Saturday, August 19, 2017

Aging Him!

Time for my second in a series of posts about aging, and as they say, “Enough about me.”  Let’s talk about my husband!

My husband, Ed, is 70, almost 71 years old, so he is 8 years older than I am.  Every time I chuckle at something he complains about in the aging process, he always says the same thing, “Just wait until 8 more years…you’ll see then!”  Of course, he has been saying this for 30 years, so I never know quite when we’ll ever be off that schedule of teasing, because by the time 8 years rolls around, assuming I even retain the ability to remember what we talked about 8 years ago, he is another 8 years older and keeps repeating his warning, so I guess it’s the game that will never end until one of us dies.

Ed and I watch PBS a lot, and we sat down the other night to watch a couple of their fundraising specials.  Both specials were both celebrating the music of our past - the first one  hosted by Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits and Davy Jones from The Monkees.  This was from my generation.  I enjoyed the broadcast tremendously, as it brought back a lot of good memories.  Then we watched the celebration of folk music, hosted by The Smothers Brothers and Judy Collins - and these were Ed’s generation.  As a teenager, he adored Joan Baez and the rest of the folk music icons.  So there we were, listening to music of our lifetime.  Guess what struck me?  Everyone was so OLD.  The performers were OLD.  The audience was OLD.  I wonder how the performers themselves felt, as I'm sure they remembered originally performing looking out on a sea of young fresh excited faces, teenagers and adolescents who were applauding and dancing and excited to be watching, some swooning, all singing along because they knew all the lyrics.  Now the audiences were full of gray hair (or no hair at all), grandmothers and grandpas, still excited, still happy to be there, still singing the songs along with their icons, but there had to be some kind of switch flipped in the brains of both the performers and the audiences - something along the lines of an out-of-body experience.  Close your eyes and the songs are the same, the laughter (“I'm Henry the Eighth I Am”) and the sadness (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”).  For a minute, you might forget you have gotten older.  For just a few bars, you’re back in college or high school or driving around listening to the car radio, loving the music.  For a little while, you don’t feel your muscles aching or your belly jiggling or your feet hurting.  For the next wonderful verse, you aren’t thinking about your next doctor’s appointment or how you shouldn’t have eaten that junk food or hoping you remembered to pay your insurance bill.  The music just takes the years away.  But open your eyes, and there they were - old people singing and playing for old people.    

One of my favorite things to do used to be playing piano in local nursing/retirement homes.  I would take my collection of Big Band music from the ‘40s and ‘50s, some from the ‘20s and ‘30s, and go to town.  I knew the songs those older people grew up with and loved, and those were the ones I played.  They’d sing along, they’d turn to one another and laugh, they’d thank me and sometimes say, “You don’t look old enough to know these songs!”  So ever since then, I imagine my generation in a nursing home in the near future.  Some young pianist will walk in with music from the Beatles and Monkees, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Cowsills, and play those wonderful songs for the exact same reason I played the music I chose - to help the old folks reminisce and wash away the years for an hour or so.  Except the old folks reminiscing will be us.

So after Ed and I enjoyed those PBS performances, shocked though I was at the age of the participants, I looked over at Ed.  These days he is feeling his age.  He had cataract replacement surgeries but unfortunately there were complications and now his eyes are even worse.  He can still drive OK, but for how long?  He can’t read regular print without a magnifying glass, so we keep one in every room.  He has loved to read all his life, and has the collection of books as testament to that passion - books on spirituality, Celtic lore, history, fantasy books about dragons and other civilizations, cookbooks, Mark Twain stories, Lord of the Rings, CS Lewis.  He now reads everything on Kindle because he can enlarge the print.  He told me we might as well get rid of all his real books because he will never be able to read them again.  So we packed up a bunch today and took them to the thrift store.  That was so sad for me.  It was an acknowledgment that something had forever changed for him.  Some of these books I realized we have been moving with us from house to house, from town to town.  Some of them he had when I met him in 1972.  We moved them from our first apartment to our first house, then when we went into the ministry, from parsonage to parsonage, then finally from Tennessee to Maine.  Some of them we researched to see if we could replace them in Kindle version, but most of them are not available.  Some we saved for the grandchildren.  But many, many of those stories of his life left the premises to be given the chance to go home with somebody else who will enjoy them.  

Ed is also diabetic, and although he keeps it under good control, the damage has taken its toll through the years and he has lost feeling in some of his fingers, some just from neuropathy and some from having to prick his fingers to draw blood several times a day.  He tends to drop things more than he used to, and this just frustrates him.

He told me one day he looked in the mirror and actually said out loud to his reflection, “Where did you get your Daddy’s legs?”  His once muscular legs are now skinny and frail looking.  He still can walk the dog a couple of miles a day, but he can’t do what he used to do 20 years ago.  He doesn’t like what his body is getting to be, and that frustrates him.

