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Your Perception of Aging Affects Your Health

Handling Surprises in Old Age

Of the various jobs I had during my working years, many included being a fireman – okay, firewoman - that is, fixing problems as they arose with the need, usually, to do it faster rather than slower.

If, for example, you are talking about live television (I am), surprises are rarely a good thing but I liked managing them in real time so that however chaotic the studio became when something went wrong, you watching at home never knew.

Surprises come in two flavors, good and bad, but aside from the awful kind that might be life threatening, it is my experience that both are fruitful in the sense that the good ones are enjoyable and the bad ones often turn out to be compelling or funny stories on which you can dine out for years to come.

Either way – the surprises I relished and those other ones life burdened me with – I took care of them as required and moved on. Until recently.

On Tuesday, at a scheduled dental appointment that was meant to be a routine checkup of developments following major surgery three months ago, the doctor hit me with the need to extract a tooth that is infected and to do it now.

So while you are reading this post today (written on Wednesday), that's what I'm doing. Oh joy.

Some of you may recall that last summer I told you about beginning, then, the two-year process of getting my mouth in good working order. I have always had terrible teeth but this new extraction was not part of the original plan and here is what has happened:

As easily as I dealt with surprises – personal and professional – in my middle years, I seem not to do it as well now at age 73. It's not like I had anything special planned for today but I resented the incursion onto my empty calendar page with so little notice.

In addition, my mind has been distracted. I became impatient with Olliecat. I wasn't able to follow the plot on a television drama Tuesday evening nor read a book I've been enjoying.

And at this moment, I'm damned close to smashing into smithereens this aging laptop that needs a lot of coddling I otherwise barely notice.

I know these frustrations are related to the dental surprise because it has been happening now and then in recent years. Even a minor change in plans can sometimes set me off, ruin the simplest levels of concentration making the idea, for example, of washing a sink full of dishes seem too difficult to tackle at that moment.

Not always do these things happen after a surprise, maybe not even frequently, but it is often enough to make me wonder what's going on; this is not the me I've known during most of my life.

Relatedly, as a younger woman, I was much more likely to accept a last-minute invitation to dinner with friends. Nowadays, I might agree but I prefer a few days' lead time for some reason.

Several years ago, researchers first discovered that elders have more trouble ignoring distractions than younger people.

And where teenagers, for example, can shift among listening to music, watching videos and texting friends all while studying too (how well is another question), old people take longer to get back to the task at hand after an interruption.

Knowing that has led me to wonder if my discombobulation following surprises is related to the known distraction/lost focus effect in elders.

It might not surprise you to know that I am too distracted today (again, Wednesday) to see what I can find online that might answer my question. But I doubt there is much and anyway, I am more interested in knowing if any of this sounds familiar to you, dear readers.

How do you react to surprises these days? Is it different from when you were younger? Are you more easily distracted nowadays?

[Please keep in mind that this is a conversational, not medical, question involving personal experience.]

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Norm Jenson: Is That You, Dahle?


First, I trust the dental procedure went well and by the time you are reading this, that you are able to eat and laugh.

Interesting that you wrote on this topic today since my husband and I were discussing this lately. Actually having, "my problem is worst than yours" contest. So, yes... I don't react well to surprises and changes in plans these days. Add in panic attacks and being handicapped for added fun.

Oh, IMHO... We seniors deserve the best computer we can afford during our twilight years with high speed internet. Hope you can get new laptop or your old one behaves better.

I, too, send good wishes for the speedy resolution of your dental situation. As I have basically had a subscription with my dentist for years now, I do sympathize. But it sounds as if once it's done, your whole body and mind will be in such a better place.
As for the real topic you have provided, yes, I have noticed that I am reacting less and less well/less and less quickly/less and less effectively to interruptions and surprises. There are also fewer of them, which may contribute to my dwindling reactivity.
As for concentration, yes, it, too, is harder to maintain, but I have a feeling that that is in part due to the large amount of time I dedicate to my computer ... and to how easy it is to interrupt something I'm reading to look up a word, a name, a date or something else while I am reading.
On the other hand, perhaps all this is actually keeping my brain more active and vital than it would be otherwise.
Speriamo bene!

