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.

 

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“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.

Words Make a Difference

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I don’t know about you, but at 97, I’m finding that words affect my spirit, my emotions more than they did when I was younger. Both my emotional and physical stability feel more tenuous. I find myself more vulnerable to words/labels that I or others apply to me. Positive words and labels that feel genuine give me a lift. Negative words weigh on me. My immediate reactions even affect being able to sort them out. (When others offer feedback, should I own it? Use it? Discard it?) When I create labels or descriptors on my own, do they point me to useful responses? Deter potentially useful responses?

While on the whole, I’m having a wonderfully rich aging experience, there’s no denying that that some aspects of my ARCs (age related changes), and their impacts on my daily living now are accumulating to the point where even small developments have real impact on what I can do or even experience.   This being true, it seems foolhardy to add the weight of negative, scary words to describe what is happening to me and how it is changing the way I live.

Of course it would be equally foolish and even dangerous to deny or sweep under the rug the effects of my aging. So I asked myself, “OK Doris, what’s the alternative?” Answering that question has taken some thinking. I want to be honest, accurate and I need to be specific. That made me think, “Why not use neutral words to translate feedback others give me, my internal cues of emerging ARCs and their impact?   That frees to decide about their usefulness as a separate step. I’m no Pollyanna, someone who can only see the good in everything. But neither do I want to be a pessimistic, droopy Eeyore.

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Of course, my purposefully using more neutral language, particularly in describing ARCs and reactions to them prior to dealing with them is a work in progress. But, each day gives me plenty of opportunities for practice. It isn’t coming easy. But I rather like the feeling.

I’m also using neutral descriptors when sharing my aging experiences with my near and dear ones. They seem to trust me (or more wisely trust and verify).

Normal aging, for all its richness is not always easy and pleasant, but at least it is normal. And I remind myself that I do have plenty of company in the experience.

Taking a Risk: Should I or Shouldn’t I?

Risk: a situation involving exposure to danger or harm

In retrospect, it seemed that most of my life I tended to skate over the idea of risks in routine daily living.   The idea of risk applied to major, major threats or disruptions, not the minor ones that I apparently took for granted.   As a youngster in the 1920’s there were built-in, run of the mill risks we took for granted, like bumps and bruises, colds, even the childhood diseases that are now avoided through vaccination. Risks had to be something a lot bigger in my mind and apparently in the minds of others around me. As the years went by choices I made never seemed to involve much risk either. Perhaps I was blind to them, or just the cautious type.

Fast forward to today and the day-to-day risks offer an entire reversal. The culture, the environment, global relationships, technology . . . so much has changed. And so have I. In my dotage, my days are literally filled with risk-laden situations where misjudgments on mini-risks can have major misfortunes. Do I bend over and pick up that fallen object or take the extra time to sit on my rollator seat, lock the brakes and then bend over to retrieve it? Do I wait for someone to help lift or move an object I want to use, risk dropping it or having it throw me off balance and land me on the floor? Can I pick up products at the market, or do I need to ask for help?   If I sit in a chair that may seem only a little “low”, do I risk not being able to get up out of it unless I get help? On and on and on it goes.

I’ve also discovered another type of risk associated with becoming very old, not physical, but emotional.   Here the harm is to my ego and self-image. These involve public situations, like invitations to attend functions or trips where my capabilities will be challenged in public and my adaptations or lack of ability to adapt will be obvious to all. The degree of risk seems to be related to the nature of the “public” and the capabilities involved.

On the other hand, I’ve discovered that if I carry on with some degree of aplomb and humor — don’t make a big thing about my constraints, no one else seems to either.   When guests come to my home, the norm is that everyone pitches in when there’s food still to fix or get on the table. And they always help with the clean-up. Not formal but fun.

As I’ve become more limited in my ability to adapt to both predictable and unpredictable conditions away from home, a different kind of risk appears. How much do I deny myself the pleasure of the company and the experience by being too risk averse? Or take a chance and hope for the best?   Those who extend invitations offer all sorts of assurances, but the truth is that there are factors that are beyond their ability to help. The comforts and accommodations of home are increasingly my choice. I think,

“To everything there is a season . . . .”

My 100% is Lower than it Was, but It’s 100% for What I Am

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In a recent TV program I heard a woman respond in this way to a query about how she was getting along. She had recovered, unbelievably, from the lowest body temperature on record from accidental hypothermia. It had left her without a heartbeat for 3 hours. After seconds, minutes and hours of resuscitation, and months of rehab she had gradually regained most of her capacities for her job as a radiologist and her lifestyle as an active outdoor person.

Her response reverberated with me when I heard it. I thought, “This is the way I’m wanting to face living with my aging.” It can get discouraging to have each of one’s ARCs (age related changes) growing to the point where even tiny additional changes creeping in from one week to the next create new difficulties in managing daily living. It becomes all too easy to focus on the 100% that’s become lower and its impact on what one wishes to be and do.

But, what if I were to see that new lower 100%, not as an endpoint, but as a new point of departure? My focus would shift from wishful looking back to considering the kind of “me” I want to be, given the 100% that is available. It casts my task in a totally different light.

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In basic ways this younger woman and I faced the similar tasks. We needed to

identify the new status of one or more capacities and areas of their impact in
daily life

rearrange our expectations of the “what-I-am” to create that new acceptable
“what-I-am”

discover ways to: use newly altered capacities and adapt our environment and external resources in ways to foster the new “what- I-am.”

But then I thought about the reality that there was an important difference between this person’s task and mine.   As a younger adult, she was focusing on building her changing “what-I-ams” with an upward trajectory. (And isn’t this what children do?)   As someone in the mid-nineties my new “what-I-ams” will occur as part of an ongoing downward trajectory. Can I see that as positive? As creative?

The other day, I needed to go back and read some of the blog posts I’d written less than a year ago.  I was surprised at amount of ARC changes that I’d experienced and adapted to. It made me more conscious of how much lower my 100%’s had gone, how many new “what-I-ams” I’d already created. I realized they’d occurred with varying periods of discomfort, but eventual contentedness. I decided, “So far, so good.”

As I write this posting and look ahead, I’m aware that many of my ARCs are cutting ever closer to the bone in terms of the “what-I-ams” that mean the most to me. I have no idea as to what the future holds for my ARCs and my adaptive capacities. In any case I won’t lack for opportunities to experiment with this “what-I-am” approach.