Silver Threads - 3/19/2006
Guest Blogger: Tamar Jacobson

Accommodating Waning Capabilities

When we are children, there are things we can’t do because we’re not tall enough yet, or strong enough. I was always the shortest kid in class and for several years, until I gained enough height, teachers placed a wooden step stool under my desk on which to rest my feet so my legs, otherwise dangling in space, wouldn’t go numb.

Mom or dad helped out when I couldn’t lift or reach something, and they would carry me when the walk was long and I got tired.

We reach adulthood and for many decades there is little we cannot do. We “tote that barge and lift that bale” without thinking about it. We run for the bus, play a few sets of tennis before walking the miles of supermarket aisles and then go dancing all night. Nothing to it.

So it is a shock one day, trying to move a piece of furniture you’ve been shoving around for years, when it won’t budge. Or, you get a piece of luggage chest high and can’t move it from there into the overhead bin on the airplane. When that happened to me last week for the first time, I was slightly embarrassed to ask the sturdy, young man next to me for help, but he gallantly pitched in saying, “no problem” when I thanked him. At our destination, he retrieved my bag without my asking.

It is as though my strength has disappeared in a twinkling. As if yesterday I could do it and today I can’t.

Anyone who has ever changed planes in Atlanta knows the million-mile walk to the train to get to another concourse. On my way to Texas last week, that walk was longer than it’s ever been - in feel, if not reality - and pulling my bag along behind me felt as though I was hauling a boulder to Austin. So much so that when one of those electric carts beeped up beside me, I hopped aboard. Another aging first. I was relieved to see that several people a lot younger I am were also taking the easy rider.

Inevitably, as we get older, our capabilities wane and although it is hard for me, as on the airplane, to rely on the kindnesses of strangers, it is best I believe to ask for help, return a polite thank you and move on. Few will refuse and in my case, I have a lifetime of practice in asking strangers to retrieve items from the top shelf in supermarkets.

That doesn’t mean, in this case, that a class in strength training might not be in order (and I may look into that when I have finished the move to Maine), but nothing will return the strength of a 25-year-old to someone who is 65 and older.

Elders and children have many things in common, and although our culture makes great efforts to protect and accommodate kids, there are few - airport electric carts notwithstanding - for elders.

More often than not it is I, not a teenager or adult, who stands up in the subway so an elder may sit. My local neighborhood association is still fighting the Department of Transportation to extend the length of the green light at the corner so elders can get across the wide avenue without fear of becoming accident statistics. These efforts, over more than a decade, have so far been in vain.

As elders’ capabilities decline, there are simple accommodations that can be made. I spread housecleaning over seven days now instead of charging through all of it on Saturday mornings as I had done for a lifetime. I’ve been making additional trips to and from the markets in the past couple of years since I’ve found I can’t carry as much weight as I once did.

But communities and the culture must do their part too to ease the way for elders - as they do for children. It’s the right thing to do.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: I am off to Maine tomorrow, Tuesday morning, until the end of the week. As with my trip to Texas, several bloggers will be filling in for me. Please welcome them, leave lots of comments for them and do visit their blogs.]


There will always be someone older around, and someone younger. When my grandmother was in her 70s, she used to sleepover with an older woman who was afraid of staying alone at night. (My grandmother was a true frontierswoman, carried a gun and knew how to use it.) I doubt she ever thought of herself as an "elder".

I agree whole-heartedly with the role society must make to accommodate, as you so nicely put it, "waning abilitites". We've done so for parents with children: changing rooms, special parking places for parents with children, shopping carts with baby seats, almost universal day-care...none of which existed when I had a baby.

So accomodations can be made, if we take up Ronnie's lead and press for change.

Ronni, today's remarks hit home. I do so relate to the loss of strength among a long list of other talents we elders take for granted. I try to balance losses with those things I've gained with age......Dee

Hand strength is the most serious for me. Seems you're always alone when you're trying to pry open a jar of pickles or tear into a bag of cereal. People are quick to help if they are around, but there should be a way to accomodate the wimpy-while-alone among us.

I highly recommend strength and balance training .....I have been in a class for women with arthritis for all most a year and I cannot tell you the difference it has made for me...I can sit and rise from a chair now without using the arms as well as other small miracles.........

Ronni I can relate and empathize with what you say and I know that long walk in Atlanta well! What pisses me off is that some of my relatives ignore the fact that I are getting older and don't do some things as fast or as easily as I used to do them. I used to be a bull of the woods - now I am an old bull! LOL

Our waning strength and diminished balancing capabilities are exactly what makes us seem a liability in the work place. It is difficult to think of one as being fully capable when it is obvious that they lack the strength/endurance/balance/etc that others exhibit. This has also been an issue with those who are born, or develop at whatever age, disabilities that are not age related. It's easier to see what one cannot do than it is to imagine what one can (still) do. You've just capture the source of ageism in a nutshell!

Miriam Nelson, a physician and researcher at Tufts, has a series of books about strength and balance training at any age, her "Strong Women..." series. I've really liked them because her tone of voice is reasonable, the explanations are clear and based in research, and her illustrations are drawings of regular women and not teenage fashion models. I found an exercise partner and worked through her sequence several years ago and got dramatically stronger. (Hoisting dogfood bags without noticing the weight!) Her research shows that this kind of training works at any age - she has worked with people of limited mobility in their nineties. Reading your entry reminds me that I need to find an exercise buddy again...

