Random Thoughts on Aging

“As we grow old…the beauty steals inward”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

As we grow old, our skeletons push outward. Our skin thins, sags, becomes translucent, revealing the bones beneath. The bones which have always been there holding us up, getting us through, are eager to announce their presence. Why do we fight it? Is a large, old Oak tree less appealing than a sapling? And let’s not forget the wine analogy. People who are full of years have character. They’ve beat the odds, survived, and should wear their “uniform” proudly.

As we age, our true selves also emerge. The game-playing days of youth are spent. Ask for what you want. Wallow in emotions. Wear comfortable shoes. Have a sensible hair style. Say “I love you” with abandon. How freeing!

I work with elderly people. They are live, open history books. I’m amazed by their stories, their strength, and spirit. I marvel at their wisdom. There are good days and bad and they can’t hide which kind they’re having. They are from varying socioeconomic situations but have many commonalities. As we grow old, we grow more alike. So why fight it?

Relationships are the most important factor in having a positive aging experience. The circle grows smaller the more frail a person becomes, until only the most loyal family members and friends remain. They are the marrow. In my work I’ve observed people who have one, paid aide as their only daily contact and I’ve observed people who have several family members who check on them daily. If we spend our lives strengthening bonds with others, we will have strength to draw upon in our later years.

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Pink About This

Our local newspaper arrived printed on pink newsprint last week to highlight breast cancer awareness month. If I send in the pink tops of my yoplait yogurt, I can get 10 cents donated to breast cancer research. To support the cure, I can buy some shoes on QVC, buy a Michael Kors designed T-shirt at Saks, buy Anne Klein’s pink-inspired jewelry, and the list goes goes on, and on, and on.  Okay, so we all know October is Breast Cancer Awareness month here in the old U. S. of A. And what exactly are we supposed to be aware of? That women are becoming ill, disfigured, and dying from this condition? That there are some possible new drugs, radiation, chemotherapy, or some other expensive hospital treatment in the works? That there’s a DNA tag that may pre-screen for women who are more susceptible? That will be really meaningful for the women who then go ahead and get breast cancer anyhow…

Here’s the “awareness” I’ve been obsessing on: that birth control pills and post-menopausal hormone therapy INCREASE THE RISK OF BREAST CANCER.   (Not to mention cervical cancer, heart attacks and strokes, just for starters.)

I would be hard pressed among my friends to come up with many who have not taken birth control pills for decades. Plenty of their daughters have started them in their teens, to be “ready” for sexual activity, and, hey, probably have better skin in the meantime. And with no attempt to uncover this intimate information, I know that several of my friends mothers are on post-menopausal hormone therapy. Like just about every adult woman in American, I have lost women I cared deeply about to breast cancer. And just about every adult woman I know is also in a higher risk category for contracting breast cancer.

So where are all the much-needed, unbiased studies looking into the link between taking hormones and getting breast cancer? If all the women taking birth control and PHT pills knew this increased their risk for breast cancer, would some of them make different decisions? And would the breast cancer rate drop in response?

When I see the “pink” crowds, mostly women of all ages, walking on a gorgeous fall weekend through some town center, arm-in-arm, walking in commemoration and support of loved ones lost to or battling the disease, walking to raise money in desperate desire to decrease this devastation, I feel great sadness for the families involved. But that sadness is overshadowed by a far uglier emotion. Contempt for some of the people and “medical” organizations that will receive the money these dedicated walkers have raised.

Dr. Andrew Weil states the problem clearly: Here in America, we do not have a health-care system, we have a disease-care system. The medical system in our country is based on an incredibly incestuous relationships between doctors who are supposed to be safeguarding our wellbeing, and pharmaceutical companies hauling in money hand over foot, thanks to the drugs so many willing doctors send our way. Pharmaceutical companies fund many if not most of the studies that decide whether drugs are “safe” or not, and what the benefits and risks are, with repeated documented disclosures of how riddled this system is with abuse and fraud. And then, to add insult to injury, we are bombarded with slick advertising campaigns built around dire prophesies based on conveniently manipulated statistics or outright lies about all the health problems we could be about to contract, followed by images of sunny butterfly-filled days and dreamy nights if we take drugs. (In most countries in Europe, the advertising of pharmaceutical drugs has been outlawed. Think about it. Why are prescription drugs advertised to the general public?) Our medical system needs us to be sick, regularly and seriously, to continue to rake in billions of dollars. So all we often get in terms of warnings is a quick auctioneer-style five-second rambling at the end of an ad about side effects or teeny tiny printing on or in packaging that is difficult, if not impossible, to read. When your doctor writes a prescription, does he or she take the time to inform you of all possible side effects, and then include you in the decision of whether to go ahead with the drug? An AARP study says just about never.

