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.

 

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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Self-sufficiency, Then and Now

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My immigrant Swedish parents were models of self-sufficiency and made it their business to teach their two daughters as well. As our capacities grew along with our age, we were expected to gain and use the attitudes and skills that would enable us to care for ourselves and perhaps others when we grew up. Self-sufficiency became an element in our lives we were able to take for granted. We each had two children, whom we similarly trained; perhaps even more so than our parents had since both of us worked professionally in addition to maintaining our homes. For my husband and me it extended to helping three granddaughters work on their self-sufficiency. That was then.

Fast forward to the now in my 97th year. Despite the fact that the aging process has been gentle and kind, Age Related Changes in seven areas (balance, decision making, hand grip and dexterity, hearing, overall strength, short term memory, and stamina), have been progressing. They’re finally taking their toll on my capacities to sustain self-sufficiency throughout ordinary living each day in ways both large and minute. I’m so fortunate that caring and willing family members as well as a small circle of friends of a younger generation (or two) live geographically close. They’re thoughtfully, smoothly and consistently a part of my more-dependent lifestyle. I am enabled to feel remarkably self-sufficient, with help. Even some recently acquired professional colleagues seem to have adapted their expectations and approaches to fit with my capacities; while they also add new challenges to my days.

So where does even my well- ordered aging leave me thinking about self-sufficiency in advanced years? Looking at it from the perspective of the pervasive demands of my everyday living, it appears to me to be a specific developmental task that requires both planning and work on my part.

Remodeling my self-image. My decades of expected self-sufficiency leaves me with an ongoing self-sufficiency self-image. The reality of my growing dependency conflicts with that.   Now I’m thinking more in terms of being content with relative self-sufficiency (expecting and trying to continue to do all I can, but accepting assistance with grace).

Fostering efficiency for both helper and me.

Engage/participate as much my current capacities permit

Identify specifically the areas where help appears to me to be essential; but be willing to consider their differing perspectives

Identify the specific in the ways of helping that I see as being most efficient in helping me, e.g. how-to’s that work for me.

Seek to make the helping experience a rewarding one.

Show gratitude in ways that are individualized, natural, and not overly effusive.

Think ahead as well as in real-time to try to make the helping-encounters interesting, efficient and pleasant for the helper. Plan ahead for ways to do this when possible e.g. have a specific to-do list, have equipment/supplies available. (I want to show them that I respect both their time and effort.)

Work to make it feel mutual.

Seek feedback on “what works best” for the helper.

I think ahead to progression of my ARCs and greater dependence with fewer capacities to participate and more limited ways of expressing my gratitude. It will be as it will be. And as long as I am able, I will try to seek ways to make helping me be something worth doing.   I may not be able to offer “stars for their crown”, but I can try to find even small ways to do my part and to express my appreciation.

Here’s to helpers!

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