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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Attention-Getting ARCs Create Challenges … Quiet Capacities and Assets Await Our Attention

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As my ARCs (age related changes) accumulate and progress, they increasingly resemble the attention-demanding behavior of two year olds. Impossible for me and sometimes others to ignore. On the other hand, my steady, silent capacities and assets just seem to patiently wait their turn to be acknowledged and attended to.   And this seems to be true, not only for me, but for those who help me manage my daily living these days. (Perhaps it’s the same way that more attention is given to our pathology than to our quiet immune systems.)

There’s no question that I need to continue to acknowledge and come to understand each ARC. But (better late than never) I’m seeing the need to pay more attention to acknowledging, understanding and creatively using my capacities and external assets. They are so essential to my well-being. I need to understand them as thoroughly as I do my ARCs. I need to value them. A slight variation on a current chant “Equal pay for equal work” may just need to be my motto as well.   Equal attention for equal work.

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By increasing my underlying knowledge about my capacities and assets in the same way I have my ARCs I may well be able to use them more creatively . In “The Mature Mind” Cohen examines the way agers’ brains change and what is there, available to be used. Some neurons are still growing and so are some connections between areas of the brain.

Obviously I’m at an early stage as I share my thoughts in these areas and plans . What I can share now is that:

I believe I have a responsibility to offer care providers accurate, crisp descriptions of the status of my capacities and assets (strengths and weaknesses as they are relevant to the presenting situation). This way they can anticipate how I will manage what they are asking me to do. e.g. If my physician changes my medication regimen, I need to offer the current status of my short term/working memory. If he were to expect me to change a dressing, I’d need to bring up the status of my clumsy, weak fingers and their potential inability to manipulate tape or dressings.   With my support figures (professional or otherwise) I need to offer data on what I can and cannot do as it is relevant to their desires or expectations.

I’m working on identifying (putting into words) and treasuring specific capacities and assets as they come into play in my adaptations. In my thoughts, I actually talk to them. When they do well in preventing a problem I praise them warmly, put gold stars in their crowns.   I sympathize with them when they try, but have difficulty. When they goof off, I give them black marks of the size and blackness warranted by the degree of failure.

I’m discovering that capacities and assets are like ingredients in my cooking—highly adaptable to be used in multiple ways. All my brain needs to do is figure out how success or lack of it in using them in one situation can be applied to another.  That means I need to know them, well.

As you can see, understanding and using my capacities and assets with greater creativity and effectiveness is a work in progress (like so much of my EWAing has proven to be).

If you readers have any ideas, please comment and share them with me. I can promise you that they will be well received and put to use.

Automaticity, How I Miss It! But . . .

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As the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you had until it’s gone.” I‘d had no idea how much I had been able to take for granted, nor how much I’ve been able to do on auto pilot. If I was going to make breakfast, all I thought about was what I would eat. Then my automaticity took over. It knew where the items were and how to put them together. To dress, I had to decide what to wear, but the rest of the process followed without purposeful thought about how to put the pieces on. And so it would go through much of the day. All this automaticity freed me to address issues, ideas and activities that required purposeful thought and effort. (I read recently that it took only one side of my brain then, but takes two sides now.)

Then ARCs (age related changes) sneakily but surely began taking automaticity away from me. I found myself having to think about how to lift a glass or a jar, depending on its diameter and weight—one hand or two–grasp around the sides or with one hand underneath? For a while, I had to think about how to tie shoelaces until one morning I couldn’t tie them at all. Time for slip-on’s. My comb flipped out of my hand when it encountered a snarl. Adopt a simpler haircut. Stairs required me to rely heavily on a railing or wall in order to climb them and knees threatened to buckle when I descended. My family, standing behind me, finally couldn’t stand watching me and a son proposed (pushed for), a lift that now gets me safely from the house to street level and back. Supportive arms on either side help me manage stairs when no lift or ramps are available. A granddaughter took over the laundry tasks that had to be done in the basement (reached by a circular stairway with no railing). I now live on one floor of my home. A son noticed my difficulty in rising from my recliner, he placed 4” risers under it and later added another 2”. One day while on vacation with my family, I discovered for myself that putting my hands on the back of a wheelchair made me steadier in my walking. I ordered a walker that enabled me to take long walks for years and now keeps me steady here at home. I found that a shopping cart in the market served the same purpose for quite a while until recently that too became unsafe and a neighbor offered to take over the shopping.

And so it has gone from year to year, month to month and recently sometimes day to day. My capacities change and so do my adaptations. Sometimes I’ve been able to see and manage them on my own. Sometimes times others have noticed and stepped in (with my acceptance!) to help me manage.

And there have been times when certain activities simply are no longer possible automatically, intentionally or with adaptations. Then it has been time to simplify my life. I’ve enjoyed baking orange rye bread and Swedish cardamom rolls for me and my family. First I reduced the size of the recipe to weights and size I could handle. Recently that too was beyond me. Fortunately, I’d taught the next two generations how to do it. Now the time had come to pass the tradition on.

Do I miss the things I no longer can do or automaticity? Of course. Still, in the grand scheme of things I’m grateful for all that’s still possible, for family, friends and colleagues who support me and offer adventures within their view of my capabilities (often far more than I can see in myself). When all else fails I call on my mantras of “Sufficient unto the day. . . .” and “To everything there is a season.” And, so far, I’m feeling content with what I still have.

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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.”

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.

 

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.

Me in a bib? Another well from which I never thought to drink

When eating at the kitchen table became too lonely and felt too closed-in after my husband died, I changed to eating from a tray in the living room with all its windows. The position I assumed when eating from a tray was different enough to cause problems. While eating at a table the angle of my face above the table meant that any spills I made or crumbs I dropped fell onto the plate. My napkin rested in my lap and was used as needed. In my recliner, (even in the upright position) my face is over my chest rather than the tray. And increasingly clumsy hands certainly do nothing to improve the situation. Well, you know where the spills and crumbs go. I’m always having to remove stains from the front of my tops.

One morning my son (noticing my spills and the inadequacy of the napkin that slid out of place) commented that his wife had bought him a bib. I was astounded. A grown man in a bib?

After he left, I went to my computer and checked out bibs for elders in the catalogues. To my amazement, for men I found bibs that had designs with four-in-hands and bow ties, shirts, vests and all different designs. And when it came to the women, there were plain or patterned ones, but also sophisticated design ones with sparkly ruffles, and even a loose strand of pearls. This didn’t look like anything I’d ever imagined. Within minutes I found a black matte jersey, one that had, not actual pearls, but embroidered ones. It had Velcro tabs in the back of the neckline, a waterproof inner liner and a white knit backing. It was washable (but one rater urged buyers to remember to close the Velcro closure before laundering or the bib would be shredded.)

I clicked the buy button and within a couple of days I had my first bib. Even my flat fingered hands could close and open the Velcro neck tabs. (if I didn’t overlap them too much).   I tried it on. Imagine, looking sophisticated in a bib. Well, sort of.

Will I ever learn never to name a well from which I will not drink?   At least, I’m finding that I can be flexible when wells appear on the scene and I’m thirsty enough to drink from them.

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