I may choose to eschew pharmaceuticals myself, but that does not mean I am “against” them. Clearly, a large number of people want to take drugs. They offer seemingly easier solutions to medical problems. What I am against is a system that woefully neglects discussing alternative, safer methods of treatment, that avoids dispersing wide-spread information about the risks of what patients are taking, and disgustingly produces ads for prescription drugs that aren’t too different than those for a chocolate bar.

So, pink people, how about demanding to be informed and included in your health care decisions? I think that will get us a lot farther than taking another walk down the street wearing a pink ribbon…

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I Am Gardener Hear Me Roar

I feel centered around flowers and plants.  I’ve recently rediscovered this and, after dozens of years of hiatus, have become, once again, a professional floral designer.  In the northeast, this time of year is especially grand at a florist/plant shop/nursery as everyone and everything gears up for Easter, Mother’s Day, and the summer growing season. Cut flowers fill the refrigerator in more abundant colors and varieties. Shipments of pots, seeds, supplies and plants begin to arrive daily. Multitudes of pansies fill the benches outside, but most outdoor flowers have not yet arrived for us here in New England. A few petunias hang in the greenhouse, but new owners will keep them inside for now. Temperatures are still too cool outdoors. So gardeners roam, pace, and dream about the coming months and all the pleasure to come as they work the soil, tend and plant, welcome the water, and watch the lush and colorful results. Here, we wait a little longer for the natural world to come alive, literally, and maybe we enjoy it all the more.

As I arranged a glass cube of white daisy mums and pink roses on the floral counter, a customer caught my attention. She was elderly and silver haired, her back curved more like a crescent moon than a plant stake, and she could not move particularly fast. She shuffled, in sensible shoes, peering through her eyeglasses at different displays, with no obvious purpose, and yet, the energy she gave off was not aimless.  She came over and asked me a question, a question which I can not recall now because I am so consumed by what she said afterward.  I know I answered her question, and she nodded.  Then a powerful energy beamed out of her blue eyes as she speared me with her gaze, firmed her carriage, and proclaimed in a low but vibrant voice, “I can not wait to plant.” Like a lioness, my dowager gardener emitted this growl of impatience, of warning. The call to be a part of this verdant cycle of life and and rebirth spoke to her, still, and she needed to act.

When she left, frustration trailed behind her, for the time was not yet, not planting season quite yet for her and whatever her garden visions entailed. But she was wrong. She had planted a seed within me, a glimpse of a white-haired future where the urge to happily drown in this lively lushness still thrives.  Mere days later, this seed sprouts, and already, sends off shoots…       

Ah, spring. Your promise is truly eternal.

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Beauty Secrets from Italy


Ladies of a certain age, say, over forty…check thisout.  I have discovered, completely by surprise,a beauty secret that you, too can share. The price is not cheap, but, there are no surgical risks, in fact, verylittle risk at all.  No experts, no dailyroutines, no diets or deprivation. For the price of a trip to Italy, you willbe looked at with interest by men. They will notice you, and show in somemanner that they appreciate what they see, although you will not have changedone bit since departing home, except perhaps an extra scarf and some funearrings.  It can happen any place: a tramin Milan, or on the vaporetto in Venice, that is – if youare not solely among other tourists. And if you look back, they will hold youreyes until you look away.  On thecondition, of course, that you are not accompanied by a man, say, your husband,or boyfriend.  

 

It was, I can say, the great discovery of my last trip to Italy, covering Venice,Padua, and Milanwith my good friend and travelmate, MJ.  Wehad done an earlier trip and were coming back as veterans of Italian customs,familiar with subways and trains, restaurants and bathrooms. The first timearound, we were so busy gazing upwards at ruins and cathedrals, and downwardsat our maps, that we saw less of the middle ground — or men. This time, MJsaid, “We’ll take our time, and wander; who knows what we’ll see.” Or, whomight see us.

 

So, I noticed, men were checking me out: late 40’s, andunadorned with anything remotely glamorous. Not a speck of gold, just thecostume jewelry I wouldn’t care if I lost. Same hair, same wardrobe, samewrinkles, a stubborn hold out from the relentless pressure to “get young”.  It’s essentially the same package as attwenty – height, weight, essential build — but there were signs of middle-agein hair and skin, a certain pull of gravity, some looseness in the flesh,despite the years of walking and yoga. For clothes, I’ve relied pretty much onLiz Claiborne, with J. Jill thrown in for whimsy; there’s no low-rise jeans, nomidriffs, no straps showing, flat shoes and functional make-up.  

