full of the desire to go on living, to seize the independence, to create new activities and networks of interesting new people."

Another favorite inspirational author from the 1970's is Leo Buscaglia. In his book Living, Loving and Learning he talks about love. The examples he uses are humorous and leave the reader feeling uplifted, joyful and optimistic about life. He is truly inspirational.

My final thought is this. Life is precious and it is short. We should take advantage of every opportunity to find as much joy and happiness as we possibly can. Do not put it off until tomorrow - or worse yet, put it off altogether because of something you may have no control over. Have your dreams, set your course and make things happen! Big or small-size is not important, but getting started IS important.

A clip in a recent magazine says it well -

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a well preserved body,
But rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'WOW!! What a ride!' "

-- Author unknown

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