How we learn to age (and die) gracefully

At school, we learn the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. Our parents teach us how to behave as adults. With the advent of the knowledge economy, we are always reminded of the importance of continuous lifelong learning, even into our old age. That is why some of us are striving to learn a new language,  or pick up a new technology.  I, being a longtime Android user, acquired an iPhone recently. Some of the new skills I am learning will definitely be helpful, but some I may never get to use enough to justify the time I am spending to master them – such as learning Spanish. Yet, one skill that I need and is missing is the skill to age and die, gracefully.

A life well lived does not automatically qualify it as being well aged and well ended. How do we learn to age and die gracefully?

Schools don’t teach us those essential skills. A person may have one or more PhD’s, and still be equally clueless as the rest of us regarding matters of aging and dying.

While our parents may have prepared us to live our lives, not all children have learned how to age well from their parents. I lived with my parents until I moved away to attend university. I was eighteen and my parents were in their fifties. At the time, my parents did not show obvious signs of aging. Even if they did, I was too busy in pursuing my own dreams to notice them. And after my graduation, I landed my first job two thousand miles away from home, and lived there ever since. I only got to see them annually for 2 weeks as they advanced to their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Looking back, I would have learned a great deal from them if I had been there more often and perhaps more importantly, paid more attention.

.. it is arrogant to suggest how people should die.

Having attended church for all my life, I cannot recall ever listening to sermons about the right way to age and die. The author of At Peace: Choosing a Good Death After a Long Life wrote, “I recognize that it is arrogant to suggest how people should die”. Perhaps, that is why people tend to avoid the topic in public.

If we are not being instructed by the age-old trusted sources, such as our family, education, and faith, then where can we acquire the wisdom and the information we need?


Listen to the seniors around you. I have been teaching a Sunday School class for seniors at my church. While I am the more knowledgeable person in the class and I dutifully impart my knowledge to them, I soon learned that they have something that I don’t – the actual experience of having grown old. That is something I can’t learn from books, no matter how hard I study. Through them, I heard for the first time the yearning to have a “better death”, the desire to age gracefully and die peacefully, without being institutionalized or hospitalized. They are my mentors on growing old. I love spending time with them.

It may be your uncle or aunt,  a neighbor, or a friend. Identify someone older whom you want to emulate, and reach out to them. Develop a relationship with them, and listen.


There are some quality self-help books that expound on the topic of aging and dying. A previous post reviews the #1 New York Times bestseller Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Atul Gawande, the book author and a practicing surgeon, reveals the limitations of modern medicine and the shortcomings of medical professionals to help the aged on what matters in the end. The book is written for laypersons, and is highly-recommended as the introduction, from a medical perspective, to the topic of aging and dying.

After I read “Being Mortal”, I wanted to know more. The book At Peace: Choosing a Good Death After a Long Life, by Samuel Harrington, is a good followup, and delves into the topic of aging and dying. The main message of the book is that you and I should be prepared to make some difficult medical decisions for oneself as we reach old age. The book arms us with some basic medical knowledge, in an easy-to-understand language, about the courses run by the top fatal diseases today.  Knowing  the predictable path of a disease helps us make the right medical decisions, according to how we envision our final journey,  e.g.,  whether to undergo aggressive treatment of the disease or to choose the route of palliative care.

The solid scientific knowledge gathered from the above books, complemented by the personal wisdom gleaned from seniors we know and respect, will help us become better prepared for the inevitable.

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