Backyard Excitement
Forced Retirement

Getting Old is Hard

In early April, Clarence at Can You Hear Me Now? was diagnosed with diabetes. A couple of weeks later, he posted this:

“I'm not sure why the word "sugarless" most often translates or is defined as "tasteless," but in my personal experience, it does. If there was one thing I looked forward to for all of my life it was meal time. That sure has changed.”

Then, as his readers found out on April 21, Always Question broke his hip, requiring postponement of surgery for prostate cancer:

“…just a simple step off the curb in a parking lot on an absolutely beautiful April morning. Suddenly one's life has changed - and in many ways no longer seems to be entirely one's own.”

These are sudden, life-altering events, yet these two men who, for the better part of a year, have not shied from expressing their personal thoughts on important and sometimes controversial issues, have given their readers only perfunctory, almost detached reports about their conditions. Which reminded me of this passage from a book I recently finished reading:

“…because we adhere to the doctrine of youth’s perfection and because an adult-dominated society sees the encroachment of old age as a personal failing, we find age-related changes shameful in ways that death is not.

“…those who lose their grip on the vigor and virtues of energetic adulthood hide themselves and their shame from public view.”

- William H. Thomas, M.D., What Are Old People For?

In no way do I mean to put words in the mouths of Clarence and AQ who may have their reasons for keeping their thoughts about these events private. But might it be, even unconsciously, that they are silent due of the shame of which Dr. Thomas writes?

As we get older, things go wrong with our bodies, they wear out and we are discouraged from talking about them. Younger people, in the bloom of youth and adulthood, readily hold out their casts for signing or relate the details of a hospital stay, but we older folks keep our ills to ourselves for fear of appearing frail and useless.

Even I, having spent more than a year here at Time Goes By encouraging acceptance of old people as we are and not as society wants us to be, succumbed this week. Last Saturday morning, getting out of bed produced searing pain in my lower back. It subsided to an almost tolerable thrum when I laid down or when I stood. I could walk – sort of – but sitting was excruciatingly painful. Only today am I back to normal.

Until writing that paragraph, however, I acknowledged it to no one. Friends called with the usual greeting, how are you? and I said, “fine.” When one asked about meeting for dinner, I said I had other plans. Undoubtedly, a neighbor who phoned would have picked up some things I needed at the grocery store saving me a painful, slow walk, but no-o-o.

I was too proud to ask, too indoctrinated by the culture into maintainng the pretense of youthfulness to admit an age-related ailment. And had I mentioned it, I know I would have remained silent about the unease that twitched around in the back of my mind as I contemplated more such episodes, perhaps more serious, in coming years.

Clarence is adapting to a new diet and medication and has mentioned that some previous ailments are improving. AQ is back to blogging almost regularly. They are undoubtedly learning from these age-related changes and I, for one, am curious to hear about what thoughts, concerns and new awareness of life and themselves may have been raised. Again, Dr. Thomas:

“The wisdom of elders is most available to those who are willing to acknowledge that they no longer possess (or need to possess) ‘that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.’ It comes to those whose longevity has taught them to embrace being ‘made weak by time and fate.’

“The elders among us are meant ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ What is little recognized in our time is that for elders, striving need not be yoked to doing, getting, and having.’”

Getting old is hard and old people don’t get enough credit for adapting to the slings and arrows life inevitably throws our way as we move into elderhood. And that is because we are subtly encouraged to keep secret these kinds of stories.

I am not suggesting we all maintain a running blog commentary of our aches and pains. But by holding too close the wisdom that may come to us as our strength wanes, what getting older is really like will remain the mystery it is to most people.

Comments

This post is quite interesting. I have to think it over. You're always giving me food for thought, Ronni, that's what I like about your blog.

1) While my exercise partner and I frequently exchange current-state-of-our-bodies's failings, in general, I find the constant inquiring into my health to be "hello" from most people, and pursuit of that conversational avenue would be tiresome--for me. The state of my body's workings can't hold even my own interest for very long. 2) Perhaps one of the reasons that elders have been revered is because they ARE more stoic about their human frailties than are the younger people. Elders are being credited with thinking about "weightier" matters.

