To Bare or Not To Bare, That is the Question

With apologies to Shakespeare and Hamlet for distorting this notable quotation

For the past nine months this old, cold ager has been staying warm most days by layering long sleeved turtle necks and wearing warm pants and socks. Even then I went to bed with cool arms and legs and cold feet until the end of June.

This spring (even here in our marine climate), we’ve had a week here and there of abnormally high temperatures. Teasers or omens of things to come? The prediction is for a warmer and dryer summer. That means more (usually rare) days in the 90’s and more than usual in the 80’s.

Lore has it that summers here begin on the fifth of July so warm days are coming. I’m fine with days in the low 80’s in the house. But, if we’re going to have consecutively high 80’s and low 90’s days where the home itself warms up and stays warm, I’m going to need to give up even my intermediate weather wear. And this is where my dilemma lies. Long-sleeved turtle necks and slacks cover my wrinkled, droopy, mottled neck, arms and legs. Summer wear exposes them. I have no idea why exposing them seems more repulsive than inescapably exposing old hands and faces, but it does.

Nor have I any idea why I feel more concerned this year. Last year I wore sleeveless tank tops and skorts without much regret and I was out and about more than I am now. This year my neck and arms seem to me to be parts of me I’d rather keep covered. Admittedly, the skin is a bit more mottled, the muscles more shrunken and sagging, wrinkles more numerous and deeper. But at 97, even if I’d opted for plastic surgery, or exercised faithfully, I’d be abnormal if they weren’t like that.

Those of you who follow my blog notice that I try to include free images to enhance the writing. I tried hard to find images, even of just the bare arms or legs of old people let alone old people in clothing that showed them. Couldn’t find any!   Old folks walking on hot sunny beaches were all wearing long pants, tops with sleeves or dresses with sleeves.   Could it be that I’m not alone in not wanting to expose aging neck, arms and legs to others?

In the end I expect that I’ll be sensible and dress for summer with the summer clothes I‘ve worn for years. People seem to be very accepting of the old person I am in many other respects. So it’s probably more my problem than one anyone else will have about me.   People who drop in on me will find me as I am. But when I have planned visits, I wager I’ll be wearing lightweight pants and a top over my sleeveless tanks.

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Long in the Tooth

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“Long in the tooth” is a way of estimating the age of horses since their teeth continue to grow even as they wear down. It was also a somewhat derogatory comment describing an older person in earlier times.   There are some grains of truth in the label. Our teeth don’t continue to grow as the biting/chewing surfaces wear down, but losses in the underlying bone cause gums to recede, so teeth may look a bit longer.

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Being labeled “long in the tooth” wouldn’t bother me but the associated pockets between and around the teeth where stray food particles consistently hide and plaque (tooth bacteria) can flourish certainly do. So does knowing that the bacteria growing in unremoved plaque can get into the bloodstream and migrate to other organs, creating potentially dangerous inflammatory conditions there.

During my quarterly year visits to get rid of the now-faster-growing tartar, my dentist, and dental hygienist consistently remind me to floss and brush. I certainly agree as to its value. But knowing and doing are two different things when my hands have growing difficulty in grabbing and manipulating a toothbrush, much less skinny dental floss.

But, praise be, technology comes to the rescue! Electric toothbrushes have nice fat handles and mechanisms to do the brushing. All I have to do is guide the angle correctly and move it around properly to remove plaque from the gum line. And a water pick with a bit of mouthwash added to the water and force I can adjust takes care of those pesky nooks and crannies.

I might wish that my teeth were not so age-darkened, but I’m happy to still have them. And I’m delighted to have checkups that end with the comment, “Looking great. No additional treatment needed.”

Is There Artistry in Aging?

My sister and I apparently showed some musical talent and interest early. So we spent hours of our growing-up years hearing, studying and performing music as a sideline.   We studied with a variety of teachers. Some of them were satisfied to teach us to read music and develop our technic. But eventually we each encountered teachers and conductors who taught us that it was not enough to just play the notes correctly and in the style of the composer. Playing the notes, mastering the difficulties   and learning the style were to be seen as necessary steps in learning a piece of music. Once mastered, we were shown how to and expected to add finesse and artistry. We got so we could “hear” when others just “played the notes” and admire performances that went beyond. We worked to achieve it in our own performances, whether for ourselves or others.   We recognized when we could achieve it and when we did not.

