Messages, watercolor by Eleanor Rubin
Having survived the first seven-plus decades of my life, I don’t need checklists to tell me I’m old. What I could use, on the other hand, is some advice about how to handle the inevitable Catch-22 dilemmas of my senior years.
This is not about appearance. I can and do fool myself about how old I look. In my bathroom, there are no skylights (what masochist would have such horrors installed?); the only natural light comes from a south-facing window that dispenses soft light filtered through large trees. As for artificial light, the bathroom is illuminated only by two sconces, one on either side of the mirror, each fitted with a 25-watt light bulb.
“I have news for you,” my husband said to me the other day. “If you die first, I’m getting light bulbs of a higher wattage for the bathroom.”
“I have news for you,” I replied. “If I die first, I won’t care.”
I wish I could say, “Oh go ahead! Put stronger light bulbs in the bathroom now. What do I care?” I can’t say that, because while being completely aware that I look like an old lady, walk like an old lady, dress like an old lady, and get out of chairs and cars like an old lady, I can still fool myself into thinking that from the neck up, I have the pleasant looks that make people say, “She must have been pretty when she was younger.” In this delusion, I remind myself of an acquaintance, a decade or so older, who once piped up at a dinner party to tell the assembled guests that she was once gorgeous. She said (and I quote): “I was so stunning that when I walked into a room, everyone fell silent.” I looked at her. She was an exceedingly plain woman. I did not believe her for a moment. Nor, apparently, did the friends who heard her boast. We all fell silent too, until someone mercifully changed the subject.
But enough about such trivial concerns! I have turned a corner: the limitations and discomforts of old age have made me realize that my worries about how I look are completely inconsequential. It’s how I feel that is now commanding my attention. And how I feel is directly related to what I eat, how I sleep, how much exercise I get, and how many painkillers I have coursing through my blood stream.
Let’s start with diet. I love coffee and dark chocolate. Coffee, so they say, has a preventative effect where neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s are concerned. I’ve always feared Alzheimer’s. At my age, who doesn’t? Furthermore, my mom had Parkinson’s, and I’m eager to avoid it. I savor my morning mug of strong coffee, knowing that besides waking me up, it may be keeping me safe from those dreaded diseases. Dark chocolate, likewise, is known to contain antioxidants, more flavanol even than blueberries, which can keep blood pressure low. So far so good, right? Wrong! At my annual physical last week, I mentioned to the doctor that I often slept poorly, arising several times during the night to use the bathroom.
“How much coffee do you drink?” she asked.
“Just one mug of strong coffee with breakfast,” I said, smiling smugly. She wasn’t going to get me on that!
“An occasional cup of green tea in the afternoon.” Hah! I knew about the numerous health benefits of green tea.
What about chocolate?”
“A square of dark chocolate, 85% cocoa, once a day.” Then I hesitated. I knew that was good for me, but I had to confess that my chocolate consumption didn’t stop there. “I love chocolate in any form: chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate mousse, chocolate chip cookies…”
She stopped me. “You’re going to have to cut way back on the caffeine if you want to sleep better,” she said.
And I did. My mug of morning Joe has gradually been reduced by half, my square of dark chocolate to half a square. I no longer drink green tea. Hot chocolate, chocolate cake, chocolate chip cookies have for now been banished from my diet.
I am not a happier person for it; in fact, I’m crankier and less alert and my fear of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s has returned. That said, I must say that I’m sleeping better. Is it possible that the physician was correct? And even if she was, is this a fair trade-off? A good night’s sleep in exchange for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and high blood pressure?
