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Learning Our Limits

by Barbara Anne Radtke

A long time ago, long enough to start with “once upon a time,” I went to a Block Island beach with my young nephew Trevor and his mom, my sister, whose name is Teri.  We parked ourselves in sand chairs comfortably from the water’s edge.  Over the afternoon, in and out of dips in the ocean, Trevor built the most phenomenal sand castle a 4-year-old could construct. It was really like a village of castles connected with roads and bridges.  As the shadows lengthened in the dunes, the tide began to come in.  The water’s edge crept closer to the castle village. Despite the moats and trenches dug to defend the castles, eventually one big wave washed way up into the sand and took a sizeable bite out of the village.  Trevor began to cry at the destruction. Teri, an artist, scooped him up and said: “Don’t cry. You are learning the limits of your material.”  I was quite surprised that this adult explanation quieted him.  We took one last dip and headed for home.  When Trevor’s dad came home from work, he asked my nephew: “What did you do today?” Trevor answered: “I learned my limits.”

I have returned to this story repeatedly as I have grown older.  In midlife, I thought about the artist’s insight of knowing the limits of her material and applied it to knowing the limits of those in my profession.  As an aging adult, I have thought about Trevor’s insight that he had learned his own limits.  Recognizing limits and acknowledging them gracefully is part of the art of aging.  In my experience, there are many dimensions to the limits we have and it is a learning process to adjust. 

Limits may begin to show themselves subtly at first.   For example, the top shelf in my laundry, which had always included a stretch to reach, has become harder and harder to touch. At some point, I had to admit that the little bit of shrinkage measured in each annual wellness visit was making that top shelf inaccessible. It also occurred to me that I may no longer be considered “tall,” an image of myself that I have had since seventh grade.  Acknowledging the need for accommodations occurred over time as I graduated from a simple step stool to a pair of grabbers for easy-to-grasp items and a stool with a handle so I could be sure to maintain balance.

In another example, in retirement in my early 70s, I would plan each day like I had the energy and endurance of a 40-year-old.  I was totally discouraged with myself until I realized that I could not pack so much in one day.  Once I accepted that, I planned differently; selected items that needed varying levels of energy and intensity to be accomplished; and began to enjoy the day more. I learned to pay attention to small, beautiful, quotidian details. For example, I had never noticed how the sun creeps above the back hillside at different angles depending on the season.

It is an art to “learn our limits.”  We can overcompensate and make our world too small too fast.  So, when do we try to push the envelope and when do we gracefully retreat?  The skill set for this art may be best developed by the practice of certain virtues we can practice as we age.  Patience and self-compassion are two.  For example, I needed to forgive myself that I could not be a first responder in some circumstances where I used to jump right in to help. I needed to think of other ways to offer support. Agility and ingenuity are two more virtues to cultivate.  By agility, I do not only mean working at keeping physically fit, but having the nimbleness of mind and spirit to come up with ways we might be able to achieve the same goal or enjoy the same outcome.  I have found these last two virtues may best be developed and practiced with a circle of friends. Creative solutions seem to emerge from the community.

For example, I will never forget how my mom got stuck on the idea that she needed to cut the lawn herself after my dad passed away. All her kids were adults who had moved away.  She was on her own. She needed to hire someone to mow it, yet she did not feel she could give herself that permission.  One Sunday, after church, a brigade of parishioners followed my mother home. They pulled up to the house and pulled out lawnmowers from the back of their cars.  They showed my mom how to use her mower and they all cut her sizable lawn together.  The next day my mom called me and said: “We cut the grass yesterday and I have decided to hire a service.”

We can all learn from each other about learning our limits. How, dear reader, have you learned a limit as you have “come of age”?”



by Kathy Hendricks

Barbara, your post speaks strongly to me at this point in my life. As I wrote in my most recent post, I am recovering from knee replacement surgery. It has been a crash course in not only knowing my limits but also recognizing that my new knee is not likely to operate as effectively as my old one. As such, there is the acceptance of a certain amount of loss that comes with knowing the “limits of our material.”

The virtues you name for coming to terms with aging, loss, and a limited range of physical or mental movement are spot on. I would add two more: humility and curiosity. Recognizing what I can no longer do is not an easy pill to swallow. Humble acceptance of what is, instead of pining for what was, makes life a lot more amenable, as you illustrated beautifully in the examples you shared.

I love how you point out the upsides of this limited life as well. My recovery period has given me time to move slowly and, in doing so, to see the world around me with more appreciative eyes. Being curious about those small, quotidian details you described. Curiosity also keeps us from curtailing ourselves so much that our world becomes constricted. It can save us from turning into sour old people instead of those with a wide range of interests and no rush to achieve anything but the savoring of each day. Like you, I look forward to our readers’ take on this.


Nothing more limiting than a sudden unplanned and unexpected bodily limitation. It wasn't your fault; nor could you blame aging and become agist, although you tried, but you could suddenly see yourself and other people in your life as real people with amazing stories behind their professional roles and name tags.

I was the patient in the hospital bed trying to heal and relearn how to live with limits that left me dependent, and they were nurses, P.T and O.T. and more, on whom I depended for food, bathing, medication, and yes, the potty aka "pooper scooper". In the middle of the dark night I asked on of my caregivers what she did. "I bring you your night meds," sh…

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Lyn, thank you for sharing this very poignant example of limits. Being able to accept the ministrations of others with grace is not easy, to be sure. Your interest in the night nurse is such a lovely example of what we can give even when our limits are tested.

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