The last five years I would have to say my recovery time is lengthened whether it is from illness (the current flu), a surprise, or planned procedures like dental. That recovery seems to include some slowing in my acuity as well.

Hope you will be able to rest and recover easily from dental surgery. Be gentle with yourself.

Oh, dental work. That always disrupts my schedule negatively, planned or unplanned. My husband, however, in the midst of redoing his mouth also, gets calls to come in at the last minute because there is a cancellation, and it doesn't bother him a bit.

I think it's the nature of the surprise that determines how bothered I am. I just got a request for a lunch meeting in 3 hours, and I'm leaving town an hour after that - this is an important group, and I enjoy the other members, so it doesn't bother me to rearrange my schedule. Yet.

I worked with older people in my working days, and I noticed a need to schedule well in advance, and only schedule one "event" a day. Often, if they were scheduled for a bus ride 5 days in advance, but the weather maybe was changing in the meantime, even if the forecast was good for the day of the trip and the trip was in town, they would call in to cancel. Certainty was more important than shopping.

Hoping you are doing well today. This ordeal you are going through is more than a distraction. While the tooth extraction was a surprise, it is a big deal. And it is unnerving. Please know you are thought of today.

I totally relate to your topic. Formerly, getting things done, accepting "what came down the pike" was me.

Now, distractions and sudden changes—what I would have viewed as nit-picky stuff— for maybe the last year, make me anxious and befuddled.

Focusing on a task (taxes, bill paying, keeping papers filed or at least in a neat pile) has become very time consuming for me. Too often, I now just look at the heap of papers and leave the room for a more uncluttered atmosphere.

So far, I have been able to get done what needs to be done before any deadline. And, when I typed that, I was reminded of my editing job of deadlines--I NEVER missed one.

There is an inner "nervousness" I can't seem to shake when my daily plans are interrupted. Unless, of course, I had not wanted to do that which I had agreed to, and I am then freed to just be.

I've always been the one the family calls in the times of emergency and 3 of my neighbors now rely on me in emergency situations.

So far, I can be there for those and be calm, able to think and act. I guess because what is happening is their disruption and I can help in the moment and be done as far as my action and need to attend.

I wonder about control issues and perfectionism as a part of my personality.

In the relaxing into an age of realization that what is coming is not a thing I can plan for nor control--it may be messy, it may be sudden, it may be long and drawn out, and not so nice—there is the need to know that tugs at me; there is the fact of no one knowing, so here I am, as are we all.

Again, thinking of you, Ronni, and hoping for a quick and uneventful healing. Ollie will be there for you, no matter.

The dentist is a tough one for anyone...but also for those with brain injuries or damage. We are raising four kids with FASD-(drug and alcohol exposure during pregnancy), and their inability to cope with change or the unexpected leads either to them shutting down or melting down...In trying to help them I read a lot and find a lot of overlap in these areas, maybe the aging brain has some similarities. Speedy recovery!

One of the things I love about your blog is the "Me too!" Moments I get and the feeling of relief that I am not being odd. I struggle with the pile of papers in my office, need to have time to get emotionally ready to deal with a new process or a project, and get irritated when something unexpected is added to my schedule. I guess this is a part of the process. Hope all went well

Dental repair and car repair and computer glitch surprises are the worst.

I do hope the tooth extraction is not too painful. I do think it is contributing to your impatience and becoming distracted.

That said, I find that I become irritated if my routine is changed and I do need advanced warning if it is going to happen.

My concentration is becoming worse with each passing year. I do not like bad surprises and I end up with insomnia after getting one.

I no longer cope well with change and compare myself to a toddler in that a disruption in my routine is stressful. (Second childhood, perhaps?)

Feel better Ronnie. My disdain for the dental profession is boundless. A hundred years of modern dentistry and the best cure for a bad tooth is to pull it out. Thank god the pediatrist doesn't take the same course of treatment when you have a sprained ankle or your nails need clipping.
Getting back to the topic. While I don't feel that I easily get distracted, I do know that my ability to multi-task has diminished. Now it's one thing at a time.

