"Do not get old," Mom always advised me. Or was that an actual Motherly command-rather than mere advice? Anyway I have done my best NOT to follow her recommendation. Like the old joke says, "What is the alternative to not getting old?"
General Objection to Getting Old
But to get serious, one only realizes how bad it is to get old when it actually begins to happen to you. I phrase that in terms of something happening to you rather than something you invite or request.
I have been fighting old age and retirement for the past decade as I traverse through my seventies. People look at my crinkly facial features and slow shuffling waddle and they ask, "Have you retired yet?" What they really mean is, "You better have retired before we are forced to sweep you aside." (Or it may even more grisly that they are suggesting it is time for me to find my burial plot and try it out for eternity.)
I respond to them, "Do not swear like that! 'Retire' is a six-letter word."
If the discussion deepens, I then explain. "No, I have not 'retired.' I have 'transitioned' to a new stage in life. But I will never retire. 'Retire' sounds like what happens to horses-they retire to the back field, or it sounds like what happens to an old car whose tires are worn out-the car is then 'retired.'"
One of my first encounters with old age was several years ago. I was seventy at the time. I attended a public meeting about a new program for the community. The chair for the meeting asked the audience, "Does anyone have any ideas or recommendations about the proposed program?"
I raised my right hand politely, was recognized, and presented three recommendations. There was a dead silence and nobody either cheered or jeered. There was nothing. There was no action of the audience on my ideas. Okay, I thought, maybe these were not the greatest.
The chair then requested if there were any other comments as various audience members were raising their hands. Five minutes later during the comment time, however, a young woman in the audience raised her hand, and gave the very same three proposals I had made five minutes before. The room buzzed with excitement and approval.
"I move we adopt the those three," somebody shouted. "Seconded!" There was another fast shout. All three of "my recommendations" were swiftly embraced.
So what had happened to my voice? Because I was old, nobody could hear me? My age drowned out the brilliance of my suggesting anything? I do not know. But it had happened. A corollary of this is that I often say, "Good Morning," to people when I meet them on the street or passing by in a building. Very few ever answer back, "Good morning." Perhaps they think I am just senile, or maybe not even worth the breath from their voices.
Let me continue by discussing other signs of aging. I will first mention various normal adult activities, and then relate how these become increasingly harder as old age overtakes us.
Memory Slipping away
I do notice things about myself which are a little alarming. For example, I meet somebody. "Hello, how are you?" I begin.
"Good, how are you doing?" he/she will respond.
I look at their face, know I should know him/her, but cannot recall his/her name. What to do? My brain shuffles through the mental rolodex, but nothing comes up. I cannot ask the person's name--that would really be insulting to my former acquaintance. I shift my eyes and look for a name tag. But there is none on his/her chest. Furthermore the printing on most name tags is always so small anyway, and people back away if I try to lean forward into the name tag and make out the letters. So that aggressive approach would not be a help even if there was a name tag.
My other idea is that people should paint their names on their foreheads and brush back their hair. That could even one day become part of the "new fashion," but no one does that currently.
Here is my ultimate remedy. If I am with a friend, I warn them if I do not introduce them to this "stranger," it is not due to my impoliteness toward my friend, but because I do not know the new person's name. I urge them to introduce themselves and ask their name. That gives me the information I want.
Let me continue. Then there are stupid things about my memory. I walk into a room but next I forget: "Why am I here? What did I want?"
Or consider the simple task of recalling the calendar. "It is Tuesday," I am sure. I need to remember what I ate on Monday. I do not remember. "Did I even eat yesterday?" I ask myself. It is lucky that I recall this is "Tuesday," or maybe even that is wrong. Maybe it is still "Monday"?
Here is another embarrassing moment. As I am getting ready to leave the house for the grocery store, my partner says : "There are three things I want you to pick up at the store--a quart of milk, a pound of wieners, and a head of lettuce." "Yes, dear," I agree. I climb down the five stairs from the porch to the driveway-being certain to count them so I do not fall, next unlock the car door, slide into the driver's seat, and start the car. Now I am assailed by doubts and irritating questions.
"What did she say she wanted? Was it milk? Or juice? Or what else?" So what I have begun to do is always write down the items she says she needs on a white index card that fits into my shirt pocket.
The only problem with this seemingly secure procedure is that later at the store, as I push the cart along, the card is no longer in my pocket. "Where is the card with the three items?" I beg St. Anthony for help. I think he is laughing at me. So I wind up using my cell phone, make up an excuse, and try to get my partner to retell me the three items.
I touch the cell phone numbers and call. "So you forgot again?" she senses immediately why I am calling. Her voice carries that nasty female tone signaling triumph over the male. This will become another unpleasant moment in my day. Of course, she will remember this for the next ten years when she points out my numerous list of failings.