Then there’s alcohol. It’s true that if you shook my family tree, a lot of alcoholics would fall to the ground. I’m not one of them, which is not to say that for many years, I didn’t enjoy a modest pre-dinner drink and a glass of wine with dinner. I inhaled the smoky fragrance of Talisker single-malt scotch before sipping the amber liquid; I loved the sweetness of a small glass of Harveys Bristol Cream in front of the fire on a cold winter’s night, the fresh bite of a tall gin & tonic on a summer day. And my husband always bought fine wines from France, California, Australia. What is it that the French say? “Un repas sans vin est comme une journée sans soleil.” (A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.) I believed it! Then Bam! I got breast cancer, and of all of the known risk factors for that dreaded illness (obesity, smoking, genetic factors, etc.), the only one I checked off was alcohol consumption. There went another of life’s pleasures! No more pre-dinner drinks, a bare two ounces of wine with dinner. But isn’t red wine part of the Mediterranean diet that is supposed to reduce swelling and promote longevity? Along with extra virgin olive oil (which I practically bathe in), fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, isn’t wine supposed to keep your arteries clear? Surely two ounces a day is insufficient. How many antioxidants does it take to attack the free radicals (whatever they are) that are taking a toll on my body? Is it by chance that when I reduced my wine consumption, my blood pressure went up?
And what about all those nuts and seeds that fill my cupboards (and my gut) and made my son ask recently if we were morphing into birds and squirrels? Could all that squirrel food also be a factor in my IBS? Eat roughage. Don’t eat roughage. Drink coffee. No, better not. Wine is good for you. Well, on second thought… These conundrums make my blood pressure rise. What’s a health-conscious person to do?
Oh, sure, I know that some foods have to be avoided at all costs. You won’t find any soft drinks in my fridge. Deli meats are verboten. Prepared foods, fast foods, microwavable dinners, all banned. Well, mostly banned. Surely I can be allowed an occasional ham sandwich or a BLT, and do I really want to forego that chocolate-covered ice cream-on-a-stick we called a Cheerio when I was a kid, that today is called a Magnum?
Exercise, too, has its Catch-22. I have osteopenia-bordering-on-osteoporosis, so weight-bearing exercise is de rigueur. Until I tore the posterior tibial tendon in my left ankle (don’t ask), I was walking approximately two miles several times a week. But now, with the torn tendon that has been treated ineffectually with braces, a boot, and two bouts of physical therapy, I cannot walk more than a mile without wincing in pain. By a strange twist of fate, I “lost” my Fitbit at about the time my steps, once at a healthy 9,000 per day, decreased dramatically.
Through the various treatments for the tendon tear, I tried to keep walking. When my orthopedic brace failed to help me, my podiatrist scolded me: “You people are your own worst enemy.” He was referring to those of his patients – like me – who kept walking through the pain. Fine. I understand. I shouldn’t walk. But then, what about my bones, doc? Do I just let them turn to mush? He responded by putting me in a boot, thus making it impossible not only to walk, but also to use the recumbent bike or the rowing machine. But wait! How am I going to get my cardio? He did not seem particularly sympathetic. Well, I showed him. I discovered “chair cardio.” I’ve also discovered “chair yoga.” Paired with “yoga,” “chair” is code for “old people’s.” I’m not proud! Neither of these exercise programs is weight-bearing, but they do help me stretch and develop the muscles of my upper body. Meanwhile, the boot seemed to be curing the tendon tear but was causing me hip pain. One month in, I’d had it. With the doctor’s blessing, I removed the boot and started PT. “We’ve repaired the tear; now we need to strengthen the ankle,” said the doc. Oh really? That was some repair. A week later, physical therapy notwithstanding, the ankle started to throb.
So I continue to walk, but less. My Fitbit would not be impressed. For my part, I’m not impressed by a fitness tracker that doesn’t keep track of the miles I put in on the exercise bike or the rowing machine, the number of laps I swim or the pounds of weights I lift. All of those things are part of my fitness regimen. Get with the program, Fitbit!
More than anything else, I love to swim. A safe exercise, swimming is perfect for the chair set. Well, okay, nothing’s perfect. Swimming may give my upper arms definition, putting muscle where so many older women have winglets, but is it doing anything for my bones? Alas, no, because it’s not weight-bearing. Never mind. It’s easy on the joints and it’s good cardio. You can’t hurt yourself swimming. Or can you? What about that torn rotator cuff? Hmm. Could that just possibly result from overuse of the shoulder muscle in swimming freestyle? And what about the water itself? Is it safe? I recall the ear infection I once got after swimming in a Minnesota lake. Could that have been from pathogens in the lake water? Do I have to limit my swimming to chlorinated pools? Or, gulp, could chlorine itself be harmful? I Google it. “Chlorine and bladder cancer” pops up. I read no further.