Recently I got to wondering if aging might not be similar to playing music (though we agers don’t have the option to play or not to play). Still there are basic blocks of knowledge and skills to be learned about the aging processes in our bodies, how those changes alter our capacities and the kinds of skills it takes to manage our daily living with those changes and other forces that affect it. We can learn to study the nature of ARCs (age related changes), their effects on specific capacities and areas of impact of our lives. We can learn new ways of manage and more creative ways of using our available internal and external resources. We can learn about different styles of aging (living independently/semi-independently in separate housing, in congregate housing, in acute care settings), living with differing degrees of dependency. We can learn the music of our own aging, and at some level, master the technics of engaging with our aging.

In this vein of thought I began to wonder, “Is there an artistry in aging that goes beyond just “playing the notes” in our engagement with aging? Even before I became aged, I had seen different styles in aging. I saw some who seemed to want no part of aging, who seemed to avoid engagement with it though being harmed by their neglect. Even when the music of aging seemed not too difficult, their performance was dour. Others I saw managed whatever aging challenges they recognized and dealt with them in a matter-of-fact way. They were content to “play the notes” correctly.   And then there were some who managed to not only engage, but do so with varying degrees of brio, some glowed and reverberated quietly and others with flair and panache, seeming to find joy and richness in engaging with their advancing years.

The differences in approach and style of engaging with aging didn’t seem to entirely depend on the amount of difficulty that agers were experiencing.   I encountered some who appeared to have all the advantages yet became as vinegary as wine gone bad or cheese that dried up. Others with circumstances that seemed extremely challenging seemed to continue to manage their lives and aging with the vibrancy of Stradivarius violins that had been played by virtuosos over the years or the leaders in their fields of endeavor who became even more able as they aged.

Perhaps we’re all pre-wired for our approaches to live out our lives in a certain way and thus have less control of what we naturally will do as we age. And certainly through the years we lived with or experience models for aging that we emulate or reject.

So far, I’ve been blessed in:

having remarkable models of aging,

the way aging has presented itself and

in my support system.

While I sense that my EWA capacities are yet to be severely tested, I know how I want to continue. My goal? A quietly vibrant style with as much artistry as I can achieve.

What are your thoughts? Wishes? Expectations about artistry in aging? Does it exist? Is it worth thinking about? Working toward?

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Aging is More than Health

Healthy:   possessing or enjoying good health, a sound and vigorous mind and body; freedom from disease or ailment

Health: a perspective for judging the status of mind and body, or the merits of a presenting situation in terms of being conducive to a sound body and vigorous mind

The way non-aged people view aging and the aged tends to be linked to their background and particular interests. Individuals, relatives, groups, disciplines, professions, businesses, legislators, economists and governmental agencies each view aging and the aged through their own mindsets, value systems and purposes.   Many of them include the health of the aged or their environments in their considerations and actions.

As a nurse, I was taught to view aging from birth to death from the perspective of health, normal versus abnormal.

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I looked at my patients and their environments through the lens of health and I worked for its promotion, maintenance, preservation, treatment and palliation. My viewpoint was wide-ranging even as I aimed for specificity with individual patients. But in my mind (rightly or wrongly), health however applied, tended to involve gradients of healthy and unhealthy.

Now, decades into engaging with my own aging, I find that seeing aging solely, or even primarily, through the lens of health is too confining.

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I sense that it can put blinders and dampers on truly significant facets of my aging experience. That bothers me.