And wonderful to meet you at SXSW! Good luck with the whole process of moving. (Hope it means that you'll be able to go to BlogHer '06 in July.)

Liz in Pittsburgh

I had a warning sign of this waning after I underwent radiation therapy a couple of years ago. I went into the bathtub and found that I was unable to get up without help. I was lucky that time that I was on a trip with my daughter and she helped me out. My strength has returned, but I know that there will be a time when I'll have to stick to showers instead of baths when I am alone at home.

Oh yeah, I hear ya Ronni. Achy hips, knees and such. Definitely slowing down. Some mornings I feel way past my actual age...but, I just work the kinks out as best I can. But, I think of the day when a couple of Excedrin won't do the trick, and the kinks don't work out anymore...that won't be fun and will probably make me just a little surlier than I'd like to be. That's when I'd definitely count on humor to get me through. One thing I know...I don't want to be a bad "old" person...that's not funny. -Joy

Certainly would agree with Cop Car's observations. Any behavior that doesn't fall within the limits of what is thought of as "normal" is often thought of by many to be "less than," and frequently in mental capacity, too.

Continues to be a challenging education process to prove this is not so.

So many stores, now, are of the large box variety requiring extensive walking just to get through them. Am seeing more of those little electric carts popping up for those who need to ride.

Then, comes the issue of pride, or whatever it is, for some who clearly need to ride, but struggle up and down the aisles, unwilling to relinquish that element of independence.

Perhaps it's hard to know when to forge ahead in an effort to maintain that ability, and when to, finally, acquiesce.

Oh Ronni, I sure do identify with you on this one. But I must say emphatically, since I started strength and balance training at the gym about 5 months ago, I have regained a tremendous amount of strength in my legs, arms, and core body - my balance has improved immensely, which makes me feel a lot safer and more sure-footed (especially when getting out of the bathtub). I see a lot of other elders (some much older than I) who are deligently working with their trainers on gaining strength and balance - believe me, it really does work. Sure, I'm not going to have the strength and balance I had when I was in my 20s, but I sure can make a significant improvement. This old body's recuperative powers are truly amazing! Hope you do get into a training class after you get to Maine! Best, Melinda

HI Folks:
I've become a recent reader of this column/blog and enjoy the observations. I don't know if I consider myself an elder although I passed the half century mark some years ago. I do have an affinity for those older than me - their knowledge, insights, and experiences have proved invaluable guides to me in school , career, and raising a family.
And therein lies at least one rub.
I empathize with some of the realizations noted about loss of strength and capability. I served as a volunteer EMT in my home town for many years which is dominated by assistive living facilities and nursing homes. Well over a third of our emergency calls were to these residences. I began to understand their fears, their frustrations, but also their celebrations as they talked of their lives and their families.
But the problem always seemed to me that our culture lately seeks to isolate these "elders" by placing them - or their voluntarily being placed - in these age related/restricted facilities out of touch with their neighbors and neighborhoods. Rather than growing older in a community where they could watch and be watched by men, women, and children of all ages, they are instead segregated.
My in-laws who are in their 80's have strongly suggested we get on a waiting list for one of the "retirement" communities" in North Carolina. I appreciated their concern - but I'd rather not. I want to be surrounded by children and growing families who I can interact with and who can interact with me. And maybe we can help each other as we become elders together.

I sure agree with Jeff, about wanting the stimulation of all ages around me, including the young. They are truly life-giving.

My mother moved into a senior-type community some years ago. She often commented, that on her evening walks though the area she missed the interaction with the younger people (under 55.)

I feel so fortunate to have an abundance of them I enjoy and encounter daily in my work. We seem to interact as though we were contemporaries on many levels.

This is waning capabilities in reverse. I backpacked through Europe when I was 26 and I had way too much luggage in my backpack. I caught a train in Switzerland and when I had trouble lifting my backpack onto the overhead luggage rack an elder helped me. I remember her being a little bit shorter than me, grey curly hair and she looked old to me at the time.

I felt so embarrassed that I didn't have the upper body strength to do it myself. Ever since then I practise lifting my luggage above my head and if I can't do it I leave some stuff behind.

I've had a super busy week between my writers conference and returning home with Duncan. But just wanted to stop by and wish you all the very best on your house hunting in Maine. Anxious to hear all the details and safe journey back home.

Try being 87! When I was 60 I was still thinking about what I'd like to be when I grew up.
As I live alone,it is frightening not to be able to move furniture, open jars, pull at sardine can lids - all the rest. But there are ways around all that hassle. If a jar lid is obstinate (they always are), I bang at its top and sides with a leather mallet (left over from when we had a workshop; can't believe I saved it), then try again with the lid-opening gadget that wouldn't work initially. I curse, and it works!
To move furniture -- something I resist doing for months -- I shove the damn thing with my entire body. (Getting it back is something else again. Anyway, why move furniture? If you can't see underneath, neither can "they".)
Housework? If I've reached the point where the apartment is embarrassingly dirty, I invite my writers' group to meet at my place. That provides incentive enough to dust and straighten - superficially, of course.
I wish you sixty year olds well.

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