The Rambling Writer: Baby Boomers Trapped in Old Age Suits

NOTE: I’ll resume my Greek island explorations next Saturday. Stay tuned for Naxos, home of Dionysos and Ariadne! Meanwhile, I’ll be undergoing a second hip procedure that may or may not help me pull on my hiking boots and hit the trails again after many months. I’ll do my best to keep this a no-whining zone! I’d love to hear your approaches to aging.

Raise your hand if not so long ago you felt groovy and danced all night to the tunes of Peace and Free Love. Well, okay, not all of us joined the hippies or roamed the globe *cue soundtrack* “looking for adventure,” but most of reveled in the vigor of our young bodies. That is, until we woke up one morning in the past decade or two and realized that the body-repair procedures were stacking up like the 150K-mile part replacements on my venerable Subaru. The question for me is this: Who am I now? Is that intrepid young adventurer still kicking inside there somewhere, or is it time to put on my author hat and oh-so-maturely revise my identity?

I just found out that I’m wearing an “AGNES Suit.” A distressingly apropos article in the May 20 New Yorker, “Younger Longer” by Adam Gopnik, describes various attempts to study and slow human aging. The (presumably still young and frisky) author visits the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he dons the AGNES suit (Age Gain Now Empathy System). [photo above from The New York Times] The suit includes yellow lenses and various restrictions and weights:

“Slowly pulling on the aging suit and then standing up—it looks a bit like one of the spacesuits the Russian cosmonauts wore—you’re at first conscious merely of a little extra weight, a little loss of feeling, a small encumbrance of two at the extremities. Soon, though, it’s actively infuriating. The suit bends you. It slows you…. Every small task becomes effortful…. The concentration that each act requires disrupts the flow of life, which you suddenly become aware is the happiness of life, the ceaseless flow of simple action and responses, choices all made simultaneously and mostly without effort…. The annoyance, after a half hour or so in the suit, tips over into anger: Damn, what’s wrong with the world?”

That “ceaseless flow of simple action” is what I used to take for granted. I’d dance around the kitchen as I prepared a meal, plucking up this or that, shoving a drawer shut with my hip while doing a little spin to reach for a plate. Reading the “Younger” article, I suddenly wondered how long it’s been since I could open a cupboard without really focusing on it and not banging my hand instead. A friend who’s spent her entire life as a dancer has also recently undergone a hip procedure and is wondering if she will be able to return to the dancing that renews her spirit. I, too, used to love dancing, but it’s been years since I could indulge in spontaneous movement. Jump up or twist or climb the steps without getting all body parts aligned properly, and I pay with strains and yet more chronic arthritis pain.

Who was that carefree young woman? With 20/20 hindsight, I realize that I embraced the usual youthful blindness to mortality as I pushed my physical limits to enjoy those exhilarating rushes of adrenaline. Maybe some of my sports injuries contributed to the current joint issues, or maybe it’s my genetic inheritance from the females on both sides of my extended family. (Eeek, those swollen knuckles from Mom and both Grandmas have somehow appeared on my hands!) Somehow I believed that I could simply choose to inherit my father’s lucky physical toughness—he was actively fishing and hunting and gardening until his 90s. If I followed healthy habits and stayed in shape with my active lifestyle, surely I would continue to enjoy all the hiking, snowshoeing, dancing, skiing, horseback riding, snorkeling, piano playing, and gardening I wanted until old age finally laid me underground. Reality check, anyone?

I was once told by a psychologist acquaintance that he’d invented a new syndrome for me: The Hemingway Complex. It meant that I needed to experience physical adventures in order to write about them, with the implication that this was somewhat immature of me. Now I’m glad that I collected such a wealth of experiences in my younger days. I’m pretty sure that these days I couldn’t lug around scuba tanks and guide/rescue tourists underwater in the Caribbean, or sleep for months on a hard mat in a treehouse without running water or electricity, or hike from Cretan mountains to sea down a flooding gorge while wearing a heavy backpack. (I looked so cheerful during my months-long trek around the Greek islands all those years ago!) At least I do have plenty of material for more novels.

My husband Thor and I seem to have hit some sort of body-repair mileage mark over the past couple of years, and are crossing fingers that we can keep the AGNES suit in the closet for a few more years once we’ve finished yet more rounds of physical therapy. We do spend an inordinate amount of our daily routines on maintenance. The joys of retirement…. Thor, a stoic Norwegian, emulates The Dude in “The Big Lebowski” with a summation of “strikes and gutters.” His hiking has taken a hit with a diagnosis of peripheral neuropathy, plus nerve damage from lower-spine stenosis that now requires him to wear a special prosthetic appliance on one leg. On the plus side, his cataract surgery gave him 20/20 vision, after he was legally blind for forty years without his contact lenses or glasses. And his diagnosis spurred him to quit alcohol and sugar, so now he’s trimmed and tightened his core (and is looking even hunkier than ever!). He actually feels healthier overall.

Modern medicine does offer us miracles.  My own spinal stenosis surgery in my neck gave me back the use of my right arm and eliminated the excruciating nerve pain, in effect giving me back my life.

In my first science fiction novel, WILD CARD RUN, part of the plot involves illicit cyborgs that mimic humans and are forbidden by the galactic Plan. A seriously-injured character has had his brain and spinal cord transplanted into a flawless new body impervious to pain and aging. Writing in my athletic twenties, I disapproved of such a technological future, suggesting that there would be some indefinable attributes lost in such a machine body. These days, I’m tempted to say, “Bring it on!”

