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Are You Ageing "Normally"?

Depending on how you define the phrase, probably not.

As we have always reported at Time Goes By, people age at remarkably different rates and any gerontologist or geriatrician worth his/her salt, will tell you that people, as they grow older, become more individual from one another than when they were younger.

Because those two, four-day hospital visits in April interrupted my blog life, there are several topics that got lost in the shuffle that I want us to catch up on. One is a story from the highly respected Kaiser Health News (KHN) titled, Is There Such a Thing as Normal Aging?

They don't really answer their question. Instead, the KHN reporter consulted with Dr. Thomas Gill, a geriatric professor at Yale University, and three other geriatric experts to identify

”...examples of what are often — but not always – considered to be signposts of normal aging for folks who practice good health habits and get recommended preventive care.

In doing so, they break down ageing into decades containing these typical changes. My short version – the subheads in the story:

• The 50s: Stamina Declines
• The 60s: Susceptibility Increases
• The 70s: Chronic Conditions Fester
• The 80s: Fear Of Falling Grows
• The 90s & Up: Relying On Others

Those are the generalities of “normal ageing.” (There are fuller explanations at the links to Kaiser above.) Except for noting that the oldest old feel happier than young people, KHN defines normal ageing from only one point of view: negative health issues. I wondered how others approach the idea of normal ageing and checked out the usual suspects:

The Mayo Clinic website provides a long list of what physical things can go wrong in late years and supplies suggestions on how to prevent them.

WebMD has a similar list that's not quite as thorough as the Mayo Clinic.

Area Agency on Aging (in St. Petersburg, Florida) has a long but succinct list of physical changes and the reasons for them.

The Merck Manual Consumer Version online has the most usable, useful and informative version of health issues that can be expected in old age. And I like their pullquotes of these little nuggets of information:

“Disorders, not aging, usually account for most loss of function.”

“To make up for the muscle mass lost during each day of strict bed rest, older people may need to exercise for up to 2 weeks.”

“Most 60-year-olds need 3 times more light to read than 20-year-olds.”

However, all four web pages, each from a reputable health organization, deal only with those negative health developments of growing old, reinforcing the widespread but erroneous belief that to be old is to be sick.

It's a tricky thing to balance curiosity about what “normal” physical changes might turn up in old age without feeling you are being defined as sickly. While surfing around the web on these topics, I came across a blogger named Brian Alger who has some different thoughts on “normal aging”:

Aging doesn’t just place a limit our our lifespan, it also constantly alters the physical, emotional, spiritual, and social context of being alive. In this sense, aging is a medium, a total surround, of our experiences in life.”

That resonates with me for putting into words some feelings I've been having about growing old but haven't been able to articulate even to myself. Further, writes Alger,

”We can confidently expect that every aspect of our life will be touched by the direct felt experience of aging. Normal aging makes time increasingly precious. As a form of communication, aging inspires a conversation with time, impermanence, and the great flow of life that we are immersed in.”

From another page at Alger's blog:

”Aging is our most intimate connection [to] the natural world; it is a source of unity and essential belonging with all life everywhere at once. The very essence of elderhood originates entirely in nature.”

Regular TGB readers would be disappointed, I'm sure, if I didn't bring up how the language of old age reinforces negative beliefs about it in both elders and younger people.

In response to sickliness being the most common definition of growing old, in 2014, Science Daily reported on a study from the University of Alberta. One of the researchers says such terms as “normal” or “healthy” aging themselves fall short how elders actually live:

”"The implication is that if you have a chronic illness as an older adult, you've somehow failed in this goal of aging without chronic disease, which is perhaps not that realistic a goal."

"When aging is just defined as 'healthy' and 'devoid of disease,' it doesn't leave a place for what to do with all of these older adults who are still aging with chronic illnesses..."

I have long contended that issues relating to aging should always include input from someone who is old, as this quotation from a subject of the Alberta study makes clear:

"'I don't know what would be considered normal aging,' said [80-year-old Diana] McIntyre, past president of the Seniors Association of Greater Edmonton. 'What's normal for a 45-year-old? What's normal for an 80-year-old? Those are really irrelevant terms as far as I'm concerned.