 

There you have me, no candidate for a magazine cover; infact, not even under consideration. I can go days at a time being pretty muchinvisible, just for being a woman over forty without attempts to minimize theappearance of age.  My cloak ofinvisibility is sometimes so strong, I could hold my own with Harry Potter, orperhaps take up a career in espionage. It’s uncanny, and sometimes even useful. Of course, I’d been so busy inrecent years, with kids, work, house, family, I didn’t realize that I hadchanged so much.  It doesn’t seem so longago that I put on a skirt and put up my hair, and someone would be looking; itwas only natural. I cannot say I am immune to the message that young is better:ads for teeth whitening, microdermabrasion, breast augmentation, it’s all outthere, and who is it aimed at, if not me? And what does it suggest but thatsomething is wrong with me that could be fixed, if only… for only….


 But, back to Italy, andItalian men. Various men, in various situations. There was one in particular inMilan; Leonardo I’ll call him, since Milan in so many ways is the city of Leonardo da Vinci – a man whose vision Iadmire. During our visit, da Vinci’s presence was everywhere — on billboardsand posters, a museum devoted to his inventions.  This ideal man was on my mind.MJ and I had found a restaurant open early for dinner, and hadtaken our seats. Already there was a table of three men, the youngest probablythirty, the older two in their forties. Not business types, more arty looking with stylish casual clothes. Thecity intelligensia deeply engaged in conversation that I could not understand aword of.  

I looked over MJ’s shoulder, and saw that one of the men waslooking at me. When I realized it, I gave a polite smile and turned back to thecorni misto, our appetizer of grilled warm vegetables. Another sip ofwine.  After more chat with MJ, my eyeswandered the room, and again, he was looking at me. 

 

“Leonardo!” I said – to myself.  Of course, I didn’t know his name.  He wore his dark hair longish down his neck,and had a beard and mustache touched with gray, intense brown eyes under afurrowed brow.  In fact, he looked like acleaned up version of the statue of Leonardo da Vinci that we had seen in thepiazza across from La Scala, but nicely trimmed and without the cloak. 

 

I looked at this man and let my gaze meet his, so that heknew I was looking, and seeing him, too.

Then, of course, the realization that I was almost 50 andwearing a wedding ring, and not dressed for romance. What was he thinking?  I guess that my wedding ring was not a problemfor him, or that a woman out unescorted by a man was otherwise available.

 

The next time our eyes met eyes, I recognized the old,familiar story: did I find him interesting, as he did me?  Well, yes, but there was nothing to do aboutit.  His watching me, lightly, subtly,and my acknowledgement, became part of the pleasure of the meal — notapparent, I don’t think, to anyone else. It was a very good meal, I assure you.

Then, the men were finished ahead of us, and scraping backchairs to leave.  The business with ilconti and warm thanks to the chef (from Naples)for good food and service.  And then theywere leaving, but not before my Leonard looked back at me, as I knew he would. Ismiled fully, raising my shoulders and my eyebrows: there was nothing further;this was it.  But the truth was, I wantedto run after him, and kiss him, and say “Grazie. Grazie, Leonardo, for seeingme.”

Later in bed, I realized how much it meant to me, to be seenand appreciated, and pondered the magic that had somehow transformed me. It wasa stumper, until I lighted on to the idea of middle-aged Italian women, and howgood they looked.  At first, I didn’teven see them individually, I was so intimidated by their sense of style. Venice, Padua, Milan, yes, they do know athing or two about fashion – but it’s not like they just came off the walkway. Irealized, first of all, they dressed their age. Secondly, some very goodlooking women had wrinkles and imperfect teeth and graying hair.

 There were chins without tucks and eyeswithout lifts.  Women my age in thecities were fit enough from all the walking (or even riding bikes and Vespas),but they were not skinny.

 

Not until the end of the trip could I fully appreciate thatDa Vinci’s Mona Lisa was of a mature, fully grown, married woman.  A matron, not sweet or virginal.  In the mythology surrounding the painting,there is speculation that she wears dark, somber colors because she is inmourning.  She is experienced. 

