Judging from comments on this blog, a lot of us live with chronic conditions. The National Council on Aging tells us that
”Approximately 80% of older adults have at least one chronic disease, and 77% have at least two.”
Eighty percent! Think of it.
Unless you grew up with a grandparent or two living in your home (not uncommon to our generation but not so much since then), you probably had little first-hand knowledge of how old people are (and are not) different from younger adults.
For most of my adult life, I didn't know any old people – that is, older than 70 or so. There were a couple of neighbors at different times who were well into their eighties. We exchanged pleasantries in the hall or at the mailboxes, but we were not friends; we didn't hang out together.
Otherwise, it was usually in the subway or the markets that I saw old people. What I mostly noticed is that they were slow. Very slow. I remember wanting to sprint up the stairs from the subway one rush hour but being stuck in the crowd behind an old woman who took the stairs one at a time with a little rest on each step. To my shame, I know I rolled my eyes to myself. It can't be the only time I did that.
On the other hand, you know those old folks – they keep confounding you. When I visited one neighbor about some local issue our block association was dealing with, he – then about 85 - showed me how he had expanded his living quarters by building a sleeping loft and used a ladder to get up and down.
These days, as I fast approach my own eighties, I'm overly cautious even with a small step stool. I quit ladders entirely about a year ago and should have done it sooner.
(This is the same man who, as I was on my way to work one day, said good morning and then, walking along with me to the corner, eagerly told me, “Viagra works.”)
These days, I am like the woman slowly climbing the subway stairs. One of my two conditions, COPD, is forever pulling on my metaphorical dog collar. It doesn't quite order me to “heal”, but if I'm walking at my old, pre-chronic conditions pace, it steals my breath forcing me to stop walking for a minute or two. It happens way too frequently.
I also tend to forget that I can no longer carry anything weighing more than about five pounds without heaving for breath after a few yards, even when I'm walking slowly.
These (and others that I will spare you) are not new phenomena in my life. They have been accumulating for three years now and you would think I would be done with the annoyance they continue to cause me. But no. I keep making the same mistakes.
Earlier this week, I found myself thinking about the old woman climbing those subway stairs so long ago.
Grocery shopping since the pandemic began is a fraught enterprise for me. Once I've gathered my nitrile gloves, face mask, left disinfectant supplies on the patio table to clean the packages when I get home, I am compelled to sit down. Scared. Am I doing enough to avoid the virus? Is it this time I will get it?
So I sit for 10 or 15 or 20 minutes practicing some calming breathing techniques until at last, I'm on my way.
With COPD, shortness of breath can be caused not only by over-exertion but by anxiety too. And that day, I found myself in the ice cream aisle heaving to get my breath. I stood leaning against the shopping cart when I heard, behind me, “Excuse me, I need to get by.”
Because the aisles are not six feet wide, there was nowhere for me to go but forward and so I pushed the cart – slowly, still trying to breathe normally – until I could get out of the other shopper's way. And that's when the memory of the old woman on the stairs kicked in.
When I saw that the woman behind me was a couple of decades younger than I am, I imagined her rolling her eyes at me.
Maybe she did. Maybe she didn't. But I also didn't care. And later, I thought it was a not unreasonable payback for my own impatience with the woman on the subway stairs who, I hope, would not have cared either if she had seen me roll my eyes.