“'My own philosophy is I would like to do as much as I can, for as long as I can, as well as I can.'”

That last sentence from McIntyre works for me. How about you? Do you think you're ageing “normally”?



Comments

Before I can answer "do I feel normal" I have to address how I feel about the "normal" stages of aging. Do I feel cheated by the onset of chronic disease? (Yes) Do I also feel grateful it hasn't gotten any worse today? It's not as painful as some others? (Yes) Or be bummed because it's not going to get any better. Are these feelings normal? Or should I feel guilty that my own behavior tipped the scale in favor of this particular disease? (pick overeating, smoking, lack of exercise, lack of moderation, etc.). Or should I just give in to fear and face the fact that if I die of this disease, it's going to be a very painful death. And so on.....so many feelings to deal with.

It seems to me that our feeling/thinking response to normal events is what makes us different from each other during the aging process. Most of us will experience some form of chronic disease. How we think or feel about this largely determines our peace of mind and ability to continue to engage with the world.

I play duplicate bridge which is very competitive and takes a lot of focus and willingness to fail miserably in front of your peers. One must never underestimate your opponents, even when they may be struggling to the table in a walker and trembling when they play a card. Many times, those are the very same people who whip your ass. Clearly, they have done something effective with their feelings/thoughts about chronic disease and disability. That's the part that interests me. I may want what they have, normal or not.

Unless you have a disease like progeria, I think we're all aging 'normally' --what's normal for us. We each own genetics, attitudes, habits, environment, luck, and philosophies, which can be powerful determinants for what advanced aging looks like on us. I'd love to see a positive counter-balance to each trend on that chart, like tendency for greater contentment, less worrying about dumb stuff, etc.

No opinion on what is normal, really. Nor have I considered that useful once leaving behind the teen years. Since then, more focus has been on the interior of this body, its thinking and feelings, toward meeting those needs.

A goal of mine for some time has been to live without comparison or judgement except when spending money or expressing controversial opinions. Success can be elusive, but I try.

The last few days with the revelation of Anne Frank's discovered writings, she inspires me to think whether I'm living as well as possible under the circumstances of this life.

We can't always change or solve our problems, so accepting that and finding ways to be fulfilled, whether known or new, is what I mostly strive to achieve. And I have no illusions that those too will change.

While running an errand yesterday, I heard the last couple minutes of a TED talk on aging by Isabel Allende on NPR. I pulled it up earlier this morning to listen to the entire 8 minutes, and found it amusing, but not so edifying. She is 71, her husband is 76 and her parents are in their 90's. She says we all feel younger than we are because our spirit never ages, and that she feels 17. She shares some other thoughts about some things, such as the importance of passion in life, and the need for acceptance of things that are inevitable. Her closing sentence, "unless you are ill or very poor, you have choices," left me feeling very disappointed. A good many people who are not in either of those positions at 71 may well find themselves in one or both before their lives are over, and I don't think either condition has to leave us completely without choices.

The subject of aging, not surprisingly, is attracting more and more attention every day. I'm not sure that there are many ways to talk about it that will serve everyone. Aging, like many things, is not a 'one size fits all,' situation. Trying to apply the word 'normal' to it doesn't seem to help much.

Interesting and yes, true, but I don't like any of it. However, aging is definitely not for the faint of heart...so I am trying to stay strong. And with that being said, I better take a walk at lunch to keep it all moving forward rather than backward.

I don't believe that it's possible to define "normal" when it comes to the human body. Average, perhaps, but is that normal for everyone?

All I know is that it doesn't get better. It's a slow decline for most of us and it is what it is. The speed at which this occurs is determined by many factors. Genetics being the main one and that is followed by the way we treated our bodies and by unexpected diseases, like your terrible pancreatic cancer, Ronni.