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I don’t question that my health is hugely important to the quality of my life and aging, nor that my behavior and activities are strong influences on my health. I know that my health determines what I can engage with and how I am able to engage.   It’s just that I’m discovering that aging is so much more than health.   For example, nutrition, hydration and exercise are seen as three pillars of healthy aging. Yet the experiences of eating drinking and moving about each day encompass so much more than the health promoting considerations.   I experience the sensory elements, the tastes, textures, aromas.   I recall wonderful associated memories of food-related occasions, both ordinary and grand. The same holds true with movement related experiences. Thinking about the richness of these memories it makes me want to anticipate and enjoy them in present and future activities without having to look at them through the lens of health during the experience.

My aging is filled with intangibles of life and living, with all its richness, its flaws, its details, its marvelous surprises and unexpected pitfalls.   It’s the contemplation of life and death. The experiences of blessed solitude and the warmth of companionship with people who have such wide interests and fresh ideas or different experiences of the past. It’s the seasons and weather in all their dimensions. It’s art and music, comedy and drama.   It’s my vistas of mountains and water; the busy daytime city and the quiet, amber of its nighttime. It’s the ballet and battles of hummingbirds at the feeder and the busyness of mason bees going in and out of their homes outside my kitchen window. It’s the movement in tall evergreens in the invisible winds and their windless stillness. It’s the comfort of a cat on my lap and the warmth of hugs. The aroma of the first cup of coffee and the uncertainty of completing the morning crossword puzzle.   It’s the joy in feeling fulfilled. It’s the mourning with losses. It’s being both needy and yet capable of helping others. It’s knowing and still learning. It’s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I don’t want to feel hemmed in by obligatory calculations of their effect on my health in the midst of these experiences.   I want to freely, profoundly experience all these and more, unalloyed and unexamined.

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I’m not foolish. I want to retain and use my health lens appropriately and creatively. I want and need to securely keep and use it . . . . in its proper place.

 

“Let there be light”

Genesis 1:3

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These days I’m finding that I need ever more light, for tasks involving my eyes, for navigating safely, reading, writing and for my mood. I know ARCs (age related changes) involving the eyes reduce the amount of light that can enter the brain. Eyelids sag, and the muscles that control the opening the pupil to let in light become weaker.   The number of rods in the back of the eye not only decrease in number, but those that remain become less functional. My brain is receiving less light. The areas of impact in my daily living are multiple, involving not only tasks requiring acuity of vision, but also my balance and mood.

I’m lucky to have wonderful external resources. Our home has lots of big windows, particularly in the kitchen, living-dining room and my office. Whatever light is outside, comes in. Even at night (if it isn’t raining), the amber lights of the city form a lovely night light throughout the living room. Street lights through the drapes offer dim night lighting in the bedroom throughout the night. As for artificial lighting, my husband built in lighting over all the important work areas in addition to the ceiling lights. (Little did he know then, that decades later I would need all of them.) In the central hall that connects all the rooms there are small night lights that are on at all times and lights that turn on automatically when one goes down the stairs.

I can control lighting in my home, but not the seasons and the weather.   Each year autumn inevitably moves on to winter months that seems to inch along like very cold molasses. In addition, our region is characterized by multiple, persistent gray days—with or without rain. By the end of February I’m sagging physically and emotionally. I long for the longer days to become more apparent.

For months, I’ve worked to keep my spirits up. I wear brighter colored clothes to lighten things up—brighter, deeper, richer colors. I put on makeup, even when it’s just me that sees it. I read light entertaining books. Seek out music in major keys.   I light candles (a habit I developed after my times of working in Sweden during their long hours of darkness in autumn and winter).   A son encouraged me to replace the wood fireplace in the living room with a gas one with realistic logs. (It even has remote switches). What a great idea! Its dancing yellow-orange/blue-edged flames and glowing coals now lighten, brighten and warm me and my visitors in both days and evenings. It gives me a sense of companionship.

This year our region is enjoying a warmer, sunnier spring. I’ve gloried in it! While I regularly use my motto of “To everything there is a season. . . .” I’m so glad when those seasons are spring and summer.   I never appreciated that nature’s light could be so important. Just another of the many surprises aging has sprung on me.

