Accommodating Aging…

In a way I feel profoundly unqualified to write this piece for although I am 63 years of age I am continually discovering just how ill-prepared I am for my advancing years.  In hindsight I largely behaved as though I was ’18 and invincible’ until a foolish misstep on March 27, 2015 yielded a severely fractured left radius and ulna and forced me to recognize my own mortality.  Thirty eight thousand dollars and a session of major orthopedic surgery later I began to learn just how unprepared I was for life as a sexagenarian.


Serious hardware required to repair my left elbow and left radius and ulna!

Looking back my preparations for aging were not helped by almost perfect health across my first five and a half decades; I suffered nothing worse than ‘pleurisy of the diaphragm’ – something that sent me to the hospital emergency room three times in my life – and the infrequent bout with the flu as well as a few cases of what could only have been potent staph food poisoning.  As I aged I watched so many of my peers start to struggle with back, neck and joint issues while I just continued to march forward.  I’d always struggled with my weight although I’d managed to remain perhaps eight to twelve pounds heavier than I should have been for most of my working life.  But, regardless, I cannot damn a life of great health especially as so many out there would probably kill to experience what I did in terms of a lack of health issues.

The aforementioned accident in March of 2015 really forced me to re-evaluate just how I was living in so many ways.  Because it left me with virtually an artificial left elbow along with a plate and six bone screws in my left forearm I was forced to give up any activities which involved impacts of any kind.  Sadly, the one exercise I truly enjoy is splitting firewood; that is now just a fond memory.  My left arm is probably 85% of what it was before the accident but for some unknown reason my left wrist – apparently uninjured in the fall – became very painful in June of 2015 and remains so to this day.  I proceeded to learn the truth of something a friend had shared with me; “You do not want to be of ‘interest’ to Western medicine!”.  I spent another $5,000 plus on tests including a bone scan but nothing revealed any cause for the pain.  At this point my left wrist is maybe 50% of what it was before the accident and hasn’t really improved much since it first began to ache.  This may well be as much recovery as I’m going to see.  My surgeon gave me two choices; learn to live with the situation or undergo another surgery to remove the plate and screws.  The latter is totally unknown; he cannot guarantee this will help and cannot even guarantee the operation wouldn’t make the arm/wrist worse.  I’ll wait until March of 2017 and then re-evaluate my healing.  Hopefully, by then, I’ll be able to make an informed choice.

But much more has changed since that March day in 2015; I still bear the mental scars of taking such a sudden, nasty fall and it has forced me to be very cautious when it comes to uncertain footing.  Given all the ice we’ve experienced across the past two winters this means I rarely get outside from November through April unless I put on traction ‘slip on’s’ and use my walking staves.  Even then I cannot escape a sense of dread whenever my feet slip.  I also believe something happened regarding my sense of balance which was never all that great; nowadays I’m much less steady on my feet and I’m flat out unwilling to put myself more than a few feet off the ground be it on a ladder or similar.

Everyone is aware as we age our faculties tend to become less sharp and are ‘off line’ more often.  Our physical prowess also tends to fade with the years as does our ability to fight off illness and especially to quickly recover.  For some of us this means we begin to lose faith in ourselves and our abilities; needless to say this is not good.  However, refusing to acknowledge aging can and does remove the ‘mind’s edge’ is also rather unhealthy as it leaves one vulnerable to making perceptual or memory related mistakes and then exacerbating them by refusing to consider one might be wrong.  This is a very fine balancing act and one I’m really struggling to find that point of parity.  I sense my accident and its fallout truly pushed me too far in the direction of self-doubt and uncertainty regarding my abilities.  Such a shift was probably good in terms of what I was willing to physically undertake and/or endure but not so good regarding my mental faculties.  With respect to the latter I feel I must come to embrace the idea that while my mental abilities may not be what they were ten or even five years back they are far from useless especially when factoring in experience.  And I should be pleased I’ve learned the surety of my youth hasn’t translated into me being unable to accept the lessening of my mental capabilities.  In the end a bit of healthy respect for memory ‘slippage’ and/or perceptual incongruities becoming more evident with my passing years is most likely a very good thing.

While I’ve been saying more and more often ‘this aging thing isn’t for the faint of heart’ I also recognize that regardless of its problems it does beat the alternative.  It is so very important to remember these concepts on those mornings when just getting out of bed after the previous day’s exertions can be a painful process.  For those of us lucky enough to live into our sixties, seventies and beyond inculcating a sense of celebrating our lives becomes more and more important.  As with so many other things in life if we allow ourselves to become mired in the minutiae we lose touch with ‘the big picture’ and this never produces a positive effect.  As stiff or sore as I might be some mornings I also know there’s a gel cap of Naproxen sodium in the bathroom medicine cabinet that will ease most of the pain.  Regarding my slowly declining mental facilities…well, I still function and the longer I live the more experience I have to call upon!  And, too, I continue to develop even more memories involving life in ‘The Great Land’…


With Age Comes Introspection…

Across the past few weeks I’ve had more than enough time on my hands as I continue to heal from my severely fractured left radius and ulna and restrain myself from undertaking much in terms of physical activities per my OT Jen. It has been almost ten weeks since that cloudy and cool March day when a smallest of motions changed my current existence and set me off on a voyage of discovery once the pain was managed. In hindsight I now recognize I went through a number of ‘phases’ with the severe injury: initially it was extreme pain and hoping the arm was just wrenched or similar, then western medicine intervened and I learned I had broken my left arm although determining the severity had to wait – along with a cast and pain meds – until I drove myself the 65 miles or so to the Mat Su Regional Health Clinic, then the long wait to schedule a visit to the orthopedic surgeon followed by the crushing news I would need full surgery followed by the actual surgery. 