I was one of the lucky ones who had great dental insurance through my employer. Had lots of work done in the years before retirement, and have been okay since then. My current dentist is just across the border from Arizona in Mexico, and, like many of my friends, am very happy with him.

The only problem I have is that I'm easily distracted, and am so happy to see that I'm not the only one. For a while I thought I was getting adult ADD. I still love last-minute anything.

Low-active routines have become the norm for me and any break from those routines tend to be irritating. I have to psyche myself into dealing with them rather than, as you mentioned, simply dealing with them as I did when much younger

As with Mary, I too have the "Me Too" moments and I am sure when I read your treatise about the ones that concern you and I identify, they keep me sane and on track.
I find I also can only do one thing a day and this week for some reason I had one thing a day for three days in a row and I came home yesterday and just took to bed in the afternoon and I was so spent I actually fell asleep for several hours. An amazing feat in and of itself.
I find I try to schedule my events on a regular basis and that's how I often keep track of what day it is. If something changes I have to keep reminding myself - ie today is Monday, today is Monday if my usual Monday event has been canceled.
A tooth extraction is a loss. It's a good idea to regonize this and mourn the loss of a body part even an unwanted one to get yourself back to a good functioning place. Take it from me, I've had several body parts removed (gall bladder, partial breast, a muscle, a tooth or two)and each time I go through this process of mourning and it helps to cope.
I wish you a comfortable recovery in body mind and spirit.

I hope the dental work goes along with no surprises, and that you feel good soon.

I did recognize so much of what you wrote about. I like to have "space" around activities, and too much too often is tiring. And I don't like schedule surprises either. And I don't even consider myself that old!

Just wondering what impact medications we elders often take might have on concentration?

My life is so less hectic than when I was teaching. Small occurrences then were just part of the day and quickly fixed. Now? Not so much. The small things are the big things in my quiet life.

I am very grateful for the time to be able to handle those small annoyances, though, rather than lump them into my over scheduled days of yore.

I've never liked surprises. Ever. Even surprises meant to delight. Call me a curmudgeon.

I have noticed this fluttery annoyance with plan disruptions in both my husband and myself.

Here's how I rationalize it (and for all I know, my "explanation" may actually be true!): Been there, done that.

Like most people, I raced to put out fires, solve problems, achieve goals, and surmount obstacles all through my 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Now, something inside feels like it's done with all that.

My first reaction to a new setback is: THIS AGAIN? What is this, 1972?

On the other hand, meeting or ducking the new challenge produces a certain exhilaration, still. It's just that I don't go out of my way to seek it.

Which (for another rant) is why I find those ads showing photogenic senior models hang-gliding and mountain climbing so absurd. All of us over 50 have things, like Ronni's dental "adventure", that are plenty adrenaline-producing in real life. They find us; we don't have to look for them.

In the last few years I've observed in myself what I call an increasing lack of patience. I seem to have less and less tolerance for interruptions to my routine. Like others, I want several days notice to sort of "gear up" for such things. No more turn-on-a-dime multi-tasking for me. Just thinking about it makes me tired.

As for my focus or concentration, it seems to depend on what I'm doing. If I'm intensely interested in something, I can stay very focused for hours. If I'm less interested or if something is difficult or unpleasant, I lose interest/focus/patience quickly.

It's reassuring to see others have noticed the same things, but now, of course I'm wondering why it happens. Looking forward to whatever you learn about this, Ronni, and wishing you a speedy recovery from yet another dental encounter (ugh!).

Funny that so many things I used to see in my parents or other elders, I would vow to never let get in my way. Even joked about putting those thoughts in a time capsule to remind myself when I "got there" that I would never do or be like. Well, it's becoming a more frequent effort now to stay flexible. Those roadblocks I thought they threw up for themselves are getting more understandable even though I still vow to resist setting them if I can help it. I don't purposely schedule things tightly together now, but if it happens, I want to let go the urge not to do something last minute.

Last minute things that affect finances are always disrupting. And there is no denying the extra recovery time needed with every passing year. Be well, Ronni, we all want you to feel better soon. We depend on you for the "me, too, moments!"


We just don't process stress as well as we once did. I, too, experience an inability to concentrate as a result of unpleasant surprises, so I put a plan in place for when I find myself with a muddled mind.

