On the last day of November, here in Seattle, federal wildlife officers shot and killed a renegade coyote only blocks from where I live. They took aim, fired, and dropped the sucker in its tracks. At least that’s what I imagined happened, based on the reports.

I knew something was up before the first bullet flew. I heard sirens crisscrossing the nearby streets and the annoying bleat of a news helicopter circling above. So I headed to my computer and checked a few local websites. That’s when I learned a coyote had been wandering the Seattle streets, with sightings not far from my home, including the park where I often walk, the park we were now warned to avoid.

I tried to return to work. But then received a text from one of my neighbors. He pointed me to a website with the latest news about our four-legged fugitive. I followed the link to a local blog. The situation had been resolved.

At first, I didn’t realize it was a shooting. That’s because of the way a USDA spokesperson had announced the outcome: the coyote had been “found and removed.” But clarification came shortly thereafter. Removed, yes. Terminated, more so. Killed, most definitely.

But here’s the clincher. The reason the feds took out the offending critter was not because of reported attacks on robins or roadrunners or the occasional jogger, but because the animal had appeared old and sick. Like a patch of dying sage. Like the gnarled roots of a burnt-out cedar.

Not being versed in coyote behavior or in the risks one might pose to people and their pets, I’m hesitant to comment one way or the other on whether the hit had been the best strategy. I do know that a family of coyotes resides in my neighborhood, in the same park where the ailing animal had been spotted, but they’ve been generally welcomed because they control the rat and rabbit populations. They also make for good local news copy. Yet I still can’t ignore the shooting’s justification, that the animal was aged and ailing, justification enough, it seems, to sanction a final solution.

Yet I don’t want to put too sensationalistic a spin on the story… Oh, hell. What’s the media machine for if not to prod and provoke and provide a bit of entertainment? I mean, think about it. The feds take out the coyote because it appears old and sick. They search and shoot and ship it off to coyote heaven. I can imagine the agent standing there, with his square jaw, his tinted shades, his semi-automatic rifle. Hasta la vista, baby.

Could I ask for a more apt analogy or slicker segue?

When I heard about the reason for the coyote’s demise, I quickly turned my attention to our own elderly, the human kind, and the parallels in thinking. I’m not suggesting the feds have hired a group of thugs to take out our retirees with their Winchesters and Remingtons and Marlin rimfires. I’m referring more to the spirit of “removed” and our propensity to separate our elderly from ourselves, both physically and psychologically, our tendency to distance ourselves from them, ignore and dismiss them, treat them as pariah, as diseased, as untouchable. Our veneration of youth not only warps our perceptions of ourselves and those around us, but also castigates the members of society who’ve fallen from grace for no other reason than their accumulated years.

In the one-character play Shirley Valentine, written by Willy Russell, the heroine is a middle-aged working-class housewife whose life has become stagnant and without purpose and value. Her children have grown and moved away. Her husband still works full time. She spends hour-upon-hour at home, by herself, with little to do but talk to the kitchen walls:

An’ most of us die…long before we’re dead. An’ what kills us is the terrible weight of all this unused life that we carry around.
But Shirley gets lucky. Her friend wins a two-week vacation to Greece and takes her along on what turns out to be a life-changing adventure.

For those long past middle age, such an adventure is no longer probable, if not impossible, yet they continue to carry with them this “terrible weight,” fueled as it is by the attitudes and treatment they face every day.

In his book Why Survive? Being Old in America, Robert Butler gives insight and meaning into the rampant growth of ageism in America:

A process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills…Ageism allows the younger generations to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings.
Butler published his book in 1975, over 35 years ago. Maybe the issue isn’t as bad now as it was back then. Maybe it’s worse. I don’t know. Yet there’s little to convince me it’s gotten better.

But let’s put that issue aside for a moment. After all, who among us is not already aware of the way we treat our seniors? Of the terrible toll that such treatment is taking?

Of greater concern to many of us—those already standing on the western shores and those quickly heading there—is not what we can do to change such attitudes but what we can do to cope with them. In that sense, aging is like any other aspect of life: when we stand ourselves against external measures, we always come up short. So we don’t compare. And we try not to let ourselves succumb to this cultural stigma and instead seek out those reservoirs of strength inside ourselves. What choice do we have if we are to survive the onslaught of indifference and indignation?

