Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Old age ain't for sissies

You’ve heard the expression “old age ain’t for sissies,” right? Well, I’m here to tell you it’s true.

Next month I am going to be 64 and I cannot believe how much my body has deteriorated over the past decade…especially the last year. I have been reasonably healthy most of my life…ok, I’ve had some serious challenges from time to time, but I’ve pretty much conquered most of them…but lately I find myself facing certain—shall we say “structural”—challenges that are almost certainly more related to aging itself (and the result of body abuse in my youth) than anything else.

Most people express surprise when they find out how old I am. I am fortunate in my genetic heritage because, despite my age, I am still regularly perceived as being 10 to 15 years younger than I really am. I don’t have much grey in my hair, and what I do have I have coloured away…a nice, natural-looking strawberry blond that suits my complexion and doesn’t scream “she dyes her hair!” In fact, it is close enough to my natural colour that when it starts to grow out, it is barely noticeable. I don’t have much in the way of wrinkles…I am podgy and that helps to plump out the facial skin…and I use a very good (read that “costly”) moisturizer to keep the dry skin at bay. I have always had dry skin (not much in the way of pimples as a teen, either), but as I age it gets drier and flaky.

But in just the last couple of years, not only is age beginning to show, I am beginning to really feel it. Suddenly…just since my cataract surgery in October…I have permanent bags under my eyes: dark hollows surrounded by puffy bags so pronounced, I can see them if I look down. Last year I tripped up some stairs and broke a bone in my foot: the x-ray revealed a big toe so afflicted with arthritis it should be immobile from the damage (it isn’t…I can flex it fine…but sometimes it hurts like a mutha…).

When you get older, your body begins to deteriorate and, popular wisdom aside, your diet and fitness levels in your younger years have much less effect than you would like to think. We each carry a genetic timebomb that, like it or not, will begin to assert itself despite our best efforts, provided we live long enough. This is why, despite all the hype about diabetes, for example, being a lifestyle disease, you will find fitness freaks who discover they are diabetic anyway…those genes trump anything and everything you might try to do to overcome them! (We have fat, sedentary diabetics in my family…we also have slim, active ones.) That’s no reason to let yourself go and court the Big D, of course, but if you are counting on stringent dieting and arduous gym visits to keep it away, you are starving and punishing your body for nothing. If you’ve inherited the genes for diabetes from both of your parents, the best you can do it stave off its onset…I wasn’t diagnosed until 63, my husband’s grandmother wasn’t diagnosed until her 80s…but you cannot turn off your genetic inheritance with diet and exercise, no matter how fervently you believe otherwise.

One thing young people don’t take into consideration is the kind of damage they might be doing to their bodies with their diet and exercise programs. Sounds counter-intuitive, but the things you do in your youth can come back to haunt you, big time, in later years. A youthful diet low in calorie-laden (but calcium rich) dairy products, for example, can set you up for bone density problems later in life (most of those calcium tablets don’t have much benefit aside from enriching the companies that make them…your body simply excretes calcium that is not taken in through diet); regular strenuous exercise can wear or damage tendons, ligaments, even muscles and joints…things you won’t think much of as your young body heals up…things you will remember and regret when, in later years, you develop chronic tendinitis, joints aching from wear, even surgeries to repair damaged muscles. In my early 50s I had to have surgery to repair a torn abdominal…originally damaged in my youth due to exertion and exacerbated by pregnancy. Over the years it grew from a little “lump” next to my navel to a tear so big I now have a scar more than 12” (30+cm) long on my tummy and two Kevlar patches inside!

Young active lifestyles often include lots of outdoor activities…I spent a lot of time on horseback, on motorcycles, driving a convertible, laying on the beach in skimpy swimwear, hiking in the boonies…lots of outdoor stuff with lots of skin exposed. I am fair skinned and light eyed and in my youth, sunscreens had not yet been invented, nor were UV-protected sunglasses widely available. Despite public pronouncements by a certain arrogant and grossly misinformed supermodel, you do need sunscreens, especially if you are light skinned because skin cancer is a reality, it is the most common form of cancer, and sun exposure is the leading cause. And, believe it or not, those cute, cheap sunnies from the drugstore or trendy boutique are not doing you any favours…if they lack UV protection and you have light coloured eyes, you will end up like me—cataract surgery a full 10 years (or more…my late husband had cataract surgery in his 40s) before the average: UV rays not only damage your skin, they damage your eyes as well.

How many times have you fallen off a horse or a bicycle, while roller blading or ice skating, while skiing, or playing some sport like basketball or volleyball? We often just shrug off the bumps and bruises, but sometimes they are more serious than we know: George Eads (Nick Stokes on CSI) fell playing basketball and actually fractured his lower spine. But because he could walk around he never sought medical treatment for it. Ten years later his spine was x-rayed, the fracture discovered, and he now has five screws in his back, holding his spine together properly. When he hits 60 or so, its gonna come back to haunt him even more.