I carry a book of EASY crossword puzzles in my purse, and I keep one beside my bed too. This activity helps me refocus and calms me down plus gives me some sense of control in the moment.

I, at first, judged myself about doing what I thought of as crossword puzzles for stupid people, but I have since rearranged my thinking.

Mainly, I think it is important to have an easily accessible activity in place which involves our hands and a little bit of our brain, so we have a familiar place to turn when life becomes just too damned much as it is wont to do. Some people knit. I do crosswords. EASY ones.

Sorry for your bad time. Sometimes stuff just sucks.


Relate to a lot shared
especially Darlene.
I do not sleep well
and I over react at this time.
Now 80, thankful this is only happening the last several years. Not from 75 downward :)

Changes to my well-planned out schedule make me furious these days. I have no time for people that plan things such as family events (bday parties, etc) with 2-3 day notice. Grumpy Cat is my spirit animal. NO is my answer to many requests and "demands." took this section of life right out of my own experience. I am 72 and have found myself going through the same thing. My son gets annoyed and doesn't understand why I need lead-in time for anything new. I don't understand it myself, but I now will defend, to the death, my right to feel this way.

I completely view anything sprung on me as an intrusion, if not an outright invasion, into my life. I've tried to analyze this and have come up with two possibilities for me personally. One is that I finally have control over my days (no work or crazy schedules) and I want to spend them doing only what I want to do. The second is I have a sort of 'inner schedule' that is my new foundation/blueprint, and if something is interjected into it, it throws off the relative smoothness or predictability of my life. I am still loose enough to ride with the long as I'm given enough advance warning to absorb it and make friends with it before I have to do it.

My friends are the same way, and none of us knows when this started to become part of our personalities, or why. It is what it is, though. You are not alone.

I wish you a good recovery from your surgery, along with many 'static schedule' days to come. Any further insight into this situation will be greatly appreciated. :-)
Suzanne Tate

Another "me too" here. I first noted this about five years ago, then 73. A flat tire!! But -- the car was in the garage, I didn't need to go anywhere, and I belonged to AAA. Nevertheless, all the little nerve ends were twittering.

From the comments, I'd say many of us are introspective enough to question this, recognize it and try to deal with it. it's comforting to know we're not alone.

Once known as "Calm Carol"

Interesting that nearly all these responses deal with unpleasant surprises. What about pleasant ones, like a grandchild calling or a dear old friend dropping in? I love those as much as I ever did, and find them just as therapeutic.

As far as dental appointments go,I'll bet none of us knows anyone who deals well with those. Good luck, Ronni.

Much like you, Ronni,I have found my change of comfort level completely foreign to my previous life style.

However, I have a suspicion that my current change in reactions are due to my work history. I spent 50 years in the advertising and broadcasting fields where we lived and died on deadlines! I think my new aversion to deadlines and unplanned surprises is due my rejection of all that panic/semi-panic way I lived for so long. It was fun and exciting then, but no longer.

It took me a few years to come down off of the adrenaline highs and lows, but I am much happier in this mode now! I guess that both my body and my mind just got worn out by the stress and decided to try another way of living. And I kind of like the more mellowed-out me.

I also was a multi-tasker at work and home. About a year ago (71), I realized I didn't want that, didn't need it. And seriously was no longer good at it. The passion was missing.

Time is on my back and there it can rest and enjoy itself. I still like control of my time and space and zealously own those choices, kindly explaining to all who don't understand, while knowing they don't - yet.

I thank the stars for people like Ronni with all her enthusiasm and organizational skills, and all of you kindred spirits. Terrific comments from everyone. My neck hurts from nodding so vigorously and often.

Sometimes teaching is akin to being in the military except your wits and stone cold coffee are the tools you use to handle surprises and jolts that roll your way from every angle.

There is no such thing as a typical school day.

"Hey, hi. How was your summer? Guess what? You will now be teaching auto mechanics. We know you are good with your hands, so here's the car, look it over."

Your class is walking down the hall right now.

You have never lifted the hood of your own car, but, hey, do you want the job or not?

Now that I am retired, I love having time to work around sudden surprises.

