Aging Gracefully

As a Physical Therapist, I work with debilitated elderly.  Therefore, I have few examples of aging well.  The active 85 year old with the trifecta of an intact intellect, healthy physique, and winning personality does not often cross my path.  Which is why I was smitten with an adorable woman I saw on a talk show whose video review of the Olive Garden Restaurant went viral.  An active woman, Marilyn Hagerty seemed a model for geriatrics – poised, authentic, fun, optimistic.

In contrast, my forlorn elderly patients frequently impart this impractical advice: “Don’t get old.”  Really?  What’s the alternative – die young?  The more I hear this bit against aging, the harder it is to hold back my snarky comebacks.  I’d like to ask these Negative Nellies, ‘when should I kill myself then? 50? 60?’

The compassionate side of me knows that aging is not for sissies.  Often, the losses seem greater than the gains.  An elderly post-surgical patient said, “They (the surgeons) keep taking things out but they never put anything in.”  It’s a dilemma really.  The will to live a long life is strong.  The temptation to complain about the process is stronger.

We get all wrapped up in youth, digging our heels in while age drags us kicking and screaming from year to year.  Some fight bitterly.  Some scoff at age with reckless behaviors and silly decisions – aka mid-life crises.  Few age gracefully.  Carolyn Myss says, “You can’t avoid turning 50 if you were meant to turn 51.”  Logic wins. 

I distinctly recall the feeling I had about ‘aging’ in my twenties.  Every year got better – more freedom, more money, more respect, more stuff, more experiences, more wisdom, MORE.  After childbearing, the ‘more’ became more bills, more work, more worry.  Yes, there was also more joy, but it’s hard to see that when you’re submerged in the thick of it.  I imagine the elderly might observe that the senior years involve more sickness and more loss. 

So how to stay positive amidst the inevitable changes? If we take our clues from Marilyn, we’ll position ourselves to stay in the game – literally.  When Ms. Hagerty’s video review went viral, this was her reaction, “I didn’t care.  I had to get to Bridge Club.” 

Therein lies a benefit of aging.  The freedom from caring what people think and say and expect of you.  The freedom to cast off the word ‘should’ and replace it with ‘I want’ and ‘I will.’  When I tried to encourage a 90 year old patient to stay out of bed during the day so her systems would function better, she looked me square in the eye and said, “No one’s gonna tell me I can’t sleep when I want!”  Amen, sister!  Can I get you a blanket?

The elderly can lay claim to freedoms reserved just for them.  I look forward to that part of aging. For now, when my 42 year old self feels like mourning its losses, I’ll picture my 80 year old self –full of pep like Marilyn Hagerty – admonishing it.  ‘Shame on you,’ she’ll chide.  ‘I wish I was 43 again!’

Thank You, Button

Sometimes the world is so beautiful I can’t stand it.  More accurately, the world is always beautiful, and sometimes I see just how mignificnet it is and it blows my mind.

I conducted an experiment one day, challenging myself to find the smallest, most insignificant thing I could feel grateful for.  My attention shifted to the buttons on my shirt.  Boring, commonplace, underappreciated buttons.  As I focused on them, I saw how simple they were, a no-brainer as far as inventions go.  Yet buttons didn’t always exist.  Imagine the first person to discover buttons.  He/she was probably elated at this newfound convenience.  A decorative one to boot! 

Then I pictured my shirt missing a button.  Gee, I’m glad I’m not missing a button.  You know, I actually have hundreds of buttons, and they’re all different!  So I went to look at those buttons too.  In my closet, I ran into belts and zippers and all sorts of fabrics and colors and designs.  Then I notcied the light above my head and the simple switch that turned on this amazing technology.  And I was grateful for Thomas Edison and…..

Like a runaway train, gratitude gathered momentum within me.  It sped down the track of my mind out of control.  I couldn’t stop seeing everything as amazing.  I actually had to look away – turn my brain off – for fear that it would crash.

There are days that I repeat this experiment just for the trhill – like a hyped-up child who gets off a rollercoaster and runs right back into the line to ride again.  I’m addicted to gratitude high.