I think Evelyn has a point. One of the lessons of age is that we are more than, beyond, our bodies. When they become too worn out we part company with them completely. But the spirit has an independent life.

Beautiful work you've been doing here, Ronni.

Here, in Euan's Comments, is something I wrote at the first shock of not being young any more, the turning 50 thing. The essay (and I need to retype them, or get them off an antique floppy, to show them to you) goes on to say, I finally understand Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium, which was so beyond me when I had to read it as a nature-worshipping college student. It appreciates the deathless things of the spirit.

Dear Ronnie,

Sorry to hear about your recent back ailment and glad you are on the mend. I certainly identify with the pains of growing older. I'm in the middle of packing up my household items in preparation for a move. The last time I accomplished this chore back in 1990, I was 40, and packed up the entire contents of a 3 bedroom house, including workshop, in short order with no ill effects. This time, I'm 55, and although there is much less to pack in my 2 bedroom apartment, I'm finding the chore of packing to be a back-breaking and exhausting experience. Determined to "do it all myself", I ignore the aches in my knees and work through the pains in my hands and arms, stubornly refusing to acknowledge that I don't have the vigor and stamina I had at 40. Well, perhaps this is a silly thing to do...and I should instead acknowledge the limits of my endurance and hire some help, which I could easily do. Reading your post today edged me closer to that solution. So next week, if I'm still behind on the packing, I will hire some help, and not feel "old" and guilty about it.

Thanks.

Best Regards,
Melinda

I'm not sure it is all age related. There is a drive for all of us to show our best to people we love and admire. It is difficult to show any of our failings. By doing so we assume that it diminishes our status with those that see it.

Then there is the fear of people trying to help us. It is difficult not to take that personally. How can they think that I am not capable?

I wish I had the strength of self exhibited in "Flowers for Algernon". Letting go of what we once could do and marveling in what we still can do.

Take Care
Michael

Good points, Ronni! I want to think about them.
My reflexive response is that I've always kept my infirmities to myself, even from my family, and I gave myself points for (finally) sharing.
I've always been more about what I thought than what my body could or could not accomplish. I now have a sense that I need to rethink some. There was a time in the hospital when I felt helplessness for the first time, and I need to reflect on that.

One has to curb the urge to talk about nothing else but physical aches and pains. Too many older people entertain themselves and bore others to tears with a daily recital of their ailments. Those of my acquaintance who do this are, oddly enough, the ones who read little else but medical journals and nutrition pamphlets.

We can acknowledge our aches and pains without becoming one!

Well put, Kenju.

Oh, you should have said something the other day when I called. Now, I understand the timbre in your voice I heard - I took it to be something emotionally sad in your day.

I'm sorry, kid.

Speaking from experience, back pain is no picnic! Ronni, I wish you a limber recovery.

Your post brought to mind a story a dear friend of mine recently told me. When she was 78 years old, my friend suffered severe back pain. She went from doctor to doctor until she finally ended up at a back specialist. He promptly told her to get used to the pain and make best of the mobility she had now for she would most certainly be in a wheelchair within five years. (A pretty bleak assumption!) A week or so later, my friend spoke to her general practitioner and remarked to him that "surely this could not be true". He advised her to get as much exercise as possible. So my friend cast the image 'wheelchair' out of mind and took up Tai Chi. She is now a 90 year old Tai Chi master. She currently attends classes and is a teaching aide to the instructor. Although she may groan from time to time as she lifts herself out of a comfy chair, my friend is as nimble and flexible as can be.

BTW, she had a root canal last week. Alas, all things are possible :)

I just came upon your blog, and it seems to me that the body parts we want to send back to the factory are not only a function of aging, but more a matter of the fact that adults who have never had a chronic illness or disability are suddenly realizing that their physical abilities have been compromised, something I was forced to realize as a teenager with migraines. It did not take a back injury in my early 40s to get that message. Society's emphasis isn't just on youth, it's putatively on health, to the point of obsessive exercising, dieting and otherwise being taken up with body shape/form at any age.

I personally use a five minute a day scedule of gentle stengthening exercises and stretches. These have enabled me, over the course of a 12 month period to go from a wincing old man to someone who can play sport with their son again!

Charlie
Back Pain

ps Incidentally, I am over 50!

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