Aging with Grace
Aging is what happens to our bodies over time. Some of it is caused by natural occurrences, while some is accumulative, such as skin damage due to excessive sun exposure. In this age-obsessed culture, looking and feeling young is a vulnerability for consumers. According to Matej Mikulic in an article for Statista, data shows that in 2021, the global anti-aging market was valued at around sixty-two billion dollars, and it is expected to grow to around ninety-three billion by 2027. Despite the resistance, aging is inevitable and a natural phenomenon that every human experiences and must accept.
God says in the Holy Quran, “And whoever We grant a long life, We reverse them in development. Will they not then understand?” (36:68). Aging is meant as a sign for us to reflect. Research shows that there are different types of aging, including cellular, hormonal, metabolic, immunological, genetic, and environmental. Smoking, diet, and stress can be factors that make us age faster, but aging is unavoidable regardless.
As we age, the body changes in a number of ways. For example, according to the American Lung Association, by the time a person turns twenty, lung tissues begin to lose their elasticity, rib cage muscles start to deteriorate, and overall lung function begins to diminish. Similarly, the production of digestive enzymes also slows, which affects how we absorb nutrients and what we can digest. Blood vessels also lose their flexibility as we age. In people who are sedentary and eat poor diets, this loss of elasticity, paired with the accumulation of fatty deposits, can lead to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
The late American psychologist Dr. Bernice Neugarten was one of the first to look deep within the field of aging. She made a distinction between the ”young-old” and the ”old-old,” considering the loss of a spouse, retirement, and changes in physical health to be critical determinants between the two. In her New York Times best-selling book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, Dr. Mary Pipher attributes the loss of health as the main factor.
I personally witnessed both my parents catapult into old-old almost overnight. My dad had a major heart attack and quintuple bypass surgery when I was only ten years old. His quality of life was never the same after that, and his health was always up and down. Yes, he aged quickly, but so did we.
Watching a parent age is hard for any child. My youngest starts crying every time she sees a new gray hair on my head. Maybe she associates aging with dying, as we lost my beloved mother last year. After my father passed away, my mother immediately went from young-old to old-old. She stopped working, driving, and socializing. Shortly thereafter, she had multiple strokes.
Dr. Pipher states that it takes a village to raise our children as well as to take care of our elders. Samia Khan tag teams with her sister to take care of their elderly mother, who lives with Khan. Khan is part of the sandwich generation, meaning that she takes care of both her mother and two young children at the same time. While Khan works as a high school teacher during the day, her sister comes over and works remotely so that she can be with their mother. Last year, Khan took time off of work to exclusively care for her mother.
Khan has been trying to help her seventy-two-year-old mother remain independent despite her severe health issues. For example, Khan has made it easier for her mother to make herself a cup of tea by keeping things accessible and within her reach. Since her mother cannot lift a gallon of milk, Khan has a small dispenser for her to use instead.
“These are little things we’re working on with her, because feeling dependent on others takes a toll on you as well,” Khan shares.
One thing that Khan has not been able to do for her mother is maintain her social well-being. Many women in her age group are not going through what Khan’s mother is and have naturally been cut off from her. Khan states that there is a lack of empathy among elders and for elders within our community, which creates a sense of loneliness.
This is one of the biggest issues that geriatrics specialist Dr. Ayesha Mohammed sees in her elderly patients. However, they experience a different kind of loneliness.
“Their loneliness arises from losing members of their inner circle,” says Dr. Mohammed. “Their siblings and friends are dying, their kids are married and moved away, or their spouse may have passed away. That [emotional strain] can be harder to deal with than their physical ailments.”
In Illinois, there are options to find help for elderly care through the state. Namrah Baig works as a Long Term Services and Support (LTSS) Care Management Coordinator and assesses homecare needs for the aging population of sixty and over, determining the level of informal (family, friends, neighbors) and formal (paid) support a patient may have and need.
“I have members that live by themselves and have no informal support, so they depend on formal support only,” states Baig. “Then I have members that have joint family systems like four generations living in the same household, so they get plenty of informal help. Sometimes they’re in a worse situation because no one is able to help them get up in the morning and make them breakfast if everyone goes to work or school. We try to convince them to get non-family member help to fill in that gap, but they say they don’t like strangers in the house and [would] rather have their children get paid by the state as their caregivers.
Baig wishes more Muslims knew about the LTSS program, as taking care of our parents and elders is an intricate part of our faith. LTSS provides adult day service, in-home service (homemaker services), automated medication dispensers, and emergency home response services to individuals ages sixty-five or older and individuals with physical disabilities ages sixty to sixty-four years who meet a nursing facility level of care. They can even help overcome language and cultural barriers or socioeconomic concerns that may deter someone from seeking the help they need.
According to Dr. Mohammed, there are two types of aging: physiological (slowing down of organs and brain function) and chronological (adapting well to physiological changes and aging gracefully). Here is what she recommends to age with grace:
Dr. Farhat Quadri, seventy-nine, is a food scientist at IFANCA who feels aging has not been hard to expect or accept. He took his older brother’s advice to continue working and not retire as long as “you are walking and talking and able.”
“My eldest brother regretted retiring at the age of sixty,” shares Dr. Quadri. “However, he still chose to not stay home and continued to volunteer and serve his community. I agree that if I can still work, then why not? I am grateful to still be independent, move around, and drive around on my own. I honestly think working has kept me going as it is not in my nature to sit around and do nothing. Yes, with age, I have become slower in completing my tasks and experience more fatigue now, but I thank Allah for whatever ability He has given me and continue doing the best I can.”
Whenever Dr. Quadri does decide to stop working, he hopes to then pursue memorization of the Quran. Suzane Derani thinks memorizing the Quran is a great way to preserve our memory and help us physically and spiritually age. She is pursuing a master’s in divinity and recently worked in hospice care.
“If we strengthen our relationship with the Quran, it can help us with our memory,” says Derani, who memorized the Quran as a teen and continues to advance in her Quranic studies to this day. “I have seen it…it’s like their memory was never affected despite their other health ailments. Connecting with the Quran and its meanings and living by it can help carry us through life.”
Tayyaba Syed is a multiple award-winning author, journalist, and Islamic studies teacher. She conducts literary and faith-based presentations for all ages, serves on the board of directors for a women’s nonprofit called Rabata, and is an elected member of her local school district’s board of education in Illinois, where she lives with her husband and three children. Learn more at www.tayyabasyed.com.