Putting One’s Best Foot Forward In a Different Way

From the time my sister and I were very little, mother taught us by word and deed about the need to “put our best foot forward” when we had guests or were guests (though she didn’t use those words). We were taught how to use eating utensils, table manners, greet people and manners in general. As I look back on it, I remember our home as usually neat and clean, but it needed to be especially so when guests were invited. Mother was a good Swedish cook and knew how to prepare a delicious, attractive meal and serve it well. As my sister and I grew up and started families of our own, we tended to continue what we had been taught and enjoyed doing it. It all was unquestionably friendly, but had a certain degree of formality to it.

Fast forward to the present. Aging has not only moved in, but has gradually taken over my capacities to put my best foot forward. My standards and efforts are the same. The friendliness is as present as ever, but formality and execution have flown out the window. I still can set a table, have everything set up and arrange for beverages, but prepare and serve a meal? No way! So guests tend to come bearing food. Once here, everyone pitches in, chaos occasionally reigns.   Service may be buffet style with guests serving themselves from a counter in the kitchen and returning there for “seconds”. And they usually want to help with the cleanup, though I’m still capable of doing the dishes. The casual comradery seems to feel as good to everyone as the genteel service of earlier years.

I don’t go out much for meals, but even at home I may need assistance in serving myself and cutting things into bite size pieces. Once I got over my shyness about this and could accept it neutrally as “this is what it is”, no one else seems to mind at all. As someone once told me, “No use getting your knickers in a knot over it.” So I’m learning to accept who and what I am on any given day, and others do too, thank goodness!

I also look back on my days as a nursing student in a hospital based program where much of our learning took place as we cared for patients for hours each day, and later when I worked as a nurse and head nurse on hospital wards. It seemed to me that patients perked up and tended to want to put their best foot forward when the doctors were making their rounds. And I too on my infrequent doctor visits find myself wanting to do the same.

Still, what’s important for both doctor and patient, or any other care provider and recipient is an honest encounter where accurate data on the actual status becomes available. Putting our best foot forward in this situation now would seem to be preparing ourselves (as our capacities permit) to provide/communicate accurate data on our status in relevant areas rather than try to be seen “at our best”.

In my last checkup visit with the doctor, I had written out a list of my current ARCs so I could quickly, sharply present them (and, in case my short term memory lapses kicked in). After he had asked his questions and done his inspection, I asked if he was interested in the status of my age related changes. He was. I brought out my list, explained why I had one, provided data on each ARC’s status. He asked questions and made notations. He had important data he would not have had if I had not prepared and taken the initiative. I felt I’d put my best foot forward in a new way.

So, I’m learning new best-foot-forward lessons. It’s still fine to try to be the best I can be, but it’s in a new way where it’s truly important to be who and what I currently am, warts and all.

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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.

 

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.

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.

Can We Old Folks Be Both Frail and Sturdy?

Frail: weak, feeble, fragile, susceptible, vulnerable
Sturdy: hardy, resolute, sound, stouthearted

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Somehow the extremes of “all or nothing” are not my favorite approach to situations, though I obviously use them occasionally. (One of my early posts was “Never Name the Well From Which You Will Not Drink.” 10/12/17)  On the other hand, I realize that opposites do appeal to me, particularly in my dotage.

I may be old in years, but I feel young at heart. I may be forgetful of some things in the present, but I’m very good at remembering the past.   My handwriting is clumsy but I type quickly and reasonably accurately.   I stress out more easily, but I often can find a way out of it.   I may not be able to do some things; but, for now, I seem to be fairly adept at working around those difficulties or settling for something less.

All this leads me to think that engaging with aging works best for me when I take a two-pronged approach.   It involves a consciously and purposefully identifying and owning who I am and the status of my limitations and capabilities, in other words, both my frailties and my sturdiness.

Writing this blog has made identifying and owning my frailties almost unavoidable (barring blind spots). I accept that frailties at my age are normal. The only way to manage is to notice and identify exactly what is difficult and what has become impossible.   For example, I took inventory one day of my rapidly weakening grasp. In the end I identified 18 current challenges plaguing me from rising to retiring, and of course the list will increase as my grasp weakens more. But on the sunny side, so far, I’m creating ways of managing most of them, working around them, or giving up some impossible activities. (My daily living has slowed down and been simplified significantly with all this accommodating).