 

Plums Become Prunes

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When I see smooth, plump, purple plums in the farmers’ markets these days, I no longer see them just as plums. They make me think of the bloom of youth and young people around me whose faces radiate youth and health. I remember a time when I too looked like that. Alas, these days my morning encounters with a mirror in the bathroom show me, not a rosy plum, but a somewhat wrinkly prune. The years have taken away my underlying tissues and the skin now adapts to the loss with both deep and superficial wrinkles. Panaceas are offered, but age will have its way.

Given that reality, it seems to me that the old saying, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” might be a good way to go. With that in mind, I began to read about the lowly wrinkled prune that was once a smooth-skinned plum. Perhaps that would give me some ideas.

I found that the prune is quite remarkable. Its aging has concentrated and made easily available its

Vitamin A that helps to minimize night blindness, dry eyes, macular degeneration and cataracts

Antioxidants (higher than blueberries) that positively affect the immune system

Potassium that makes them heart healthy

Fiber that tends to prevent or manage constipation

Boron, vitamins B and C that can reverse osteoporosis

Iron that contributes to healthier hair

Vitamins and minerals that together contribute to healthy skin and delay wrinkling.

In addition to all its potential to keep its eaters healthier, the lowly prune

has a stable, long shelf life

is easily portable

is so concentrated that even small amounts offer good benefits

is adaptable in getting along with other foods

offers changes through its aroma and taste

is versatile, usable in many ways.

https://food.ndtv.com/health/7-amazing-prunes-benefits-1404766

What a cluster of positive attributes in a dried-up fruit that, with a bit of adapting, may be worth seeking to emulate in my own pruney state. At least they’re something worth thinking about.

We Agers Are Experts On Our Own Aging Experience

With that expertise come responsibilities

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Many of the people who study old people, theorize and write about us, take care of us, or relate to us are not “old’ themselves. They experience old age second handedly. Earlier in my life as a nurse I often had older patients. As a daughter I shared my parents’ aging. In my 50’s I blithely participated in three editions of a nursing book about caring for the elderly without taking note of myself as the “outsider.”

Now I feel as If I had been a pilot flying over the city of aging, assuming I knew how the residents lived. What an illusion!   It’s not that what I knew, used or wrote about elderly people was inaccurate. But it paid only narrow attention to the significant ways normal aging was changing agers’ capacities to manage their ever-present tasks and relationships. I had looked at them narrowly as they related to a particular issue, pathology or health status. Also, somehow, at some level, I gained a vague notion that aging made people less credible whether it was reporting about themselves or their opinions. Dumb!

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Now, I’m the insider. I‘m aware of my hard-won knowledge on normal aging in general and my specialist knowledge on my own aging.   I notice when my insider-knowledge and perceptions (not necessarily right or wrong), are just different from those who are not old.

I see myself as a practical person. I realize that health care providers and others have focused areas of interest and expertise and limitations on their time. Health care providers of all stripes and levels are, in particular, intermittent, time-regulated resources. And even my near and dear ones, friends and neighbors have very full, demanding lives of their own. (But given the nature of our relationships they tend to be more familiar with how I experience and manage both the pesky ordinary parts of my daily living snarled by my aging and the richness of my life.) Each of these people (professional or other), play an important naturally limited role in my life, as I do in theirs.

So, what is my responsibility in enabling them to see my aged world as I need them to and they may wish to? I tell myself, “Doris, they are not mind-readers! They know what they see, hear and what you tell them!” I see how they tend to use what they discover and how it fits with their specific role relationship with me, e.g. professional health care provider, relative, friend, neighbor etc.

I’m accepting that I as an aged “ insider” have responsibilities to them. Instead of taking it for granted, I owe it to them to appropriately :

  1. notice what they might need or want to know about me that satisfies us both
  2. share myself in ways and language that is natural to them and the situation (it’s different for professionals and personal relationships and situations)
  3. give/seek feedback on ways they might participate in my aging and daily living that are comfortable to them and me, given their roles
  4. share with them and include them in the joys and richness of my days

I realize that a lot of this is what has been going on intuitively. It’s just that now with this insider-outsider perspective I see a greater need to become more sensitive and skilled at it.