So while I'm having to deal with aging myself, I’m watching him deal with his own aging.  We have the shared memories of what we looked like when we got married, when I was just 19 and he was 27.  Most young people first married don’t spend a lot of time wondering what it will be like to grow old together.  And that is the way it should be.  But - if you are LUCKY - the day will come when you don’t even recognize the person you married.  Suddenly it hits you - you’re married to an old man or old woman.  And not only are you dealing with your own aging and mortality, you’re watching a loved one go through the same thing.  

Most people I know are very hesitant to talk about dying.  Not me - maybe it’s because I've been in the medical world so long and I’ve transcribed reports of patients through all stages of their lives, including their time in the dying process.  So Ed and I will sit around and wonder - who will go first, him or me?  How does one handle that?  One minute you’re married, the next minute you’re alone.  I can’t imagine.  I am at the age now where I have friends who have lost their spouses, and I ache for them in their grief.  Life goes on and one has to adjust, but I imagine the longer you are a couple, the harder the parting is.  

It’s difficult enough with the dog.  Every time Ed gets another dog, he does the math of how long that dog is supposed to live, and he does the math about how long he himself might live, because he doesn’t want to die and leave a broken-hearted dog wondering where his Master went, and he also doesn’t want to experience another beloved pet cross that darn Rainbow Bridge.  So he always tries to calculate it so “we will go out together.”  Yeah, I know - an impossible task but he still goes through the calculations.  The problem is, there is no “normal” in life.  There is no normal that a man will live to whatever and a woman live to whatever or even a pet live out its expected years.  On top of that, Ed has never been good at math anyway.

So the odds are, one day one of us will die and leave the other one bereft.  With or without a dog.  My best friend and my cousin died prematurely, so I know we should consider ourselves the lucky ones, at this moment in time, the moment that will never come again.  The future?  “Let It Be.”   In the meantime, I sit here listening to “Daydream Believer” and every once in a while will glance over at my sweet aging husband, with his glasses and gray beard and balding head, his shaky hands, and he will glance at me, a woman who looks nothing like she did 43 years ago either.  We see it all, and we laugh.  

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Aging Me!

The idea of aging has always fascinated me.  A few months ago I accompanied my husband Ed to a medical appointment, and while he was getting examined, I tried to pass the time reading on my iPad.  But eventually the book was less interesting than the scene playing out in front of me.  This particular office specialized in ophthalmology, which means the majority of its patients were usually on the elderly side (whatever elderly means these days).  The layout was such that each patient had to come in the door and cross the room (right in front of me) to the reception window to check in.  There each patient was asked to state his/her name and date of birth as the receptionist confirmed the appointment.  (I was highly suspicious that their being asked to vocalize this information in a way others could hear was an invasion of patient privacy laws, but I won’t get into that.)  As I watched patient after patient come and check in, I found myself trying to guess their ages before they so loudly announced their date of birth.  I carefully watched the patients as they entered, some walking independently, some with canes, some leaning on a relative or friend, some with walkers, some being pushed in wheelchairs.  I looked at their hair, their faces, their bodies, their clothes.  I mentally compared them with other people I am acquainted with whose ages I know.  At the very second the patient arrived at the window, I guessed their age.  Then when they stated their date of birth, I saw how close I was.  You’d think it would be easy, but it wasn’t.  I know I’m 62, and I know what I look like, and I’ve seen some people I graduated with and know what they look like today, and Ed is 70 and I know what he looks like, and Mom is 93 and I know what she looks like, so I have a pretty good base of comparison.  The fascinating part?  Someone could be hesitantly using a walker and be my age, and another one might briskly walk in unaided and be in her 90s.  The main thing I learn when I play that game (which I also play if I’m standing in line at the pharmacy, as they do the same drill) is that everyone ages differently, there is no pattern, no recipe to follow, and some people seem to thrive with it and others seem to be just counting the days until it’s over.  

Aging is a strange thing.  It happens to all of us, at least the ones who are lucky.  Aging usually brings with it more physical aches and pains, hopefully some wisdom and insights, some regrets, some physical changes that are jarring and sometimes debilitating, and worries specific to planning for the future.  Those of us around my age have these things in common, I would bet.  Many books have been written especially for the Baby Boomers, trying to help us age “gracefully.”  I just finished “Keep Moving” by Dick Van Dyke. He has the upbeat attitude and humor about aging one would expect from him.  But in the end, my journey into aging is all mine.  I enjoy hearing other people talk about getting older, and sometimes I glean some good advice, but my experience will be unique, just as yours will.  