I was raised to have the Swedish modesty so I find it harder to identify my sturdiness, and strengths. But when I’m being honest, I realize that one can’t use strengths well unless one knows specifically   what they are. So I look at them and am grateful for them.   Trying not to make mountains out of molehills and accepting what is normal has been helpful Finding pleasure in being creative, even in primitive ways is also a part of my sturdiness.

Others have helped me to discover blind spots about my strengths as well. When they recognize and share a capacity that I can’t see, it enables me to experiment to find out if what they think they notice is there for me to use. I find myself being grateful when others help me to really recognize them and then offer support for me to see what I can do.

An example of a life changing nudge from others is this blog. When the current Dean of my School of Nursing heard me ranting about what a rotten image the aging experience had been given, she prodded me to put my ideas out in a blog and offered concrete support. I very dubiously took up her challenge and began testing and practicing to see if my brain still could function this way. I found myself stretching and pushing myself beyond anything I’d dreamed of. And at 95?

In earlier years, perhaps there was not so much to lose by taking my frailties and sturdiness for granted. Now, not only do I need this inventory in order to engage with my aging at the highest level possible,   but those who are supporting me in my aging need accurate information as well. I find it works best when I check it out with them. I see more and so do they.

Note to those of you who are younger: Are you seeking out strengths you see in agers in your life?   Are you identifying them in acceptable ways and offering usable support to enable them to see what they can do?

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“Acceptance” of Aging Is a Moving State

“Acceptance” is often identified as one of the developmental tasks of aging, or at least aging well. There are articles aimed at the pre-aged, telling them how to prepare for this acceptance, how to make it easier. And that would seem to be a healthy thing to do. Certainly spending years studying and writing about aging as well as encountering aged folks offered me plenty of preparation. I knew what to expect. In fact I found myself being curious as to what would require acceptance and how I would respond. Well, the School of Aging has been teaching me. Perhaps all the preparation “helps,” but once one’s aging rubber meets the gravelly road of aging, acceptance becomes an ongoing learning process and activity.

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What I (not surprisingly) discovered is that ARCs (Age-Related-Changes), don’t wait to be invited in. As in the story of the camel and the Arab in the cold Arabian Desert, ARCs like the camel “nose” their way in. Nor do they confine themselves to being polite guests, but gradually take over.

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For me, acceptance of aging divided itself into two very different areas, presenting me with distinctly different challenges. The first was accepting that “I am old.” I was in no hurry to get there, but didn’t find it difficult when it arrived (and it had nothing to do with falling into the “over 65” official age category). In fact, when I decided I had become “old” I also realized what an unexpected quality of richness in my life it was offering me.

The second area has been more difficult to accept. It is the loss of competencies for managing my daily living.  My choice to take an active “Engaging with Aging” approach rules out passively and meekly living with whatever ARCs emerge and progress.  I find that even my acceptance has needed to be an active, even proactive process.

So far, I’ve been fortunate in that my ARCs have arrived gradually, giving me time to adapt. My support system has been non-intrusive, incredibly available and generous.   And so far, the only cognitive abilities I’m aware that ARCs have afflicted are my short term memory and decision making. This leaves me able to identify ARC–impacted areas in daily living and create adaptive strategies.   Nor have I found it difficult to accept lowering my expectations and simplifying my lifestyle (setting my ideal balance between daily living requirements and resources at regularly lowering levels).

But my ARCs are now accumulating to the point where even tiny progressions genuinely stretch and threaten my adaptive skills, my support systems, my control, and my equanimity. Maintaining a balance between my requirements and my resources is becoming increasingly precarious even at basic levels of what I need and want to do.

I regularly remind myself and truly believe that, “To everything there is a season. . .” Ecclesiastes 3:1.  The net result is that I’m still “accepting” (sort of), but it’s getting harder. I wonder, “Is it possible to strengthen one’s acceptance capacities?” I may well find out.

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