Some people can do everything right and still die at a relatively early age while others can abuse their bodies with drugs, being sedentary, smoking, etc. and live to be 100. They may be the exception to the rule, but in the final analysis it all depends on the luck of the draw.

I have never exercised as much as I should and indulge in forbidden foods more often than is healthy and yet I continue to plod along one day after another.

My point is, that I do not focus on charts, or averages, but just try to make the most of each day I have been given. So the last sentence from McIntyre resonates with me, too.

I often wonder if what I experience is "normal" for a 75-year-old. I suppose it's in a "how am I doing?" context. I'm hyperconscious of forgetfulness -- forgetting the names of people or places that I've known for years but whose names suddenly leave me just as I'm about to speak. I know some forgetfulness is normal, but how much is normal and at what point does it become abnormal and cause for concern? I'm losing hair at a rapid rate. Most aging folks do, but how much is normal? Is it because of my meds? Will it stop before I'm completely bald? Physically I'm weaker, slower, stiffer. It's a normal part of aging, but at what point is it considered abnormal and cause for worry.

Still, I feel like a much younger person trapped in an aging body. Except for those moments when I forget something, I think my mental acuity is as sharp as ever. I'm always surprised when I see my reflection in a shop window: Who is that fat old woman? OMG, it's me!

With all this serious stuff about aging I have a funny story to tell! For weeks now I have had trouble reading the Boston Globe - the print is very light and I just can't make it out. My concern was, I know my eyesight is failing but this is really bad.

I finally called the Globe today to ask if they could supply me with a paper with large print. He told me that the Globe was having a printing problem and they were working on it today!!
Should be ok by the end of the week!!!

My eyesight is not great but it's not as bad as i thought! Ha!

A few years ago, I began attending various meetings, inservice etc re aging and the various issues that we encounter as we age.
the more I learned, the more I realized there were no "cut in stone" solutions or options. So much is determined by mental and physical deterioration, whether there is any, at what rate we decline, how we handle these limitations, how we handle the change in our own self images, not knowing what our futures are, how much support we have, how little support we have, our own personal life attitudes introverted, extroverted eventually, I made a decision to be as happy and grateful that I could be on a daily basis, also, I gave up guilt. I am 80, and realized I should probably stop planning for the future as this is the future, that is both a relief and sad however, I may plan a little cruise, I read about the elderly lady that cruises instead of living in assisted living, better and more fun. I like fun

Ronni, thank you for your words today ~~ I especially needed them. Postings added to yours once more assure me that we're all in this together ~~ we're going to be OK.

I've wondered these days whether I've upped my ever-present fear of falling (resorting to using my walker even in the house on familiar territory) or whether my recently acquired double-vision is the problem. Oh, maybe it's both.....I'll keep dealing.

My neck of the woods has so far been spared some of the bad storms circulating around the US (as well as our planet). I see green leaves, finally, on the tree outside the window. Oh, wow, it's a sunny day and the air is just right. It doesn't get any better than this. Thank you all. Be well. Be happy. (I hope I haven't wandered too far off topic.)

Diana McIntyre's comment, "“'My own philosophy is I would like to do as much as I can, for as long as I can, as well as I can.'” works for me as well.

What' s normal, anyhow? What is normal for you is not necessarily normal for me.

We are what we make of the raw material we start out with. We grow into it, we live with it, and (honest!) just like pots and pans and other stuff, we wear out! Certainly we need not be solely recognized by the infirmaries of old age. Just as a pot need not be described only by the worn spots of long-term use.

A recent setback has sent a few health professionals to my home, and yesterday one of them said something like, "you're doing well, young lady." The nurse got an earful.

"I earned every one of these 84 years and I assure you, I am an old lady."

Too late for me, no use trying to fit in the normal category now.

I really hate the word 'normal'. So often, it is used to shame people for not measuring up on things they have no control over, which is total BS.

That said, when health changes hit, they are less worrisome, less frightening, if I know that the same things do happen to a lot of people as they grow older. I get to waste less of my precious remaining time railing at the heavens with "Why ME???"

