Wednesday, October 10, 2018

on getting old

Let me start by saying that I am not talking about getting oldER. That happens every day, every hour, to each and every one of us. Mostly the time passes without much note to the body, as it should. Changes are typically slower, once we mature at least, and I would not hesitate to say that many of us do not notice much difference between our 25 year old body's and our 45 year old body's abilities to do stuff. And if there are notable differences, it's likely because of things we can readily see... those extra baby-pounds, perhaps.

But I am talking about something else. At some point we seem to have an "ah-ha" moment, when we realize something has changed but we can't quite put our finger on it. That point in time is different for every body. And my personal experience says that afflictions requiring medical attention -- like my double knee replacement in 2014 -- are not particularly keyed into that timeline and do not really have cause and effect input on the "old" switch. And, inevitable as it hopefully is, getting old is really no more a topic of conversation than our equally inevitable end. And it should be. Birth, youth, maturity, old age and death are the cycle for all that lives and it's sad that we don't recognize and honor each in its turn.

We glorify and cherish birth -- at least our sanitized, whitewashed version of it, instant happy nuclear family and all -- but that is not the whole truth. We complain about the youth, focusing on their inexperience with life, their experiments and trials with negative eyes to the detriment of us all. We push lock-step expectations upon those in their mature years:  job, family and expectation of cementing one's place in the scheme of things with accumulated possessions. And we ignore or pity the old; ignoring them by viewing old age as simply an extension of maturity, though perhaps more simple and at a slower pace. Or push them out of sight into facilities where we can decry the care while ignoring the people.

I have been thinking about old age a lot lately, because I am old. "Age is just a number" the young folks say, and honestly it is. I am not old because I am 70, but I am 70 and recently I have become old. It does not come to everyone at the same time, though. This I know... though when I was young and my mother was aging, we never talked about it. I am honestly not sure when she became aware of it, though I know my dad's passing when she was 68 aged her. When, shortly after that, she moved to Wisconsin to be closer to me -- an only child -- and took an apartment in a senior high rise, she complained constantly about the "old folks" that were her neighbors, only wanting to talk about their ailments. She did not consider herself to be one of them. I know when my third daughter was hospitalized away from home to treat meningitis in 1982, and she was 72, she eagerly watched the two older girls and still walked the few blocks from her apartment to our house every week or so, carrying her "granny bag" of gin and beer bottles to deposit in our trash so her neighbors wouldn't know she imbibed. I know that at this age she had been being treated for high blood pressure for at least 6 years. And I know that when she made her final visit to us, after we had moved to Washington state and baby #5 was still a babe in arms, in 1985, she had pushed herself beyond her limits and ended up in the hospital for most of her 10-day stay. This stubborn old RN, who put fear into the hearts of nurses nearly her age, from her 5'2" tall status, was easily carried out to the car for a trip to the ER by the kids' dad, who was by far not the biggest nor strongest guy I have ever known. After she returned to WI, and under the watchful eye of her niece -- also an RN -- she died the next year. She spent much of that last year in hospital and nursing home; I was told they were working to "get her strong enough to go home" but of course at that point it was not possible.

I wish I had talked to her about being old, though I am not sure how it would have helped either of us... would I have remembered what she said? Would she -- always one to put aside her own issues as much as possible and very much a believer in modern medicine -- have offered anything substantial?

But for any who would care and might learn from my writing, I will share what I see and feel from my perspective at the moment.

Nothing lasts forever, but there are things -- tools, machines -- that we use, like and value that we want to keep using as long as we can. I've got a old truck like that and in a quiet chat the mechanic, after a recent visit to fix a flat, shared that he figured the old boy definitely had a few more good years in him. It's the rust -- which gets most trucks here in Maine -- that regardless of what we do, will require his being taken off the road. Maybe just a few years... maybe more if we take good care to keep him undercoated and wash off the road salts, since we already don't drive to town that often, or so I was told.

So I can see Artie's end from here. No getting out of it, it will happen, though we don't know when. And I can also see my own end from here as well. Likewise, who knows when, but I am tending to that "undercoating" and "washing off the salts" more often now. I have actually made an appointment with my new doc (I do need to break her in, after all) because I am experiencing some shortness of breath when I try to walk with my former vigor and speed, as well as when I bend double and do heavier work. I can't lift and carry stuff like I used to. I can still effectively move a 50# sack of feed, and upend it in the storage bin, but pulling my smaller garden cart with a load of harvest from the garden to the house requires several stops. Blood pressure sometimes reads scarily high (at least to the nurses working in the eye doc's OR) but wait 15 min and it's back in an acceptable range. I am slowing down, doing less in a day with more breaks and I have zero desire to stop. My arthritis -- most notable in my right thumb and hand -- often causes me to cry out in pain when I move my hand wrong and Gods help me when I jam it on something! Which, being a klutz, I do far too often. And all of the usual muscle aches from a day of physical work hurt more, more quickly and go away much more slowly.

And I dunno if this is old age, or just our currently rather messed up world, but I really don't much want to be out "among the English" as K says. And even if I am attending an event I chose for reasons that I am excited about, with folks I like -- and only encounter friends and friendly folks along the way -- it still exhausts me and I feel "over peopled" for a day or more.

What got me to thinking about getting old, once again, and prompted this long rant happened at the last event I attended. I went to a living history event, specifically to connect up with folks who process and spin linen, a project I have undertaken with this garden season. I knew that the lead mentor in this craft did not attend the Common Ground Fair, as usual, having been sidelined by an injury which she got processing flax, and I was glad to see she had healed enough to attend and demonstrate. It was what she shared that prompted my writing. While I do not know her age, I can say her card which she gave me refers to "elders living in community" and both she had her husband appeared to be retirees. In any case, she told me that she had given herself tendonitis in a knee while processing flax and that, as in the past when she had injured herself, she expected the pain would abate with an evening of heat or cold and rest. It did not. It was the first time she ever hurt like that, that long, that severely in her life. "Be thankful" I told her. "It will begin to happen more often." And I say this to you all as well: eventually it will happen and begin to happen more often.

What I'd like folks to take away from this, if nothing else, is illustrated by an anecdote from when the kids were quite young. There was an older fellow in our church, a bachelor, and looking back he may not even have been of retirement age, or had just retired, who "everyone" viewed as an old grouch. And I will say, he did not have a pleasant attitude or demeanor, but we did not have much reason to interact with him.

One day at church, I had taken the smallest kid out of the service for some reason and was sitting in the foyer. He was there also, and was doing something that required him to cross my field of vision several times, and I was idling watching him, I guess, while most likely nursing the baby. And it became obvious to me, at that moment, watching his demeanor and his movement, that he was in pain. He hurt, and pretty much all over. At that moment the oldest child said something to him, I don't remember what... possibly hello or good morning... in any way she was expecting a generic polite response, but she got a very grouchy one instead and came dashing back to me asking me why he said that. The area was quiet and kids are not known for always using private voices at such times, so I know he heard her question. I told her that he hurt, he was in pain, and that pain often causes folks to sound angry when they are not. He turned instantly and looked at me with an intensity that made me suspect I was in for a good tongue-lashing... but instead he asked "Why did you say that? How do you know?" and I told him I could see it on him, it was that obvious. "I'm a mom. I have to know those things." Turns out, not only was I right but I was the first person to notice and to care. And my kiddo continued to treat him as a friend, ignoring the grouchy responses and over time he and our family became friends. We moved not long after that, so that is the end of that story.

And the take-away: look beyond what you immediately see when dealing with old folks -- and young ones as well, I guess! "Reach out" to folks you care about, if you are able. Not everyone is comfortable talking about what's going on in their lives.