Well, fortunately for her, at least I did remember my cell phone. Only I have to get the information quickly from her because the phone is running out of juice. That's right. I forgot to plug it in last night. It will serve her right if the phone goes to zero and darkness while she is conducting and enjoying her lengthy tortious interrogation. You get the idea.
"Alzheimer's," she concludes, "or maybe just plain old dementia; that is what is ahead for you. You should take that memory pill." Let us leave the memory concerns.
Let us discuss sleeping and old age. I do not really sleep anymore. I drop off in bed in the late afternoon, absolutely exhausted. Then I get up in the evening about four hours later and head for the computer or a book. I work away until about eleven o'clock at night. Then it is two or three hours sleep. I awaken for a bathroom trip, more reading, maybe some typing, and watch old TV shows and jot down addresses for various $19.95 products that I am thinking of buying. Finally another two or three hours tossing and turning. Now it is time to get up and attack the day.
That is the normal outline. There, however, more detailed problems. As I lay in bed at night, I usually want to read. That also helps me relax and fall asleep. Furthermore, I console myself with the prospect that while reading I am doing something useful for humanity. Also reading is more stimulating than fingering the beads on my rosary as I fight my way to sleep through a decade of Hail Mary's.
So, for instance, I read a page of the History of Germany during World War II. This is one of my favorite topics. I finish the three paragraphs on the first page. Okay, I then ask myself, "What did I just read?" But I cannot remember a single thought, or even a name. So I reread the page. This time I try to remember that I should remember to remember. At the page end a few thoughts have stuck in my brain but only through this Olympic straining and stretching of my anemic brain and memory.
Furthermore, let me explain how I read. I do not read books anymore, at least from the beginning of the book onwards to the end. If I start on the first page, I am totally lost by page 5 through an attack of elderly forgetfulness. What I do now is jump into the middle of the book, marking the contents page with my ink pen where I am starting, and begin reading from there. This sudden plunging into the deep water usually alerts me to recall what I am reading, at least a few of the thoughts and ideas. I also madly underline names and key words. Later it is my hope I can return and by just referring to these underlined items I will recall the entire page.
Memory is not the only problem I encounter while trying to read and capture some sleep.. I have trouble even seeing the printed words, but more on that later. Let us turn to the visual media.
Television and Movies
Watching television and the movies in old age is even a worse task than reading. I stare at the screen showing a television action movie. The images pass by so quickly. I cannot remember who is the bad guy and who is the good guy. They all look alike, tall, rugged, handsome, with short haircuts and all their faces sporting a four day growth of beard to enhance the manly look. I can recall when the five o'clock shadow cost one presidential candidate the election. But today, it is cool and almost necessary to show that your face can have a fertile fuzzy growth. Even the women on the small screen all look alike-both the brawny five foot judo queens and the psychopathic breasty bulging-eye killers.
Even more unbearable, I cannot follow the plots. "What massive people-filled city skyscrapers are the bad guys five seconds away from blowing up?" "Who has been kidnapped at rush hour from Times Square?" "How does London's fate mean anything for corn growing in Iowa?" The television plots are too convoluted and byzantine for my shrinking brain.
I already mentioned the movies as a problem. I go to a theater, try to find a decent seat, up close to the screen, which seat is not behind the lady with the big hat, and the I sit back to enjoy the movie as I munch-really suck-on the yellow salty popcorn kernels. I cannot crunch these since the kernel slices get caught in the crevices between my teeth and gums. I do not have a ready tooth brush to unclog my gums and molars.
As for the movie, the first time thru, I barely grasp anything. The plot has so many twists and turns. Even Agathie Christie immersed in her Orient Express would stumble over story lines. So I sit there after the movie ends so I can watch the same movie again. This time I do make it through the first fifteen minutes and I have some understanding of the bizarre narrative. Of course, then I lose track, my popcorn is gone, I dare not try a gluey chocolate-soaked caramel, and I surrender as I promise myself I will wait to see this movie through Netflix on television where I can pause and stop it at any point.
Drinking and Eating
Did I mention how eating is affected by old age? It is not just the popcorn that causes difficulties. The first time I noticed a real problem was when several years ago I tried to chew on a juicy morsel of steak.
I had savored the flavors and even the aroma from the steak. Suddenly my teeth crushed onto a rock, a small piece of very hard rock. Did the butcher forget something when he sliced the bones of the steer? (Let me just mention. For decades I had no real idea what was behind the cattle roundups and drives across the grassy ranges to Kansas and the stockyards. The movies never revealed what happened in the large buildings where the cattle were imprisoned.)