Time is my friend now.

Ronni, I am hoping that all goes well with your teeth. Please keep us posted. Big hugs to you and Ollie.

Ronni, you and most of your commenters today sound like the bastions of Calm, compared to me -- that is, in terms of unexpected interruptions, surprises,demands, etc. that have emerged during your working life.

I, on the other hand, have never been able to handle crises, especially involving my work. I panic every time and seem never to exude the sort of resourcefulness and calm managing that the rest of you evidenced. Only once: a colleague and I were staging a major international conference and the day before an unexpected and huge snowstorm descended -- it was mid-April, scheduled just to avoid things like this -- and our participants, most of them from Germany, many never in the US before, were sent hither and yon, scattered to airports all over the country. I ended up being in charge and managing just fine. They all got here late, so we started the next day and had a wonderful time.

Otherwise, though, I do not do well with surprises like that. Now I am in the throes of preparing a jointed edited book with a colleague, on a tight deadline for getting the final version to the publisher. We have surprises every day. I feel as if I am a jumping puppet, leaping up every other second in sheer panic.

I hope I can learn from what many of you have written today.

Yikes! I started reading the comments and realized there are so many that, if I kept trying, I would give up and not make one, since I can't possibly be expected to absorb all that information and STILL do something like write a reasonable comment.

I am one year younger than you, and I have realized lately that I get rattled very easily and can feel my blood pressure rise and anxiety stream in. I reluctantly agreed to travel to Turkey next month, all expenses paid, to help my old boss with a conference.

You cannot imagine what I've gone through to reach equanimity with this event, and just thinking about the travel to and from the Middle East... but I will do it, and once I return I will happily settle into my routine. I hope to stay healthy through it all.

Hoping also that your dentistry experience ends up not being too bad, Ronni. I hate dentists.

I don't think surprises were ever high on my list, especially these days.

I am easily distracted and also feel I'm experiencing something called "destination memory loss". I know I've told the story but to whom?

I tend to schedule myself tightly, so surprises are jarring. Mostly I just slot them into the schedule. But sometimes I resent changes, even if they come from circumstances I am happy with, such as the arrival of an out of town visitor.

I anticipate all of the foregoing will simply get more so as I age further. I've been in this pattern for a long time ....

Hope the teeth weren't too awful!

Today's post made me wonder who WAS that woman I used to be who easily juggled deadlines and meetings and business travel as well as family and homemaking and entertaining. Now, at 80, any day is a bad day if I have to leave the house for ANY reason. Cancelling medical appointments is almost a hobby and every time I do so, I experience a wonderful rush of relief. Even grocery store trips get the treatment. I look into the cupboards and frig and stretch my imagination to find a way to postpone shopping for yet another day. Most non-grocery shopping takes place on the internet.

As for taking care of all that business we're stuck with whether or not we are retired---things like taxes and bill-paying and estate planning---I find that I not only want to postpone whatever I can as long as I can, but I become extremely irritated every time I even pass the desk on which the offending paperwork resides.

These days I have stepped up an already rigid dental regimen because I did cancel an appointment and I fear that even with all my care---80 years old with all my teeth in good condition---I could be hit with one of those awful dental surprises if I don't flog myself back into my normal commitment not only to good tooth care but religiously keeping appointments with my dentist. I feel so sorry for you, Ronni, and I hope that everything has returned to normal by now.

I HATE DENTISTS! That pretty much says it all for me, and I couldn't ad anything to what everyone else has said. Except that I don't like these changes--at all.

Apologize for the delayed response. On being "thrown" by the unexpected (15 Jan) -- Perhaps this is a hard-wired protective device. ( For the record, I do not at all have misgivings about growing old, I regard it as the 'next frontier.' ) But we do know that as we age, our strength diminishes, as do our vision and other abilities to sense danger, as does our reaction time. We are thus less able to react to dangers. So the protective stance? "Rapid big change? Danger! Hunker down!" It's not something to be despaired of, but just a natural way our body and mind have of protecting themselves and prolonging our existence.

I think getting a new gee whiz computer will take your mind off recovery during this length procedure you are choosing!

Kinda selfish on my part ... don't want you to stop writing!

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