When I’m 65

Last week I was walking home from work when I saw the shoe shine guy outside the Key Bank building.  In the past he’s offered a shoe shine, in a very friendly way, and this time I made the spur of the moment decision to accept his offer.  Why not take a few minutes for an old-fashioned personal service and come home with some spit and polish?

He turned out to be a good guy who did a really fine job on my shoes, and I’d definitely recommend him and use him again.  As I sat in his chair and we talked, however, the conversation turned to our ages, and the shoe shine guy guessed that I was . . . 65.

IMG_5157“65?  Wait, seriously — 65?”  I was somewhat flummoxed.  “I’m only 57!” “Sorry.  I guessed wrong,” the shoe shine guy said, and then he went back to his work, flipping his brushes and applying his polish and snapping his towel as I stewed about the fact that I evidently look almost a decade older than my actual age. I gave him a good tip when he was finished and then headed home, trying not to walk with an old guy shuffle.

Kish gets a kick out of this story, and so do I.  I’ve never been vain about my appearance because there’s absolutely nothing to be vain about:  I’m about as average-looking as you can get.  I know that as I’ve put on mileage I’ve acquired grey hairs and creases and wrinkles I didn’t have before.  I’ve always thought, however, that you’re only as old as you feel and have tried to maintain a youthful attitude.  Now I know that rationalization doesn’t apply to the exterior me — the shoe shine guy has confirmed it.  If a guy who is working for a tip overshoots by eight years on his age estimate, you’ve got no room for argument or self-deception.  You’re squarely in AARP territory.

Today, as I celebrate birthday number 58, I’ve adopted a more nuanced perspective on the shoeshiner’s comment.  Who wants to look like a kid, anyway, and fret about whether their skin is smooth and their hair has the dewy sheen of youth?  Why not embrace with the Keith Richards alternative instead?  I apparently look like I’ve packed a full 65 years of living onto my 58-year-old frame.  That’s not a bad thing in my book.

A Disturbing Sign Of Approaching Codgerdom

Yesterday morning I was at my desk at the office, innocently attending to work, when the email chime sounded.  I gave the new message a quick glance, saw that it was a sales pitch, and moved my hand to hit the delete button — when I realized that the email message had a very disturbing subtext to it.

The “re” line read:  “Walk-in Bathtub Right For You?  Free Brochure.”  The email, from “America’s Leader in Walk-In Tubs” — no doubt a highly competitive field — featured a color photo of a walk-in bathtub described as “the first walk-in bath commended by The Arthritis Foundation.”  And if that stamp of approval wasn’t enough, other bullet points in the email read “Make Bathing Safe and Easy,” “Ideal for People with Limited Mobility,” and “Hydrovescent Therapy for Gentle Massage to Help Ease Away Your Aches and Pains.”

Yikes!  How did I get on the list for this depressing email solicitation?  When “America’s Leader in Walk-in Tubs” thinks that a walk-in tub might be “right for you,” you might as well hang up the spurs and head to the old folks’ home.  You’re obviously presumed to be decrepit and incapable of attending to basic personal hygiene using standard devices.

The email gave me the option of clicking for a “free information kit” about the virtues of that walk-in tub, but I think I’ll pass on any action that would confirm my place on a codger email list.  My youthful self image won’t stand up against an inbox filled with email solicitations for Serutan, trusses, walkers, sensible shoes, retirement communities, and deals on prescription medication.

An Extra Hour

“Spring ahead, fall back.”  The shifting of hours and the changing of clocks in connection with Daylight Savings Time has been going on for as long as I can remember.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the “fall back” part of the process more and more.  What the heck!  It’s autumn, and it’s getting colder.  Why not stay snug in your warm bed for an extra hour?  And after staying out later than normal last night, getting home after midnight after enjoying the Buckeyes’ drubbing of Illinois at Ohio Stadium, the extra hour of shut-eye is even more welcome.  The fact that it’s a shivery 28 degrees outside just confirms the wisdom of this timekeeping sleight-of-hand.

So I’d like to thank the ever-creative Benjamin Franklin, who came up with the concept of Daylight Savings Time in 1784 as a method to save on candles.  I’d like to thank the New Zealanders, Brits, and Germans who helped to popularize the idea, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who implemented the idea in America as a war-time measure during World War II.  And I’d like to thank the United States Congress, which enacted the Uniform Time Act of 1966 to finally implement Daylight Savings Time as we now know it.

Ben Franklin was all of 78 years old when he came up with the idea for shifting clocks to save a candle or two.  You think the idea might have been motivated by the notion of getting an extra hour of sleep on a cold autumn morning?

Slowing The Aging Process

Mention “aging” to someone in their 50s — like me — and you’re likely to provoke a grim expression.  We feel the aging process in our muscles and bones, we get that ugly twinge after a sudden move, and we see it when we look in the mirror and notice the grey hairs, the wrinkles, and the pathetic turkey neck.

But what if aging could be slowed?  What if therapies and treatments could be developed that would decelerate the ravages of time, or stave it off altogether?

Scientists are looking into the possibility that gene therapy, hormone treatments, and other approaches might have that effect and have been using some of the new treatment concepts in experiments on animals.  Economists believe that treatments that successfully delay aging — and thereby allow people to be productive and healthy longer — could have enormous economic consequences.

Speaking as one of the aging generation, I’m all in favor of seeing whether reasonable treatments can be developed.  At the same time, however, I question whether heroic efforts should be devoted to deferring the effects of aging when there are many other public health issues that also need attention.  And a public health focus on aging makes sense only if the years that are added are healthy, sane, active, non-institutionalized years.  When you regularly visit a nursing home and see how many Americans are living their final years, you can legitimately question whether living longer is inevitably a great thing.