"What is that?" I puzzled over the hard rock stuck in my tongue, praying it was not what I thought it might be.
I spit out the contents from my mouth and saw this tiny white crystal substance sticking up in the half-chewed meat from my mouth, all slathered with saliva. Then I felt in my mouth a big dark hole in the front tooth. Yes, this small rock was a piece of my tooth breaking off.
That was the first time that happened. But not the last. Whenever in the future I encountered another broken and jagged tooth, I hurried the next day to the dentist to cover up the huge gaps in my teeth which made me an object of gawking. So each broken bad tooth entailed more dental work from a great dentist. I remember one time that the teeth the dentist had to work on included two that had to be pulled forever, yanking them free of wire attachments in my gums and jaws. The other teeth required endless drilling and hours and hours in the dentist chair. My only relief was that I could read my books of Vietnamese history in between his dental drilling and poking, and waiting for caps to dry and harden.
It is now ten teeth later, some $20,000 in bills altogether, and no insurance to cover any of this. Moreover, I know there is more dental agony and expenditures ahead as I look forward to my eighties -if I safely cross over the decade divider.
I can remember my Dad many decades ago getting dental plates-upper and lower. My Mother had the same plate work. Whenever they pulled out their partial plates and stuck them at sleep time into a glass with water and plate cleaner, their mouths would collapse and twenty years was added to their faces.
But rotting teeth and chewing snags are not the only signs of onrushing old age. There are the times when I swallow a morsel which slides down the wrong pipe. That will provoke an hour of coughing and hacking. Luckily I can stumble out of the restaurant away from all the relaxing patrons and wind up chucking my guts and lungs onto the green lawn outside by the parked cars. I vow next time I will be more careful whenever I swallow any lumpy thing, but that pledge is quickly forgotten.
Seeing and Reading
My eyes have gotten worse and worse. My ophthalmologist, who hails from Goa in India, has tested my eyes every year for the past eight years. Each trip meant a new stronger prescription and newfangled expensive glasses., which would barely last six months. Then last year came a fresh and different verdict from her, "Every year I have tested you and noticed how your eyesight was declining," she summarized in that beautiful clipped Indian English." (A note aside: you do realize that India has more native English speakers than any other nation? Therefore, our standard and model English should really be "Indian English," rather than the New England Boston dialect.)
"We were able to take care of that with ever more powerful lenses. Now I must tell you the truth that such a strategy will no longer work. You have a bad eye lens which can only get worse until you will see nothing through the thick darkness." "What do I need to do?" I ask in fear.
"You need surgery. You need to have the cataract removed, discard the bad lens and replace it with a new artificial lens."
That is a whole story in itself including my ever present fear that I would come out of such surgery either dead or blind. I will leave that enchanting and amusing story for later. My point is that my deteriorating eyes are another signal of aging.
"How does that affect seeing?" Let me tell you. First, I stumble from the sunny outside through a door into the room. All is thick blackness. I barely make out some moving shapes. Whether they are men or women I cannot tell. Second, I gingerly step ahead, hoping there is solid ground to support my feet. For fifteen minutes I knew what the young soccer-team boys felt like in the Cave in Thailand.
Even in my own bedroom my dimed eyes cause tribulations. I open drawers in my dresser and cannot make out whether this is a sock drawer or for sweaters. Dirty laundry? I have to be careful because I cannot see the dirt on the collars. It is hard to select a suit because I cannot make out the colors. Is that one black? Or just a midnight purple? Is that a red shirt? Or simply deep orange?
I have a cell phone with a deep brown leather case. When I put it down on the heavy dark wooden desk, the cell phone disappears. So one time I painted the phone front and back with white liquid paper. That was a mess and the white powder kept coating my clothes and surfaces where I set the phone down.
Time for a joke! Time for a Joke! After all that dismal reporting about the ailments of advancing years, it is time for a little humor, a laugh, and a joke before we plunge forward into some more dismal results of aging.
JOKE: A man is getting older. He says to his friend, "I notice two things about myself as I get older."
"What are those?" his friend politely re-joins.
"First, I notice I am losing my short term memory."
"Okay," his friend nods courteously, "What is the second thing?
"The second thing, I notice about myself," says the aging man, "is that I am losing my short term memory."
If you laughed at that, you are both still in control of your short term memory and you know the dangers ahead. So let us return to more of what wonderful gifts aging fetches us.
Trapped in plush chairs and the soft sofa
You would never imagine how sitting becomes a problem for the aging. It is easy you all say to sit down. Right? Just lean back, plump into the seat, and relax your buttocks and legs.