And all this from a dead canine.

So I headed back to my computer to research the scuttlebutt on successful aging, a phrase, it turns out, that returns more than 6 million Google hits, in a mere .31 seconds. Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this issue.

How is it we suddenly need so much help with aging? How is it that a process we’ve been undergoing as a species since before we were conscious enough to know what aging meant now requires instructions? I mean, it’s not like we used to come with manuals and they’ve suddenly been lost or are now available only online or we left them in the pocket of our jeans and washed and dried them along with that cell number we never wanted to lose.

Clearly, something has shifted. Is it because we’re living longer? Is it because of the crappy way we treat our elders? Is it because we’ve become a culture so reliant on outside direction and stimuli that even as we age we seek absolution elsewhere?

In an agewell.com article on aging and spirituality (“Spirituality: Forgotten Factor in Successful Aging”), we’re told about a talk given by Dr. Michael Parker from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Center for Aging. In his short speech, Parker describes what are considered the three pillars of successful aging: avoiding disease and disability, staying engaged in life, and maximizing physical and cognitive fitness. Sounds pretty good so far.

But Parker believes there’s a fourth pillar: spirituality. Numerous studies, he says, suggest that people who maintain an active spiritual life seem to have a more positive aging experience.

Maybe that’s why we now need instructions on how to age. We’ve replaced our sense of the spiritual with shopping malls and the Internet and reality TV, with smartphones and Netflix and Pepcid AC, all with one aim: to look outside ourselves for answers, for satisfaction, for directions on how to think and feel and experience the world.

And if that’s what we bring to the aging process, it’s no wonder the transition can be so painful. It’s no wonder we need to be told what to do and how to do it.

So perhaps turning toward a more spiritual life is the key. Google certainly thinks so. Yet what it means to be spiritual is as unique as each individual who pursues a spiritual ideal. Even getting us to agree on that ideal is a task that seems beyond our capacity, given our centuries of trying. And given the way we’ve been trained. We’re lucky we can make any reasonable choices, let alone make sense of the plethora of information out there.

During my Google interlude, I also happened upon a definition of the spirit that I sort of like. It comes from Jennifer L. Brower, a Unitarian Universalist minister living on Long Island:

If we understand the “spirit” to mean the animating or vital force within each person—“spirit” derived from the Latin spiritus, meaning “soul, courage, vigor, breath”—then the spirit is our vital center or our core. And the “spiritual” are those things which support that center; those things which enliven us and give us a sense of courage, or heart, for our living. Spiritual experiences are those events in life and moments in relationships which attune us to that vital or animating force within and which give greater meaning and depth to our day-to-day living.
Brower believes that advancing age often leads to rethinking and re-evaluating our lives and what has guided us religiously or spiritually, that the process of aging inevitably changes our spiritual life, whether the result is an affirmation of religious teachings or an increased dissonance and discomfort with those teachings. Or it might have nothing to do with religious teachings. The key, it seems, is in going along with how the spirit moves us, regardless of the direction that takes.

Maybe there’s something to this—embracing a more spiritual perspective on life as we age. Or embracing a more spiritual life regardless of our age. Or embracing something. Compassion. Humanity. Star Trek.

Clearly, as a culture that treats its elderly the way we do—along with the sick and poor and otherwise disadvantaged—something is not working. And I have a hard time believing that more electronic gadgets and high-definition TVs and trips to the plastic surgeon will make matters better.

During my Googling, I also came across a quote from Mark Twain, a man who lived till he was 75:

When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this but we all have to do it.
Yeah, it’s sad all right. But what are we going to do? I bet the coyote was none too happy about it. I bet the 1.5 million elderly living in institutions are none too happy about it either. Or the 11.3 million living alone. I know I sure won’t be when I get there. Hell, I’m not happy about it now. First nature screws us over, then everybody else. Next time I sign up for this ride, I plan to read the fine print a lot closer.

Originally posted to R H Sheldon on Fri Dec 14, 2012 at 10:01 AM PST.

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