The irony is, the more I see that everything matters, the more I realize that nothing does.  In gratitude-speak, the fact that I have a chair to sit on is magnificent.  The loss of that chair would be grand, too, because the floor would be there for me to sit on.    And if I didn’t have the floor, well, the ground would support me and I would be grateful for that.  And there it goes again – gratitude taking off with me in tow until I start crying because I can’t fathom the abundance in front of me, and below me, and beside me.

Mark Haddon’s autistic character in The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time observes, “I think there are so many things in just one house that it would take years to think about all of them properly.  And also, a thing is interesting because of thinking about it and not because of it being new.”

It sounds silly, but I am grateful to gratitude for showing me how to think about things ‘properly.’  And for coloring my world with so much overwhelming beauty.

I. Need. Help.

(Dedicated to ShaZam)

In my twenties, I practiced extreme independence and self-sufficiency.  I didn’t need anyone.  I could handle myself, thank-you-very-much.  From changing the oil in my car, to teaching myself how to sew, there was nothing I wouldn’t take on.

This fierce ‘hear me roar’ persona is one of the qualities that attracted my husband, I’m told.  Looking back, I must have appeared to be quite a catch – a girl who wants to be with a man but has no intention of depending on him.  Husband, bless his thick skin, wasn’t even put off by my frequent declarations of independence.  Me: “I don’t need you, you know.”  Husband: “Yes, dear.  You’ve made that clear.”

To my husband’s amusement, I would throw my 110 pounds into impossible tasks like loosening lug nuts on a tire or carrying roofing shingles up a ladder, refusing to accept help.  He only offered unsolicited help once.  His genuine concern over my safety was met with a Hulk-like reaction.  I didn’t quite sprout muscles or turn green, but my voice did deepen as I spit venom in my husband’s direction.

It’s comical now – my staunch opposition to assistance.   I naively equated dependence with weakness.  My black and white thinking saw no middle ground between complete independence and helplessness.  I wouldn’t let anyone help me for fear that I would be surrendering my power to them.

This supremely invulnerable alter ego continued into motherhood.  I tried to do it all – with a smile.  When number two baby came along seventeen months after number one,  and husband left for a business trip one week later, I finally fell off the scaffolding.  Cradling a colicky baby and a screaming toddler I cried into the phone, “I can’t do it.  I. Need. Help.” …..and the walls of the city crumbled.

The image of invincibility that I had built up was, ironically, as delicate as glass.  What looked like strength was actually weakness.   An attempt to cover up fear.

These days, I hand my husband a jar before I try to open it.  I take my car to the mechanic for an oil change.  I ask a child for help with the computer.   And yet, I feel stronger than ever.

I’ve learned that I do need people to help me through life.  And they need me.  We are inter-dependent.  Us people, we are gifts to each other.  When we wall ourselves off, we do so at our own peril.  And we rob each other of the gift of being able to help.

I still pride myself on my ability to care for myself.  I like being independent.  But I also enjoy knowing that I can ask for, and accept, the love and kindness that others have to give.

Calendars, Cops, and Country Singers

When my online calendar gave me the following alert, “Caution!  There are conflicts in your schedule.” I paused, briefly.  No kidding, I thought.  Two working parents, three kids in sports, an aging dog, doctors and dentists appointments for all….There are bound to be a few conflicts in the schedule.  Until I figure out how to invent time or bi-locate, those conflicts are going to have to learn to co-exist.

This week marked the beginning of a mind-numbing schedule full of activities and appointments that are all essential (according to their participants.)  I sometimes envision my online calendar with a life of its own – like the 1970s sci-fi movies about smart computers taking over humanity.  It appears as if I enter one item and it magically multiplies until the once neat white/gray grid is eclipsed in a wall of red.

Joking aside, I’m well-aware of my responsibility in creating this mess.  I’ve given too many yes’ and not enough no’s – clearly.  But like many things in life, if you think too much about decisions before making them, you get stuck in the details and never move forward.  So, I say yes without having any idea how I will manage the details.  A clever man – aka husband – once said, “we’ll never be able  to afford kids on paper but somehow it all works out.”  So far, he’s right.

Darryl Worley advises,

Sounds like life to me plain old destiny

You gotta hold on tight just enjoy the ride

Get used to all this unpredictability

Sounds like life.