But, oh no. You have to find a chair with a high back, solid supports, and a fairly wide center. The latter insures you land fully on the chair and not half of your butt hanging over the chairs edge, ready to slip away and down, and winding you up sprawled on the hard floor.
Okay, here is the secret to both sitting down and standing up. Once seated, you make certain the chair is fully grounded and you have a secure base.
But what to do when you have to get up? You must grab the chair's seat on both sides; and you must hold firm so the chair does not glide away leaving you collapsed on the floor. You also use the chair as a type of launching platform, in order that you can stand perpendicular, with your arms pushing straight back, preventing you from falling back into the chair. Once vertical, you must make certain your legs are not all tangled in the chair's legs. That also can earn you a good fall. Remember one out of three people over 65 will take at least one nasty fall this coming year. My poor mother at age 68 fell on a sidewalk with hidden ice, while visiting her aging sister in a nursing home and broke her leg. She never recovered from that.
So now you have a lesson about ordinary chairs. There are worse sitting hazards however. A notorious one is the large comfy couch in the front living room. It looks positively inviting. So you sit down in it. By the way, do not sit in the middle center of the sofa. The supporting arms are too far away to reach. You will be buried there on the couch forever and you cannot emerge. Always sit by an arm of the sofa so you can use the arm for support. Once you sit down, you notice you are sinking ever deeper into the chair's squashy embrace.
It is all right while you are still sitting, but how do you escape the sofa's clutches when you want to stand up?. You are now too old to hoist your rump on your own and regain your balance. However, I did learn this trick from my eighty-five year old Dad.
Here is the procedure. Hunch your way forward to the sofa's edge with your rear end perched on the chair. Then you plant your feet solidly on the floor. You begin to rock back and forth. This gives you momentum. After a few swings back and forth, you time it just right as you come forward to jump up and out. Hopefully you wind up with your body perpendicular over your feet. You can rejoice. The launch has been successful.
Walking down the street
Walking is very simple. Say, "Yes, Right?" Just put one foot in front of the other. Then take another step. Real easy? But no, that is not right.
Remember the one-in-three statistic for falling seniors? This is just waiting to claim another victim.
So how do you take your steps and do this safely? I can no longer take big forward steps. At some point if I try this, I will lose my balance and need to grab onto a sturdy building or parked car.
So I serve the god of precaution and walk like a duck, waddling in short steps and swaying my body from one side to the other.
This way I avoid unseen cracks and holes. Since my steps are small, I keep my balance. If I should trip, I do not have too far to tumble to the ground.
But there is more to it than this.
You must watch for inclines. This is especially true if you only have one eye like myself which, alone and absent its three-dimensional seeing capability, cannot see the ground's variations.
So I must walk being prepared for changes in the surface height and depth.
This becomes an immense problem when I climb up or down steps.
Of course, going up is much easier than going down. If I fall ascending, I can always put out my arms and catch the higher steps.
But going down? If I miss a step or just misjudge even whether there is a step there, I will fall forward and down. Do the Math. My mass is falling further and I will crash brutally into the stone or hard wood floor, than if I had fallen "up" the stairs.
One good fall, a broken leg or even better a broken hip, and I am through for life. "If you fall and break anything," my partner has warned, "You will be re-named 'horse.'"
What does that mean?
Simple! If a poor horse falls and breaks a leg, the sad owners put the horse out of its misery
Other normal adult activities
Of course there are more activities that torment our old age. Like the chore of going to the bathroom. But I will spare my reader any further details on this crusade for the throne.
SO WHERE IS ALL THIS RECITATION OF SENIOR CITIZEN INFIRMITIES LEADING ME, AS WELL AS YOU READERS?
You have heard this litany before of all the sickness and disabilities that afflict us as we advance in years. So what? Many of you manage life with these burdens. I think I too can put up with all of these. An Advil a day and twenty other prescriptions keep the doctor (and undertaker) away. But it is more than just the physical frailties that I protest.
I can endure all and more of this. Cancers. Heart attacks. Lungs filled with fluids. Use of canes and wheel chairs. Rotting smells and pains from urinary and defecation systems gone awry.
All of this we can bear if we see that our society has benefitted in some way from our short depressing lives on this tired planet. "We can take it" if our children are better off. As the world improves, we can rejoice that the future will be better and we have contributed to this. We can thank the Good Lord for our simple accomplishments and not mind as Death fast approaches.
But somehow our whole society and even the world seem headed in the wrong direction. If one road heads toward heaven and the glorious city on the hill, the reverse road goes in the opposite direction to hell and toward Lucifer's cheerless realm. That latter is the way the globe seems to be descending.
Read the continuation of this column by Joe Meissner called Is America going in the right direction?
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