We’ve all smelled it. And like flatulence in church, nobody says anything.
It’s that odd perfume that comes from Great Grandma Eunice when you reach down to give her a hug.
It’s that odor that wafts through nursing homes.
And now science is here to prove to us what we’ve already known.
Old people have an odd odor that is all their own.
And no, it’s not moth balls; it’s not an old person perfume; it’s not the fact that their skin hasn’t touched bath water in a couple days; nor is it the decade old clothes that have re-worn for consecutive days (I pull that trick in the winter when I don’t sweat).
In fact, notes Johan Lundström, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, the smell of older people is a universal smell that can be identified from Asia to Alaska.
There’s even a word for this smell in Japan: kareishū.
Here’s the explanation for “the smell” from Dr. Lundström:
The root cause of the old person smell is still a mystery, but the study notes that long-term changes to the skin glands may be involved. Lundström suspects it also may be related to an accelerated rate of cell decay. “As cells die at a faster pace, they might give off a different odor that is unique to people with old age,” he says. (from CNN.com)
As a funeral director, I know the small all too well as I frequent nursing homes more often that some of the occupant’s family. It’s a smell that has always elicited sadness in me. Sadness for those who sit in waiting, often unvisited by outsiders.
I’ve read before that babies have a certain smell that neurologically encourages attachment in adults. We can actually love our infants more just by smelling them.
So, what does the “old people smell” encourage? For me, it’s encouraged a sense of the holy … a sense of both respect and a degree of otherness. An otherness that’s been created by a recognition of life and death. An otherness that we can learn from.
Next time you smell the “old people smell”, maybe we should just sit and listen (not necessarily to their words) to the holy that’s apart of the end stage of life.
When we experience the death of a love one, it asks us to be willing to reach out to others, express ourselves and work through our grief with another. Yet, few of us are willing to be vulnerable, to the detriment of our grief work … to the detriment of our relationships … to the detriment of our humanity. The axiom is this: grief shared is grief diminished; grief repressed is grief magnified.
Here’s 10 reasons why we aren’t vulnerable:
One. Vulnerable = needy. Nobody wants to be seen as needy. The image of a sniveling child, begging the help of their parent is so infantile. We’ve grown out of that. We’re adults. We stand on our own.
But, vulnerability isn’t the same as neediness. Vulnerability is a sign, not of dependence, but of a strength that bespeaks of our ability to be so confident in who we are that we’re willing to allow others to help define us.
Two. Vulnerability means giving control to someone else. Vulnerability is a giving of ourselves to someone else and allowing the response of the other to actually affect, change and/or hurt us. If you’ve been hurt, if you’ve been abused and mistreated, vulnerability is next to impossible. But, oddly, it’s when we’ve regained control and allowed ourselves to be vulnerable again that we know we’re beginning to move past our abuse.
Three. This piggybacks off of number two. Vulnerability means trusting that someone else will take that control and treat it gently and with respect. By giving someone else control over you in your vulnerable state, you’re committing an act of trust. We should choose wisely who we are vulnerable with. Only those we trust.
Four. Fear of being gossiped about. “Did you see that post Caleb wrote on his blog last week? He talked about suicide, leaving God and his wife. He’s sooo … just sooo effed-up.” And while we all appreciate concern, when we’re vulnerable and others see it, they will talk. So be it.
Five. Vulnerability can create misinterpretation. It’s one thing to be talked about, it’s an entirely different thing to be misinterpreted. Others will see it as weakness. Other’s will see it as being needy. Other’s will see this small chapter in your life and use that chapter to define your story. “He’s so weak. He’s messed up.” Vulnerability isn’t weakness. When done well, vulnerability is STRENGTH.
You can survive the gossip and misinterpretation because your story will shine brighter when this chapter is included.
Six: Vulnerability is ungodlike. At least that’s what we’re told. In our pursuit to be like gods (and like God), we assume that we have to always be in control, always in control of our emotions; we might find that we’re trying to be like a god that doesn’t exist. It would seem that God is weak, that God shows emotions … that God bleeds.
Seven. Vulnerability doesn’t equal masculinity. Who defines masculinity anyways? I get it, in traditional cultures, men were the ones who were supposed to be strong, impervious to their emotions so they could fight through the difficulties of finding a way to provide for the family.