I’ve surrendered to this somewhat comforting outlook on life.  Which is why, when asked to be a home-stay volunteer for an out-of-town student group this weekend, I gave a sincere ‘yes.’  Might be fun – after the extra cleaning, (i.e. gutting and fumigating a child’s bedroom), food shopping, and juggling of carpools.

So why take on so much?  Truth is, I love being busy.  The ‘busy’ reminds me that I am abundant.  I am needed.   Taylor Swift points out, “Life makes love look hard.”  Love takes work and patience and time.  But someday, when I look at my kids’ healthy, straight teeth, I’ll forget the umpteen trips to the orthodontist and the endless arguments about brushing and flossing.  When I hear them tell stories about the time they scored a goal or broke a bone, I’ll forget the rushing around from one sports field to the next.    I’m willing to bet that Trace Adkins is correct in predicting, “I’m gonna miss this.” 

For now, I have to keep a sense of humor and hope that those around me will do the same.  Like when the police officer pulled me over and asked, “Ma’am, do you know how fast you were going?” I replied with a definitive, “Yes, I do.  Very fast.  Would you like to see my calendar?”

The Mind Plays Dirty, The Laundry is Clean

I’m in the business of thinking.  Positive thinking.  Both personally and professionally, I study, teach, and utilize the power of thoughts and words.  Yet still, my mind takes off like a dog in heat at the first scent of temptation.

At 19:00 hours, husband, anticipating the need to have sheets on the bed (he’s so clever), heads for the laundry basket full of clean sheets that was abandoned between the dryer and the bedroom earlier in the day.  It’s nowhere to be found.  We begin our repartee.  “I didn’t take the sheets.  They were right there.  Well I didn’t take them.  Where are they?” Given the witching hour and the Sunday night routine with three children, we quickly abandon our mystery for higher priorities.

Fast forward one hour.  I am knee deep in calendars, permission slips, and bills when 13 year old son casually enters with an announcement that the washing machine is broken.  Stuck actually, mid-cycle, and he needs to put his wash in lest he go to school naked in the morning.  With a hearty grunt and a few mumbled slurs, I begrudgingly head to the laundry closet, son in tow.  “Show me what you did!” I demand.  “Nothing,” he defends.  “I just…….”  Even louder now, I start accusing, “You opened the door mid-cycle?!  You’re supposed to press cancel and……”  There is no stopping me.  I ramble on with should have’s and could have’s and a variety of accusations and put-downs.

You see, I was exhausted, and my mind was racing.  Like the dog who breaks through the fence and runs like the wind down the street.  I was on fire with blame, picturing a very busy week ahead with too many scheduled activities, work obligations, and other stresses – without a washing machine! Perish the thought!

My inner dialogue went something like this, ‘How much will this cost?!  Why do I let my kids touch the washing machine?  He’s always breaking things.  Who do I call on a Sunday night?  Are there emergency washing machine people?  I don’t have time for this!’  In 30 seconds I had created an imaginary disaster of epic proportions.  Truly, I had a headache from how loud my mind was screaming in fear.

Wait, are those my sheets in the wash?  Where did those come from?  You, my son, put them in for me?  You didn’t know they were already clean and wanted to surprise me?  Before you did your own laundry?!

Long pause.  Make way for regret.

Still somewhat angry at the current predicament, but having paused long enough in my verbal and mental shouting to allow myself to think, I decide to unpulg the machine and hope it will reset.  It does, and I am able to complete the wash.

My son, bless his little heart, is impressed with my technical prowess – and relieved that his head is out of the guillotine.  I too, am relieved, but also horrified by my abominable response to a non-critical situation.  ‘Why did my emergency meter skyrocket?  Why did I let my mind run wild?  I know better than that.  I’m so ashamed.’

A quick chuckle escapes as I realize that even now, in the self-recrimination, my mind is playing dirty.  “End it!”  I hear the ‘other’ voice command.  “Put a leash on that wild dog and get control.”

I oblige and turn my focus to what really matters – my son.  I offer sincere apologies.  “I didn’t mean to yell.  It was a nice thing you did and very responsible.  I was just upset…..”  To which he replies, “I know, Mom.  I still love you.”

Thankfully, someone does, because I’m not lovin’ the me that showed up in the laundry closet tonight.  “Sit, girl. Good dog. Now stay!”

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