Thursday, 15 May 2008
A Personal Lesson in Elder Adaptability
In his first TGB Geriatrician column yesterday, Dr. Bill Thomas wrote about the new skill of adaptability old people develop as we accommodate the natural effects of gravity and time. That adaptability, he notes, is not a one-time achievement after which it’s all smooth sailing:
“An older person wakes up to a new body with new requirements and limitations not once,” he said, “but many times. This reality batters our relationship to the status quo.”
Over the past ten days, I’ve been having a close encounter with that reality in a big way, and I do feel battered.
During the two years since I moved to Maine, I have led a simple life. Awake early, I devote the greater portion of most days to whatever is necessary to produce this blog about aging. In good weather, I walk an hour a day or so, play with the cat as he demands and in the evenings, I read or watch a movie or putter around at whatever amuses me before bed at 9PM or 10PM.
When it became evident a few years ago that I could no longer tear through housecleaning in one morning a week without losing the rest of the day to exhaustion, I spread the work over time, one room a day. I’ve slowed down in recent years, but as Dr. Thomas discusses, I’ve adapted, and without much effort.
Routine is my friend, giving me the freedom to work hard when necessary and not overdo. When that routine is interrupted, as with a trip away from home or houseguests, I’ve been able, in the past, to accommodate the disruption by planning and pacing myself so that I can enjoy the interlude to the fullest without the need for excessive recuperative time.
This time it was different. My recent houseguest, an old friend I’d not seen in a long time, is younger than I by 20-odd years. We were up every evening until hours past midnight (we are both great talkers with a wide variety of interests) so that rising each morning became increasingly difficult for me and I tired earlier in the day. But I was loath to admit it to my friend, so I did not and kept going. Stupid.
Beyond stupid, in fact, because my friend had arrived after I had barely crawled out from under three days of excruciating back pain of no known origin which had kept me trapped in the apartment; the flight of stairs to the street may as well have been a sheer mountain cliff for my ability to get down them during those days.
So I had started the visit already exhausted and tried to behave over the four days as if I were 30 years younger than I am.
When I returned from dropping my friend at the train station Monday morning, I fell into bed and hardly moved from there until yesterday afternoon when I finally began to feel my normal self again. Now I am eager to see if I am recuperated enough to get through today without an hour or two time out later.
It is not my intention to give you a blow-by-blow of my recent distress. Instead, it is an opportunity to think out loud about the infirmities of age, how we deal with them - and Dr. Thomas’s first column on elder adaptation arrived in my inbox right on cue for that.
Until this past week, I had adapted easily to waning energy much as Dr. Thomas describes and without putting much thought to it. When difficulties with such as housework in one morning and late nights become evident, I have made the changes necessary to maintain a schedule I like. And when I travel by plane, an tiring endeavor these days (more particularly from Portland, Maine, from which there are direct flights to nowhere), I plug in rest time so that I can be sharp and smart when I need to be.
Dr. Thomas seems to say that adaptation is a quality that arrives naturally with age. That is apparently what happened to me in the past, but which I ignored last week. I behaved, through false pride in wanting to keep up with a much younger person, as though I am 37, not 67, and I paid for it with several days lost to the misery of zero energy this week.
I have been wondering, as I've rested a lot, if pushing myself beyond my limit is an artifact of the constant cultural pressure to pretend that we are not old and that we should not reveal to others that we – or, in this case, I – cannot do everything that was once possible. Maybe yes, maybe no, but I suspect it was, in addition to enjoying the visit, part of my reason.
It will not happen again. I have spent too many years now lobbying on this blog for acceptance of normal, natural aging to fall victim to indoctrinated bias against being old. In the future, I will allow myself to adapt as Dr. Thomas describes:
“As we age, we encounter an unexpected and highly significant rise in the power of adaptation. The emergence of adaptability is perhaps the most important and least acknowledged of the virtues of aging.”
Yes, IF you pay attention. I experienced that adaptability on my own long before I learned from Dr. Thomas that it is a common phenomenon. From now on, I will trust those instincts as I “watch and marvel," as he says, at my own and others' “miracle” of adapting to new realities.
[Postings at The Elder Storytelling Place will return on Monday.]