Not that I want to extend my life span. I don’t want to live to my father’s 96 years, involving all the multiple indignities and insults to himself and those of us attempting to care for him. (The “perpetual aggravation” of old people that Adam Gopnik describes doesn’t begin to capture my father’s rages.)  My personal fantasy would be a world in which people could expect a reasonable life span—maybe in the 80s—enjoying continuing vigor and relative painlessness until an alarm rings, signaling a couple of weeks to get your affairs in order before checking out. And, that, as Gopnik reports, is what some of the recent aging research is aiming toward: “We’ll live well, and then we’ll die.”

While medical science marches on, to the possible benefit of younger generations, we Boomers do our best to stay active and follow healthy habits. I strive to emulate Thor, who cheerfully pivots toward redefining himself within the reality of his new limitations and new horizons opening. Much to be said for being a pragmatic scientist!

And now for your take: How do you define or redefine yourself as you age? What are your tactics moving ahead? Do you believe, as do some philosophers, that the suffering and slowing of old age is an essential stage of wisdom? Or would you rather have that “effortless flow” and use your energy for projects other than maintenance?

Just don’t call me Agnes, yet.

See you next week as we arrive on Naxos!

*****

You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Chanticleer Global Thriller Grand Prize and the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from another research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com

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The Rambling Writer: Baby Boomers Trapped in Old Age Suits — 16 Comments

  1. Nothing says old age as much as receiving the Medicare card in the mail.

    Looking back it seems as if possession of that little card triggered an immediate break down of the body. But in reality as I kept a diary of pain in preparation from surgery I can see the slow decline over decades that accelerated at 65.

    From the perspective of my recliner I can also see that maintaining youthful activity well into middle age–50s and 60s–delayed the breakdown.

    But I’m also looking at some the MAJOR advances in medicine, everything from insulin pens to hip repair done with a scope rather than full joint replacement. And even the replacement joints weigh about 10% of what some of the early ones did.

    So, keep on trucking as long and as well as you can and keep storing up memories as you go.

    • Thanks, Phyl! Yes, getting that Medicare card seemed like a signal, though a lot of my breakdowns had already been occurring. And, yes, the advances are Major! Best wishes to you with the healing.

  2. As someone who has spent a lot of time in recent years figuring out what I’ve learned and what people can learn from physical activity (in my case mostly Aikido and other martial arts), I think your psychologist friend was wrong. I can’t write or even think clearly unless I move as well; even just neighborhood walks make a huge difference.

    But I’m also nursing what I think is a sprained knee right now (from just stepping off a train, mind you) and am keenly aware of my aging body. I haven’t been able to sit kneeling for more than ten years and I notice that on those mornings when something in my body is out of whack I feel my age and older. It’s kind of an ongoing dance between the days when I feel like I could conquer the world and the ones where I ache and move stiffly.

    The only things I wish I’d done differently when I was young are (1) taken up martial arts earlier and (2) not skimped on learning to do difficult moves correctly (because I probably strained my body cheating on the movement). And I plan to keep moving as long as I can.

    • Hi, Nancy! I agree absolutely with all that you say. Movement is life for me as well, so we do what we need to do to keep going. And, yes, alignment is so important. Best wishes with the knee.

  3. I’m partially AGNESsed by the stretched rotator cuff in my right shoulder which means that any movement no matter how small or insignificant can result in a dislocated shoulder at any time. You’d be astonished at how thoughtful my movements have become in the wake of that. I miss just being able to reach into the back seat of a car for something without checking myself as to the inadvisability of the motion. Yup. AGNES to the max… (and I haven’t even got the medicare card yet)

    • I can relate to that carefulness in reaching out! *shoulder twinge* Have you asked your doctor about PRP (platelet rich plasma) injection? That’s what I’m trying next for my hip, and the tears in both areas can be similar. Best wishes!

  4. I wish I had done all the exercise and diet things I do now when I was 30. And yes, I noticed a big increase in complaints after 65 too. Can’t believe the size of that pack you are wearing.

    • Yes, I was carrying a ridiculous amount, and did send some of it home partway through the trip! Probably didn’t help my knees any, but try telling someone in their twenties about problems down the road….

    • Yes. It took me until I reached my 60s to learn to love my body, and I regret that I didn’t appreciate what it was capable of when I was young — including the ability to bounce back from injury and exhaustion. That takes much longer now.

      • So true! I felt that I looked gawky for the longest time — what a waste! But I did appreciate my strength and agility even then. Wish we could all have that back.

    • Sherwood, we all seem to be on the same track! I hope your cataract surgery results are as good as Thor’s. Let me know how it goes. What type of lenses did you choose — straightforward distance vision, or graduated (not sure if that is the right term for the ones that also let you read)? I’ll have to decide in the not-too-distant future.

      • I went for the whole enchilada. I’ve had crap vision for so long, I figured if someone was going to be screwing with my eyes, I wanted one and done. Right now it’s that horrible state of one eye done, and one eye with a coke-bottle glasses lens, and it’s difficult to make the two blend. So I’m working with one eye open at a time. Blargh!

        The eye with the cataract still in is seeing the world noticeably yellower. The first thing I saw when I was able to start seeing through the repaired eye was how blue everything was, and how bright! And how different depth is.

  5. I woke up this morning with BPPV – a form of vertigo that effects older people without warning. The B stands for “benign” so not a big deal, right? I spent the morning researching it, and the exercises that will in time alleviate it, although the first couple of rounds just made me feel worse. I was congratulating myself on my level of all-around health and fitness, given my recent 70th birthday, but this “benign” ailment has suddenly robbed me of my confidence. Any quick movement of the head makes me feel as if I am falling. Yes, old age is a bitch. Go on dancing as long as you can, Sarah. I think I’ll sit this one out until my head stops spinning.

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