My husband has issues of his own. For several years, he’s had macular degeneration, the dry (or safer) kind that can progress to the wet variety, which is far more serious. Recently, he went for his annual check-up and got a new (and unwelcome) diagnosis: A-fib, an irregular heartbeat that can kill you. His doctor put him on a blood thinner. He told his sister about it.
“What?!” she asked. “Don’t you know that blood thinners can hasten the progress from dry to wet macular degeneration?”
No, he didn’t know that. He checked it out online. Sure enough, his sister was correct.
“We’ll keep an eye on it,” said his doctor when he mentioned it to her. He rather regretted her choice of idiom. Wouldn’t “we’ll keep close tabs on it” have been more sensitive in speaking to a patient who fears he may risk losing his sight altogether?
Yet another delicious choice: which would be better, to live out one’s years with a white cane, or to disappear suddenly when your heart skips a few beats?
My husband and I take immense pleasure in the antics of our grandkids, the sprouting of springtime’s first flowers, the career successes of our children. We enjoy the heavenly warmth of our morning shower; thrill to the strains of the glorious Trumpet Voluntary, which for us will forever be associated with our wedding day; laugh at each other’s jokes, even when we’ve heard them 100 times; delight in compelling novels; cherish the company of friends. We don’t have to pinch ourselves (or each other) to know that we’re still alive. However, faced with the incontrovertible evidence of our various failing body parts, and knowing that in fixing A we might be harming B, we’ve begun to think more about our mortality. We’ve learned to live with the aches and pains that beset us, learned to treasure those miraculous days when nothing hurts, but we begin to consider without dread that day when we’ll be transported to that place where there is no pain or grief. We know a heck of a lot of people on the other side. Admittedly, we’re not fond of all of them, but then we’re not enamored of all of our fellow survivors either.
So we muddle along, trying to find the gold in our “golden years,” doing what we can to stay healthy, weighing the pros and cons of our increasingly complex choices, trying not to focus too much on the reality that this is “as good as it gets.” We tell ourselves that age is just a number and we congratulate ourselves on our survival techniques, keeping in mind Bette Davis’s remark that “old age ain’t for sissies.” We marvel when we hear people say they aspire to reach 100,
Zest for life? That expression still has meaning for us. But there’s zest and zest. Our four-year-old granddaughter has become preoccupied with death in recent months. A couple of weeks ago, she asked my husband, “Does everyone die?” He answered her gently, discreetly, in as comforting a way as he could, assuring her that while yes, everyone dies eventually, it’s not something she needs to worry about right now. Several days later, she was visiting her other grandmother and she had a bath. It was a riotous affair, with rubber bath toys and bubble bath and splashing and squeals of laughter. When she stepped out of the tub, “Gammy” wrapped a soft, fragrant towel around her. Naomi threw up her arms and cried out, “I can’t believe I’m going to die!”
Speak for yourself, my funny little granddaughter! For those of us who have entered the “mortality years” (Tom Brokaw’s phrase), that sense of invulnerability is long past. I recall riding in speeding cars as a teenager, hitchhiking through France in the 1960s, zip-lining in Costa Rica on a post-retirement vacation, eating food that had fallen on the floor even after the three-second window. Today, I’m a sissy, perpetually aware of the fragility of my life. A sore throat raises the specter of throat cancer, a pain in the chest must surely be a heart attack, a temporary memory lapse is but the first symptom of Alzheimer’s. And with the fear comes the inevitable woulda, shoulda, coulda regret of poor choices made time and again: “I knew that those NSAIDs (glasses of wine, French cheeses, refrigerated items past-their-sell-by-date, etc.) would get to me sooner or later!”
Old age makes sissies of us all!