But, if you’re reading this, you don’t live in a traditional culture. So be strong, learn to communicate your emotions and be weak.
Eight. We associate vulnerability with an uncontrolled emotional state. Wrong. Vulnerability is intelligently expressing your troubles, concerns and pains. Emotions come with vulnerability; but vulnerability isn’t simply emotions.
Nine. Vulnerability often involves a move away from our pride and an admission that we are indeed in need of help. Pride. Keeps us from doing things we’re not good at. This is where statements such as, “You can’t see me like this” come from. Why can’t we see you like this? Because seeing you like this might make us think that you’re human?
Ten. I’m just not good at vulnerability. Most of us aren’t. We’ve been taught that it’s ungodlike, uncontrolled, too emotional, too needy, too trusting, too out of control, subject to misinterpretation and so on and so forth. So, you don’t do it. You aren’t vulnerable.
“If you’re lost and alone, if you’re sinking like a stone”, find someone you trust and commit an act of strength; an act that will help you grow; an act that will help your story move onward; an act that will increase your self-confidence.
For many of us, the ONLY time we will find the strength to be vulnerable is when we are dying; change up your story and be vulnerable in both life and death.
Welcome. Welcome to the state of vulnerability. Welcome to the state of humanity.
Being old isn’t always defined by the amount of times you’re rode the earth around the sun. My grandfather is 82 and he has more spunk and energy than I do. In some regards, age is an attitude … an outlook on life.
Here are ten characteristics I’ve noticed that define the “old outlook” on life.
One: Increasingly skeptical
Two: Increasingly isolated
Three: increasingly worried
Four: Increasingly moralistic
Five: Increasingly unwilling to try new things, hear new things, embrace new things, see new things …
Six: Increasingly tribalistic
Seven: Increasingly protective of things over people
Eight: Increasingly sedentary. There’s a difference between retiring and becoming sedentary. Old people do the latter.
Nine: An increasing idealization of the past
Ten: Increasingly becoming more and more like a dead person.
WHAT ARE OTHER CHARACTERISTICS OF THE “OLD OUTLOOK”?
As the news flashed across the screen, “230 Dead in Club Fire” I sat remembering five years ago when I unzipped two small body bags. I remembered the smell. The smell that lacks a comparison; a smell that sticks to your clothes; a smell so permeating that your piss smells like it for days after.
Enclosed in each body bag was the small body of a burnt child. I was unzipping the bag to see if they were viewable. Charred. Blackened. Bald faces. “No”, I thought to myself, “there will be no public viewing.”
And my face, my face looks down as I let things outside of my control paralyze me from the inside. Motionless, I sit as I remember that mother as she screamed out her grief in the funeral home.
When we think about the inevitable, how do we lift our heads? How do we not just close our eyes and ask for the mercy of eternal sleep?
You will die.
I will die.
Maybe painful. Maybe today, robbing me of watching my son grow. Or maybe I die old, the last of my family, alone. Or, maybe I will see my son die, unable to stop an inevitability that is stronger than I.
And yet, I’m reminded, as I sit paralyzed that although from dirt I was made, I am no longer.
“Stand up, child of God, so I can speak to you. Stand up. You were made in my image, you will create. You will create what is good. Stand up, so I can speak to you.”
So I stand. I will not be paralyzed by what I cannot change, I will learn to smile. I will be vulnerable. I will stop and look at the stars, the flowers, the beauty of the snow, the fading transience of a passing sunset. I will always have time to talk to you, to stop and help you and to be your friend. Each day will be my masterpiece; each day, as I lay down my head to rest, I will see that it was good.
I will be the creator of the good. I will be like God. I will speak it into existence.
Bronnie Ware’s book, ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – A Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing‘ is a memoir of her own life and how it was transformed through the regrets of the dying people she cared for.
Here are the top five regrets she heard after years of working in palliative care:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled.
“Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.
“Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.
“Women also spoke of this regret, but as most were from an older generation, many of the female patients had not been breadwinners.
“All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
“Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others.
“As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.
“Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
“Often they would not truly realise the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down.
“Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years.
“There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved.
“Everyone misses their friends when they are dying.”
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
“This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits.
“The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives.
“Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”
The text for this post was taken from the March 7th edition of “The Telegraph”.