 

This is what I found: the same me, there as here, admired or unseen.  The difference, it seems, is in the eyes ofthe beholders, and what they are conditioned to see as attractive. The reason middle-agedwomen in this country begin to feel unattractive, I suspect, is related in manyways to companies’ desire to sell anti-aging beauty products. But how about,instead, we spend the money on a trip to Italy, on our own, free ofobligations for a few days?  I promise,you will come back feeling beautiful.

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Maybe You Aren't As Young As You Feel, And That's Okay!!

My brothers and I are moving my 88-year-old mother into a senior community.  This had been a long drawn-out process because she doesn’t want to accept the fact that she is aging.  But a veteran now of two strokes, she’s tired of being alone and struggling to maintain her lifestyle and the upkeep of her large townhouse.  So finally, we are now more or less united, mother and children, on the need for the move.   An apartment the size she wants has become available, and this week, she took her second tour of the place.  It was my first time, so we spent a couple hours, my two brothers, my mother, a staff member, and I, walking around to see the different activity and dining areas and how the senior residents spend their days there.  As they moved from activities like bridge, garden club, dining at one of the lovely restaurants, more than one resident told us with real light in her eyes and joy in her voice, “You’re going to love it here.”    

However, returning home, my mother sagged against one of her kitchen chairs, clearly drained, and said, “I thought everyone there looked ancient.”  

I think I managed to keep my mouth from falling open.  For what I’d come away with was startling different:  that every senior  resident we saw there was moving with more ease, energy, and purpose than my mother!  (My mother, who, other than a very slight hitch in her walk from the stroke and very minor hypothyroidism, is in excellent health.)   
 
When my brother drove me to the airport, I mentioned what she’d said.  “It’s interesting what our perceptions of ourself are,” he replied.  “I don’t feel like a 62-year-old man, but when I look in the mirror, I see one.”  

I don’t feel my age, either.  And people often think I’m younger than I am.  As a culture, we’ve been conditioned to think this is optimum.  At least once we get to a certain age.  As a young adult, we’re supposed to grow up.  But once we hit a certain age, and I’m not sure what exact age that is, now the goal is to regress. To become young again. You’re as young as you feel. The innocence of child. The ability to play. Youthful thinking. All ways to be, but only once you really aren’t a child at all anymore.  

I’m not suggesting there isn’t a kernel of a good thought here.  But America certainly has to be top on the list of cultures taking this idea WAY TOO FAR.  We get bombarded with the potential detrimental physical ramifications when people turn to the surgeon’s knife to cut, paste, suck, twist, stretch, and reposition their skin, muscles, fat and tissues in an effort to look young.   But how about the mental and emotional ramifications of trying to stay so young?   I’m getting a first-hand view of what this can do to an individual.  My mother, a long-time and stalwart member of this cult of youth, cannot concept that living in a virtual resort community geared for people of similar abilities and inclinations as her current self could be the happiest of places for her. Instead, she only  sees a place for old people, and infers that if she’s moving there, “I’m old, too, and that can only be awful.”         

      

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Mother and Daughter, A WIP

For many women I know, the mother-daughter relationship is a continual work in progress.  Attempting to figure out the complexities, the absurdities, the mysteries of this all-important bond is a recurring conversational exercise with me and my friends.   How my perception of my mother and our relationship continues to change is especially fascinating to me.   Every year that goes by, I discern aspects of my mother, and myself, that years ago I never imagined existed.  Not all of these revelations have left me warm and fuzzy.  

But I think I’ve traveled through the largest portion of the blame-it-on-Mom (or Dad, or parents, or family) stage  that most adults go through because my mother was just here for a three-week visit, and I enjoyed it.   Widowed for over three years, she’s finally into what I’ll call the widow slide.  Many parents in their later years stick to their hard, often conservative, opinions, as long as they have their partner to back them up, but once they’re solo, within the immediate family anyhow, they’ve lost their generational back-up.   So the remaining parent can either rigidly maintain decades-old critical opinions and remain an outcast in the evolving society of their family, or they can begin to slide toward center.   Indicators of the slide?  Grandma quits criticizing the kids’ rampant computer use, and learns to email.  She tries her daughter’s favorite meal, raw fish.   Maybe she can’t embrace her granddaughter’s nose piercing or her grandson wearing earrings, but she at least keeps her negative thoughts to herself now.  That’s progress!  

None of these examples describe my 88-year-old mother, but she has so softened her presentation on sharing her opinions, this time around she was actually interesting to listen to!  She’s also added flirting with my husband, and I can’t blame her.  He is apparently the rare son-in-law who has constantly extended an invitation to come and stay, and meant it.  He missed her when she left, and said so.  But I am my mother’s daughter, and apparently could not keep my mouth shut, leave the topic on a positive note, and move on.   

