Time's up. The art of making a better exit
Richard Davies is a solutions journalist and podcast consultant. He co-hosts two bi-weekly podcasts: "Let's Find Common Ground" for commongroundcommittee.org, "How Do We Fix It?"
A lot of people I know are reading and chatting about a book with a very blunt title that was written by a wise 89-year-old woman from Sweden.
“The Gentle Swedish Art of Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter” is the title in the U.S. In Sweden they call it “Döstädning.” In our society, where we are rather squeamish about discussing death, we might prefer to call this sensible practice “streamlining.”
“Döstädning” means removing unnecessary stuff that you’ve collected over many years and making your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet. Döstädning is a hot topic among the over 60’s crowd—those we politely refer to as “senior citizens.”
Death cleaning, or getting our affairs in order, makes perfect sense, and saves precious time for our loved ones when we are gone.
The book’s author, Margareta Magnusson, writes with a dash of wry humor in a direct manner. Some of her prose is so lovely and wistful that there is a hint of poetry. Magnusson’s next book, soon to be published here, is called "The Swedish Art of Aging Well: Life Wisdom From Someone Who Will (probably) Die Before You."
I plan to read that one as well.
Around here in Southeast Connecticut those who ignore Margareta Magnusson’s advice sometimes fill me with sadness. Many old folks live alone and haven’t moved in years. They occupy houses with attics and garages full of stuff. They never threw away their old rarely used possessions.
When we die we often leave it to those we love the most to perform the monumental, dreary task of finding a home or a dumpster for everything from our old armchairs and tables right down to thimbles, paper-clips and pins. We should start early, or in my case, now.
Myra, a dear old friend of mine in her mid-80’s, died a couple of months ago. I called one of her sons the other day and asked: “How are you doing?” He told me a sad story. He loved his mom very much but sorting through all her stuff has been very hard. Especially the old photographs. “What do we throw away, what do we keep,” he wondered. It has been emotional and exhausting.
Perhaps “Döstädning” should apply not only to our personal affairs, but public life too.
Far too many elected politicians are too slow to step away from their time in the sun and leave the stage. The problem is more pronounced in the U.S. than in many other nations, where perhaps more elected officials know that they have a life after politics. In November Charles Grassley of Iowa was re-elected to another six year term in the Senate. He is 89.
If President Biden runs again next year — as he’s expected to do — and wins a second term in the White House, he’ll be 86 by the time he leaves office.
It’s quite possible that in 2024 Biden will face former President Trump (76) in a rematch. What a sorry prospect.
The elderly have a great deal of experience and wisdom but should they remain in highly demanding stressful jobs beyond their time? Baby boomers like me still have a lot to give (and write), but there should be time limits or term limits on those who hang around too long.
Last month, 82-year-old Nancy Pelosi had the good grace to step down as House Speaker. In a recent interview with Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, Pelosi said that “It’s just the time, and that’s it. Upward and onward. I’m thrilled with the transition. I think it was beautiful.”
Her daughter Alexandra, a documentary filmmaker, told Dowd that “my mother is at peak happiness. I’ve never seen her like this.”
What a splendid exit. May the rest of us know when to face up to later years of our life with similar good grace.