I don’t ever mind talking about aging and its sibling, death.  The subject is extremely interesting to me.  Now, my mother, she is very uncomfortable talking about death, and that’s fine.  But to me - aging and death make up the next great adventure!  It’s the planning aspects that make me nuts.

So many decisions I have to make now are subject to my estimate on how long I will live.  Which is, of course, something I just don’t know.  Mother is still living at 93, but my dad died at 64.  Hmm…do I add those up and divide by 2 to get an idea of my probable lifespan?  Or did I inherit more genes from Dad and really only have 2 more years to get this already overdue quilt finished? Or did I inherit more of Mom’s genes and need to prepare financially for living to a ripe old age, requiring extensive help for self-care?  How long should I work?  When should I start receiving Social Security? People my age and older understand that there is now a lot more sand in the bottom of the hourglass than the top and the need to plan accordingly.  But how much sand is in the hourglass to begin with?  If I knew that, maybe I could make some viable decisions.

Also when I think about aging, I think how unfair everything is.  They say eat healthy, get exercise, and regularly activate your mind in order to live a long time without dementia.  Mom is, as I said, 93 years old, and never did nor does she do any of that stuff and although her body is wearing out, her mental status is fine.  Dad, who never drank or smoked and who was a lover of theology and philosophy and reading never made it to 65.  Go figure.  My cousin Michael and my best friend Bernie died years ago, yet I’m still here.  I frequently read news articles about people who die in car wrecks in their 20s and 30s.  Surely we can assume they thought they would die of old age. Doesn’t everyone?

We aging people also have to deal with a lot of fears.  Do I have enough money to live on for many more years?  How bad will my health deteriorate?  Will I ever be a burden to my kids?  Will my spouse die and leave me alone or will I die first and leave him bereft?  Even things as simple as writing a “starter obit,” making sure our kids know where to find my online passwords and a schedule of when bills are due and how they are paid, etc., are on my mind.  (I handle all the money stuff and my husband does all the cooking.  If I go first, the bills won’t get paid, and if he goes first, I will starve to death.)  Will I even be able to work as long as I need to?  As a medical transcriptionist, I need a focused brain, working nimble hands with no arthritis and no falls resulting in broken bones in my arm or fingers, clear vision, excellent hearing, and a back and neck that can withstand hour upon hour of sitting.  I often joke that I wonder which part of me will go first, because if I lose any of these abilities, my job is toast.  And then the biggest question of all…how long will Ed and I be able to safely drive?  The last vestige of independence.

I even have mini-panic attacks when I think about my 4 grandchildren. If I died tomorrow, would I have successfully passed on whatever knowledge and wisdom I want to give them?  Have I made enough memories?  Years from now, will they view me as a vibrant (yes, older!) woman who could get down on the floor and play with them or an old lady who lost her sense of excitement and wonder and got so decrepit she had no stamina?  In my childhood, I had 2 grandmothers. My maternal grandmother was anorexic and lived most of the years I knew her in a state mental institution.  My paternal grandmother lived with us in a dark room in the back of the house.  She never came out for anything and I remember her arguing and crying when my Dad made her take her medicine. She could be quite scary.  I don't want to be a scary old lady.  I want to be an interactive, energetic, fun old lady. 

Alas, the future is unknowable.

Getting older is frightening, exhilarating, anxiety-provoking, and definitely challenging.  Dick Van Dyke in his book wrote that he once got to meet Fred Astaire.  He asked Fred if he still danced, if he still did the things he always used to do.  Fred’s answer was, yeah, but now it hurt.

At that doctor’s office that day, I saw some hope.  I saw some elderly people who seemed to be coping with their aging journey well.  In my mind, I pointed to each of them and said, “You are my role model; you are who I want to be when I get old.”

In my job as a transcriptionist, I hear a lot of dictations where the provider gives an opinion of what age means to them.  I’ve heard a 75-year-old patient referred to as “middle-aged” and a 60-year-old patient described as “elderly.”  I guess it all depends on where you’re coming from.  I remember when our son Matt was about 3, which would make me about 31, I was cuddling with him in a chair, and I whispered, “Matt, will you take care of me when I get old?”  Matt replied, “But you ARE old!”  I was taken aback, but pulled myself together and asked, “If I’m old, what is Granny?”  He said, “She’s VERY old.”  I then brought up good old Aunt Bessie, who would have been in her 80s, I guess, and asked, “If all that’s true, then what is Aunt Bessie?” and Matt said without missing a beat, “She’s ALL old.”  So there.

In the near future, I would like to expand the aging discussion to what it feels like to watch my spouse age, watch my Mom age, and watch my kids age, but for now, I am just astonished at watching myself age.  I guess I’ll just keep turning the pages on my life’s story without ever knowing how many pages are left in the book.  Thank God I’m still interested in how the adventure unfolds and enjoying the story along the way!