“I know it’s really minor, but there’s just one thing that I still struggle with.”  

Standing over the kitchen counter, munching a plum, he looks over at me still sitting at the dinner table.  

“I know she doesn’t have that much energy, and her balance is off from the stroke, so dressing is more of a chore.   But she doesn’t seem to care what she’s wearing.  That’s hard for me.  When we went to the cranberry bog to walk the dog, she had on light blue shorts, a turquoise and brown top, tan ankle socks with a black stripe on top, and those awful brown sandals.”

My husband continues to look at me, saying nothing.  He knows how much I like clothes, design, anything that exudes beauty.  He knows my mother used to, too.  My mother was a hot ticket in her heyday, a fraternity dream girl who even now needs little encouragement to talk about the fox stole her father bought her before she left for college.  “You’re getting lost in minutia,” he says.  

He continues to look at me, and I know he knows I’m still mentally trying to work this through to a place where I’m not bothered.  My husband, who lost his father 12 years ago, who never had the opportunity to go through the blame-it-on Dad years and come out on the other side with a genuine relationship repeats, “You’re getting lost in minutia.”  He pauses.  “What you’re missing is–she’s here.”   

I don’t hate it when my husband is right.  I’m reminded of one of the main reasons I fell in love with him in the first place–his rare ability to emerge out of his male oblivion, and nail me.  

I’m looking forward to my mother’s next visit.  Because I can.   

   
   

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They're Not Dead Yet

“I love old people,” I said, wistfully, from the passenger side of our car. An elderly gentleman had just made eye contact with us, smiled, gave a slight wave, then hustled across the front of our car in a parking lot at a local farm stand. He literally jogged, this dapper, white-haired, 80-something man.
“Why?” One of my kids asked.
“Hmm?”
“Why do you love old people?”
Good question.
“They’re so considerate,” I began, “Did you see how he made eye contact and waved and smiled? Most people don’t do that anymore. They just slouch out in front of your car and expect the driver to be watching. When a car stops for them, they just mosey across like you have all the time in the world. Old people are from a different time, when people weren’t in such a hurry, trying to pack in a million things a day, wearing their phones and computers like jewelry. Back then, people had manners and respect for each other, respect for authority. Old people pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. They worked hard to make this a prosperous nation. Now everyone wants a handout. And did you see how he was dressed? Nice pressed, collared shirt and slacks? Nowadays everyone’s running around in jeans and t-shirts, cloaked in tattoos and pierced out the wazoo!” 
“I won’t ever get my wazoo pierced!”

My thoughts turned to my grandparents, bless their hearts, who are 96 and 90. They’ve been married 73 years and still hold hands. Up until a couple months ago, they lived on their own. Then grandpa had a fall and was in the hospital for a month, clinging to life. He recovered somewhat, and they are now trying to settle into an imperfect living arrangement. The problem is, there is no perfect living arrangement for waning elderly folks, especially for a married couple. They are cognizant and capable enough to still desire autonomy but have just enough limitations to preclude them from going back home. Money is scarce and options, thin. In-home, round-the-clock care is too expensive. Nursing homes are too impersonal and don’t offer any privacy. Assisted living promised them the right balance of care and personal space but the night workers ignore Grandpa’s pleas to help him get out of bed and walk to the restroom. Their solution? Adult diapers.

I can just picture the night crew yukking it up at the control desk, watching sitcom re-runs, and stuffing their faces while the residents are desperate to relieve themselves and humiliated to finally have to urinate in a diaper. All this for $4,000 a month. I’m not sure if the money is for the workers or the diapers. They told my Aunt they just don’t have the manpower to take all the men to the restroom at night every time they ring. Well, what are they getting paid to do? My aunt is so enmeshed in their day-to-day care, still, that she doesn’t have time to look into other options. But, you can’t just pull an elderly couple out of one assisted living home and plop them into another like changing hotel rooms when the non-smoking room stinks like cigarettes. They are fragile. Not only their bodies, but their feelings.

My eyes have been opened to the fallacies in the elderly care system: The lack of options, the exorbitant costs, the ridiculous amount of time and paperwork required to get anything accomplished – as if they have loads of time. With the ripening of the Baby Boomer population, I assumed a smorgasbord of affordable services would already be in place. Has America been too busy to care? Inconsiderate? Lazy? Out getting tattoos?

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