When Death Knocks, And Knocks, And Knocks

When you reach your 50s, as Kish and I have, part of life is dealing with death.  Whether it is more senior members of your family succumbing to age-related conditions, or colleagues who die in inexplicable, tragic accidents, or friends who finally are taken down after long battles with cancer, at some point death becomes a significant, unfortunately recurring part of the reality of your life.

IMG_1087The question is how to deal with the losses, particularly when the deaths come in bunches — as so often seems to be the case.  People find themselves grappling with complex combinations of emotions that they don’t typically experience at the same time — such as grief, and guilt, and also anger — and everyone needs to deal with them in their own way.  When multiple deaths hit in a short period of time, and strike down people who are about your age, you can’t help but think of your own mortality, and wonder. 

Kish and I try to go to calling hours or memorial services, as a kind of tangible sign to the surviving family members of the significance and impact of the departed; I’m not sure whether the family members appreciate it or not, but it makes us feel better.  Collecting your thoughts about the person, mentally composing your own personal tribute, and focusing on the good, also seems to help.  And as we’ve gotten older, and seen how people respond to such losses in different ways, I find that I’ve become a lot less judgmental and a lot more accepting about how people respond.  

Ultimately, though, you just hope that the period of bad news finally ends, and a period of good news begins.  We’ve got a family wedding coming up, and we’re looking forward to it.

My Periodic Glimpse Of The Aging End Game

With Mom in an assisted living facility, my visits to see her have exposed me to the impact of old age in ways I’ve never seen before.  It’s been an eye-opener.

Typically my interaction with the residents happens in two scenarios — coming and going, and in the dining room.  When you enter the facility, you pass outdoor benches and rockers.  If the weather permits, there are usually some residents outside.  Most of them are smokers.  It was a bit jarring the first time I saw 85-year-old women dragging away on cigarettes, but the smokers probably figure what the hell — why not, at this point? Curiously, the smokers seem to be among the residents in the best overall shape.

IMG_1147Many of the other residents are congregated in the large common room near the entrance.  Some of them are in wheelchairs, and most of the rest use walkers.  Some are sleeping — usually deeply, often with heads back and mouths wide open — and others are just sitting.  Although there usually are many people in the room, there typically isn’t much conversation.  Even when I walk in on an event, like a bingo game run by a chipper assistant or an accordion performance, many of the residents are disengaged.

Some residents still get dressed up and take care with their appearance, and others have just let it go.  You’ll see women in make-up and jewelry and coordinated outfits and others who just wear loose shifts.  Some of the people clearly are with it, and others aren’t.  Recently, when Mom was still down in the dining room when I arrived, I sat at her table with a cheerful woman who, upon being introduced, immediately told me that she had no short term memory.  Within a minute, she repeated herself several times.  She clearly was aware of her condition, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Mom’s assisted living facility is a nice place, as such facilities go.  It’s kept very clean, the meals are well-prepared, and the staff members are friendly and attentive and work hard at what has to be a very tough job.  Most of the residents seem to have accepted their situations and are . . . waiting, and trying to make the best of things.  They can’t take care of themselves, their spouses are gone, and they really don’t have any good alternatives.

Even though I’ve been visiting the place for more than a year, I’m still sorting through my reactions to the very complicated issues raised by the end-game scenario.

AIDS And Alzheimer’s

The New York Times has a thought-provoking piece contrasting the public health reaction to AIDS to the public health reaction to Alzheimer’s disease.

The article notes that this year AIDS has fallen out of the list of the top 10 causes of death in New York City — replaced by Alzheimer’s.  In fact, the article reports, research now indicates that deaths attributable to the latter disease are grossly underestimated and that it may be responsible for nearly as many deaths in one year as AIDS has been in the more than three decades since its terrible emergence.  And yet, while AIDS research remains a public health focus supported by a robust social movement, there is no similarly active movement lobbying for increased Alzheimer’s research, prevention, and treatment.  Why?

IMG_2947Although the article correctly points out the success of the fight against AIDS as a public health movement, it was not always that way.  In the early days of AIDS, there was a lot of denial and politicization of the underlying health issues, discussed in appalling detail in the excellent book And the Band Played On:  Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts.  It wasn’t until people got past the denial and politicization and focused on the awful public health cost of AIDS that effective education, prevention, and ultimately treatment programs were developed.  The fact that the disease was so terrible in its toll, and cut down our friends and family members in the prime of their lives, helped to drive the public health effort.

With Alzheimer’s, the toll of the disease is great, but the catalyzing circumstances that energized the fight against AIDS seem to be lacking.  Alzheimer’s is an affliction primarily of the elderly, who are regarded as already in their twilight years.  It’s a painful and somewhat embarrassing disease for surviving family members to deal with, as the victim gradually loses his mental faculties and all memories of loved ones.  So far as we know, Alzheimer’s is not readily communicable, and we’ve already got facilities in place where those unfortunate souls who become debilitated can be kept and cared for while the disease does its grim and inexorable work.  Those different circumstances, perhaps, explain why Alzheimer’s simply doesn’t command the same kind of attention that AIDS received.

Or, alternatively, it may be that these factors have simply kept Alzheimer’s in the denial stage for a much longer period, and only now are people finally confronting the disease and its awful consequences, which leave formerly vibrant people empty, haunted shells of their former selves.  The aging of the Baby Boom generation no doubt will help to increase awareness and attention.  I hope so, because the clock is ticking, and the prospect of contracting Alzheimer’s should scare the hell out of us.