I have a condition in my lower spine called “lumbar facet syndrome.” Six years ago, in response to my complain of crippling pain in my lower spine, I was x-rayed and told I had degenerative disc disease. No cure, not even palliative care…I just had to live with it. Last year it was x-rayed again, this time I was told the condition was facet syndrome. Again, no cure, no palliative care. And so I live with it…but it has its costs.

I trip a lot…I trip because the problem is worse on my left side than my right, and when I walk, my left foot doesn’t raise as high as my right, so any unevenness on the pavement, a tile that is not laid exactly flat, a lump in the carpet, a dog toy I don’t see…any one of these may catch the front of that foot and trip me.

I have trouble getting up from low seats, even if they have arms. Between the compromised abdominal muscles (yah, they are “repaired” but that doesn’t mean they are as good as new) and the fact that the left leg doesn’t have the strength the right one does (the facet syndrome involves nerves being pressed upon, causing both pain and weakness), if I sit in something where my butt is significantly lower than my knees, I may need help getting back up.

This, of course, means I can’t sit on the floor…or even get on the floor to look under the bed for my shoes. It means going up stairs is a problem because only my right leg is strong enough to lift my body up the steps. Getting things out of low cupboards can be daunting…I have bend from the waist and hope I can find the desired item before the blood rushes to my head and I pass out.

Long walks are out of the question unless I load up ahead of time on codeine (a medicine that is blessedly available over the counter here). A shopping expedition always begins (and often ends) with a codeine tablet.

My Grandma Violet lived to be 89 years old. In her later years, she had trouble sleeping, often waking at 4 am and unable to go back to sleep. For most of my life, I have slept like the proverbial log, but after I broke my foot last year, sleep became elusive. Now I have my delicious “log” nights intermittently, sandwiched unpredictably between “wake up every hour” nights and “can’t get to sleep, can’t stay asleep” nights. All things being equal, it appears that aging is beginning to affect my sleep as well as my waking hours.

It is easy to be contemptuous of the aging and the aged. And it is so easy to say 1) “I’ll never be like that,” 2) “I’d rather be dead than old or infirm,” or 3) “I hope I die before I get that way.” But saying and doing are very different things. My late husband had a dear old auntie who was horrified at her brother’s last decade: a stroke victim, he spent his last 10 years of life paralyzed and being cared for my his wife and, later, by a nursing home. So horrified was this auntie that she told all and sundry that if she had a stroke, she was not to be kept alive through “artificial” means (like IVs, feeding tubes, etc.). In her 90s, Auntie had a stroke…and I discovered that even the most horrific averse training…like watching your brother taken care of like a baby for his last ten years…can mean nothing when you are actually facing the Grim Reaper. Auntie changed her mind in the hospital bed and spent her own last days in a nursing home, unable to swallow or speak, communicating in writing and being fed and hydrated through a tube.

And so I say again, old age ain’t for sissies. It takes guts to get up and do the necessary tasks of living when every bone, joint and muscle hurts and you know that it will not only be worse by bed time, it won’t be any better tomorrow, either. It’s easy to suffer through a painful tendinitis when you know with therapy and meds, it will be better in a few days or weeks…it’s not so easy when you know that if you stress that wrist just a tiny bit…like pick up too many plates from the table at one time…it is going to pain you for days…possibly forever. When you have to decide on how much necessary work you will do based on your ability to stand, walk, or bend, your life becomes controlled not by your desires…or even your pocketbook…it becomes controlled by pain and endurance, one of which increases, the other of which decreases, based on the things you did decades past and thought nothing of.

Most of us either think we will never decline in our later years…or that we will simply not live to pay the piper. But if you look at the numbers of Baby Boomers entering retirement age every year, you have to face the fact that the odds are that you will get that old…and unless you live in a padded cocoon, you will begin to experience physical decline. And it is then that you will discover just how strong and indomitable you really are.

1 comment:

  1. In my younger years, I taught aerobics. Lots of aerobics, like 16 to 20 hours a week. While living in SA, I watched in horror as a study conducted on people such as I revealed that in their 20s, people such as myself had developed the bone structure of a 70-year old.

    I used to work out competitively in SA, now I've learned that a four hour a week program is
    best--30 minutes of cardio, strength training, and yoga.

    Forget the megavitamins--they are designed to simply evaporate within 30 minutes in water. Better to look at your food sources and eat wisely. I miss SA food, natural and without preservatives. Such things cost must more in the US, but are worth the money.

    While living in Durban, most people my age were constantly going to the dermatologist to have cancerous moles removed. I have not had this problem growing up on the East Coast of the US where our exposure to the sun was much more limited than your West coast.

    Diabetes, we will see. My m-in-law informed me at the birth of my children than Type 1 ran in her family. Although many decry it, I have avidly used sweeteners since that time. In my family of 7 siblings, four have come down with type 2 diabetes just like my parents, but so far I have avoided this.

    Whatever you do, Sweet V, do stay active. Look for exercise videos that you can do even while sedentary. Damage in your youth cannot be undone, but my 83 year old Auntie has been pursuing exercise in one form or another for most of her life, and so far, sets the best example of a sweet old age in my family.

    Love u, sweetie. Say hello to SA and tell her I miss her.



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