It has been said that you are only as old as you feel. I am not sure that is true. Maybe your age is more attuned to your limitations and your appearance to others as well as the artifacts of your own aging.
Aging changes us physically, emotionally and sometimes spiritually. Now closer to 80 than 75, I have experienced a number of hallmarks along the way. A significant milestone is the realization that you simply cannot do some activities you did early on: swinging from one rung to the next on the jungle gym while following your grandson or doing the pull-ups you did in Basic Training in 1955. At age 75, I dashed our stucco house and painted the trim; this year it was a struggle to put up the ladder to clean the gutters.
Part of the aging process is slipping into a defensive mode. Our heart rate slows, blood vessels and arteries stiffen, bones shrink in size and density, and bodies become shorter. Our skin has sheen, and everything from our eyelids to our backside sags a bit as various body parts lose their muscle tone.
I see my endurance lagging as I now take longer breaks when shoveling snow, cutting and splitting wood, raking, playing racquetball or taking a motorcycle ride. I use any railing available, ascend stairs leaning a bit more forward and always reach for the grab bar when getting in and out of the shower. Strength ebbs when lifting grandchildren or pulling their sleds up Suicide Hill. Stairs seem steeper, the toilet lower and ice on the sidewalk slicker.
Wounds heal more slowly and eye exams are more frequent, as are trips to the bathroom at night. We hear less, repeat ourselves and interrupt more often. Long-ago memories stick fast; short-term memories have less glue. We may use a cane, a helping hand at curbside, an aisle seat, an ice bag after repetitive activity or a heating pad at night. Getting out of the car takes more time, as does eating a meal and backing up the car. I now carry one bag of heavy groceries instead of two. My car ramps are no longer used, as someone else changes my oil.
We try to fight the aging process with routine checkups. We take our meds and try to do some form of regular exercise although we know it is never enough. We eat the bad stuff in moderation but probably not enough of the good stuff. A weekly planned pillbox is next to the kitchen sink, yet we forget to take our daily allotment. We sit closer to the media and cup our ear but won’t wear our hearing aids sitting in the coffee table drawer. We wonder why the newspaper can’t use a larger font.
We daydream about the old days: how the cars, music, humor, movies, drivers, customer service and vacations were all better. Many of us are satisfied with landline telephones, smaller TVs and smaller homes. We like our old jeans, flannel shirts, tools, paintbrushes and stick-shift autos.
We plod on. If lucky, we go to bed knowing we have something of value to do the next day. And this can be ironic: The more purposeful your life, the faster you pass through time—something that is obviously quite limited now.
We are much more aware of our feelings and fragilities than we let on to loved ones and friends.
There have been four hallmarks in my aging process: Three surprised me and took me back a bit; the last one was like a brick to the forehead. The first was when a student called me “Sir”; the second was when I was 61 and the principal at the school I taught at asked me if I was “all right” as we restrained a student to the floor while awaiting the police; the third was a night when my son dropped me off and waited for me to get into my house before driving away.
We oldsters know that there might be a wheelchair, an attendant or a bedpan in our future. But what recently occurred in a doctor’s office in Harlingen, Texas, was the blow that knocked me into the reality of where I stand in that aging continuum.
I was most content with the world, having just passed a kidney stone. The doctor told me to increase my water intake and gave me a list of foods to cut back on (chocolate, nuts, dark colas, dark greens, salt and coffee—all my favorites). He then asked if I had any other concerns. I mentioned that I had significant edema in one leg. Knowing that we had just arrived after a 1,600-mile trip, he cautioned me to get out of the car more often and walk around when on long trips.
Then the good doctor strongly suggested something that I had put out of mind for 60 years: Buy a pair of rubber stockings. I had not thought of such an item since I last picked up Grandma Barlow in my ’51 Ford for Sunday dinner. We were late to that weekly outing as I waited for her to laboriously stretch into her “rubber supports,” as she called them.
It is only when you are forced into elastic, knee-high, flesh-colored supports that you are squeezed into being old.
Grandpa Jack lives and writes in St. Anthony Park.