I'm not actually that special. Other people cope, somehow, so I can, too.

You are all AWESOME. I read, loved and learned from all of these posts. What I read is acceptance of this process is best. By acceptance, I don't mean giving in or up. Staying strong is good advice; strong physically, spiritually, and emotionally. No, it will not be an easy road and given the alternative, I'll take it.

In the meanwhile, cherish each day and eat, drink, and make merry!

Karin

Darlene's last paragraph says it for me.

Find something you're passionate about, and get curious.

P.S.

It's a beautiful day in Montreal.


I'm good with McIntyre's comment. Changing health issues cause me to pause and make adjustments. I don't spend much time worrying about but I suppose that could come. Life seems for me at least a continuous trip through many new kinds of lives.

Asking us if we think we are aging “normally” is like asking a teenager whether they are going through puberty “normally”.

It’s like “what the heck is normal. And if this is normal it sucks”.

My MIL just died at 94 from “old age”. No chronic illness or other health issues. She just wore out. She was fairly active until the last 2 years and just slowly faded away. I’d sure like that to be my “normal” :-)

The normal part of aging is relatively rapid (versus youth) decline and death. We are all normal in that sense. The rate and details vary. There would be an average rate and common maladies and that would be typical versus normal.

Darlene echoes me, or I echo her--which is more likely: it is what it is. I have no clue what is normal. I didn't sign up for old age, but many of us probably didn't. I spent plenty of time on the "party circuit" in my 20s-30s and honestly did not anticipate seeing my 65th b'day. Well, I did, plus 16 years so far.

Speaking strictly for myself, it's a mixed bag. Although I've sidestepped the killer diseases of ageing to date, the past 2 years have been a wake-up call physically: welcome to Being Old. Absent ordering up a new body, I'm definitely showing signs of wear and tear. I'm not afraid of death (although I DO fear a long drawn-out, painful process of deterioration that I hope can be minimized). Today, my husband--who, at 88, is doing a better job of ageing than I am--and our 3 senior cats still need me.

Another great topic focus on this aging process which has been going on from the day we were born. I long ago concluded “normal” is a much over-used, often abused term — that “normal”, at best, is a range — and a range with all sorts of exceptions. As much as we are the same, we are different. Who is to say what is the more normal? Limitations for some become assets as they adapt, and for others they become debilitating. Adaptation, attitude have significant bearing on how we cope in life and through our aging process.

I am a keen believer that processes we cannot see, that medical science continues to explore with so much still unknown, in terms of our brain’s neuronal connections and the chemical makeup therein have a significant bearing on our functioning — how we feel, adjust to changes, not to mention the effects of our thinking processes. As simple as we are, we humans are highly individual complex beings.

We seem to be programmed to organizing matters into groups or categories as a way to manage our understanding of them. Use a few age groupings with labels for them and, viola, we have “old people”. There can be value in looking at behaviors and conditions of such groups, but primary attention should be on the individual regardless of all else. This is what we need to remember about ourselves. A group “cookie cutter” approach based on age to health care delivery is what we need to guard against, too.

I think of changes in my aging self, so many primarily adults I encountered in my work, personal friends passing the 100 year mark, other friends and family, but, especially my mother. She died just short of her 90th birthday but, as many of os think of our mothers, when I consider her life story, she was a remarkable woman in attitude, and adaptation skills to environmental, health, aging challenges. We are each faced with more or less of the same in our lives. I’m doing the best I can and sounds like everyone writing here is doing the same.

I am currently reading "Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer," by Barbara Ehrenreich. It is a must-read for people like us. On the cover of the book is a picture of The Grim Reaper running on a treadmill.

I really don't know how to describe this book, except to say that it investigates and topples our obsession on what we shoulda, coulda, woulda do on a daily basis to prolong our lives. She says that she woke up one day and decided she was old enough to die of natural causes.

I can't put this book down, and oddly enough, today my gastroenterologist told me that he didn't need to see me now for four more years, and that he is retiring next year, but I should make an appointment with the office. I thought, "Here's my chance to get off this treadmill. I have no intention of making another follow-up appointment - in four years, yet - for a condition that I manage myself." I told him that if he wasn't going to be in practice anymore, I wouldn't be coming back. We hugged.

Check off one more maintenance task. If I'm still alive in four years, and I pretty much expect to be, I will have other things to do.

I too don't believe in a "normal" and I love the idea of aging naturally and not trying to fight it. You see this is the obsessive exerciser, all the plastic surgeries, the false promises of the latest food fads, facial creams and on and on..

Two of the hardest things to fight, to me, would be pain control and isolation as friends and partners die off. As a widow with no children and my closest friends being even older than myself, isolation is my concern.

But as my husband use to say, it is what it is.

A very interesting column. Maybe at some point, and using collective wisdom, we can fill out the “decade list” with more positive categories. My sixties turned out to be the best decade of my life. I was in the best health of my adult life (got into biking to rehab from an injury received in my fifties), I retired and had freedom to travel and have fun, my children started to blossom into fantastic adults, my husband stepped up to help with household chores. I felt blessed blessed blessed.Then I had a life threatening illness out of nowhere. I realized I had a fulfilling life and I did not fight death, I felt I could go peacefully. Luckily it wasn’t my time.

So what’s in my seventies? Wisdom that comes with experience? Overcoming neuroses, like fear of heights and claustrophobia? Learning a new skill (god will I ever figure out a single lens camera?) Going on pilgrimage? Managing an illness or condition with dignity?

Let’s have new categories!

To me, the posts are as good or better than the article! The personal anecdotes show that we shouldn't try for normal or typical but to stay "individual" I am me, warts, wrinkles and all. I see each day as a blessing and try to live a clean, helpful life. Sure, if I wake up each day and don't hurt someplace, I am probably dead, but I still do almost anything I want. I have a great life and I have enjoyed my 82 years on the planet. God is good, every day all the time!

Ah, the search for "normal. " We all want to be 'normal,' even though nobody seems to know what it is. And, interestingly, we all want to be exceptional, despite not knowing what we want to be better than. "Is that normal behavior for a 15-year old?" "How much/little sex is normal?" "What is 'normal' ageing?" Not knowing the answers, we fall back on the easy response -for ageing, at any rate- of negativity: our various parts start to quit working or fall off, we fail, we die. Damn, that's depressing, and, like so many of my peers, I'm not going to play that game. Academics and other theoreticians of ageing need to change their definitions, too, if they're ever going to understand the whole process.

Just finished reading Mayo clinic's list of things that can go south as we age. Now I'm thinking "what's the use?''

First a "Thank You, Ronni" for your articles stimulating this fine dialog. I have been educated, cheered, and comforted by knowing so many thinking folks are hanging around and want to share their thoughts and ideas so willingly.

For someone 80 and counting, 'new in a city', it feels like finding friends. So thank you to those who take the time and thought to post their personal experiences.

My own pursuit of all things ageing feels like an up hill run some days, but the goal comes from an old poster I saw years ago. I like to think I've aced a couple of them. Still in class however, here on TGB.
"The four true signs of ageing----
Wisdom, Confidence, Character and Strength."
Charlene D.

Basically, who cares? I am still working full time (nearly 70) and find each day more exciting. I've never had children (married 3 times, as was my wife also, this time for nearly 30 years --- the longest for both of us) but find beauty in nature each day and new events to read about. My body tells me I'm not 20 anymore, but so what? There was no "P.E." for me, ever, (although I tricked the military doctors for almost 21 years) and my lungs have always been sick. I would never go backwards to relearn the knowledge I now have. I enjoy the freedom I have in maturity versus the tethers of youth. Life is champagne and well worth drinking, although it can make you a bit giddy. Women do have an advantage in aging: their bodies allow them to enjoy physical relationships easier than men's. My wife and I have discussed this inequity at length! I feel as long as you have an open mind to think with, you are as alive and young as you want to be. By the way, I was told as a boy that I would definitely not live to see 25!

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