At this point I began the healing process; initially I was in ‘La La Land’ thanks to the Percocets but soon I realized I did not need them regularly but rather once in a while and the opiate fog slowly lifted. From time to time a solid dose of ethyl alcohol was substituted but for the most part I was focused on learning to get by with just my right arm. This required weeks of learning interspersed with moments of frustration and some rage at my inability to just ‘function’. When the cast was finally removed I began another phase; recovery with a lot of occupational therapy which is where I am currently. Jen is thrilled with my progress to date and feels I should regain 90% of my former range of motion and flexibility if not more. I may only have another few weeks of required ‘office’ therapy before I enter into the much longer phase of continued ‘home’ work on stretching and strengthening my left arm. 

During the last few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of introspection on my part; some driven no doubt by being bored with respect to getting out and doing things but some of this is based much deeper.Having led an injury free life to this point I was ill-prepared for the immediate shock of such a serious fall; in this case the shock was good as it allowed me to get back home before I had an inkling of the severity of the damage to my left arm. After learning of the nature of the insult and understanding I would require serious surgery I developed a sense of fear regarding my balance even though what caused me to trip would’ve tripped anyone. I suffered nightmares about falling for many weeks and I couldn’t even consider jumping while on any infirm surface like ice or wet snow. Since that time I’ve found myself unwilling to climb ladders or do anything that might put me in a position to fall. Soon this came to frustrate me as while I do not want to repeat such an accident I sure as Hell do not want to live in fear of doing so! And so it is I find myself profoundly changed by this one perhaps 3 second occurrence. I am continuing to force myself to ‘get up, dust myself off and get back on the horse’ and I’m seeing some success. 

But this accident really delivered a perspective shift with respect to the perhaps too cavalier outlook I had on living alone. Of course I’ve considered the ramifications in the past but once again I knew them only from an intellectual level; this event brought in the emotional and now spiritual perspectives. And this has caused some deep introspection on my part. I cannot see any change to my existence and I really do not want any; I truly enjoy living solo with my canine companions and I love living in semi-rural south central Alaska! But because I’m a thoughtful being I cannot escape the need to reflect upon not just my situation but what I have missed out on in taking this path. It is almost as though the emotional and spiritual shock from the accident were initially buried as my body sought to come to terms with the injury and then heal it. But I could only bury these powerful motivations for so long and now they have exploded into my consciousness with the force of a moose bursting from a tree line. As such I have no choice but to indulge them regardless of where they take me. 

I’ve come to appreciate that life is tenuous; that it can be robust and full at one point yet changed forever in the blink of an eye. I really reinforced my slowly evolving outlook of the past decade that I am aging and with that age comes an awareness of one’s mortality both in remaining years but also in one’s physical condition. I have faced this realization and decided that I must heed to its basic premise but I must also push against its constraints but do so in a sensible and controlled fashion. In hindsight I should long ago have really learned that one instance can change one’s life; sometimes for the good but also sometimes for the bad. The real importance here is not the actual instance or event but rather how we choose to respond to said instance or event. Even at the older age of sixty one and two thirds years it is possible to take a very negative event (my accident) and experience the pain, the frustration, the desperation yet never lose sight of the positives. Sure, I will never regain the $48,000 that three second error in judgment cost me and my left arm will never fully recover; in addition I know I’ll have some psychic scarring which may or may not heal but the latter is up to me. 

And what positives can I glean from such a tumultuous event..? I learned I can tolerate extreme pain for more than a day yet still function. All of the health care professionals I met during this event marveled that I managed to go 28 hours without pain meds given the severity of the accident. I learned that I was ill-equipped to manage daily life on my own if I was crippled by some physical shortcoming. This led to me re-thinking some of my situation; I realized that if I had broken a leg or ankle I would be in deep kimchee because all the bedrooms are on the second floor and because my house is a renovated and ‘add on’ cabin the stairs are both narrow and very steep. A simple solution was the purchase of a portable inflatable bed for storage on the main floor. Should I ever manage to break a leg or ankle I’ll still have a place to sleep on the main floor and be able to forgo the steps for some time. But I believe the most important positives have come from my introspection’s regarding myself and my place in life. I’ve lost that ‘oh so common’ feeling that life is something that just happens and is ‘owed’ to we humans. Now I recognize the precious nature of life in general and my physical health in particular; I both suspect and hope I will never again take these for granted. In a way I now view my existence with clearer sight as I am no longer ‘clouded’ by the care free belief that I am invincible and the perception that hugely upsetting events cannot happen to me. 

I’d say my life is indeed now richer for this experience and I also view it as more precious and better understand its tenuous nature. Although I’d have not believed it prior to this situation the introduction of a monumentally negative event in my life has actually allowed me to better perceive life and appreciate it in all its fragility and wonder.

Solo and Sick

Although normally a very healthy person suffering only from the usual age related infirmities (i.e. weakening eyes, forgetfulness, morning aches, weight gain, etc.) at the start of February I contracted some illness which apparently is burning through this region as well as many places in the lower 48.  It is rather unusual in that it begins with a sore throat, low grade fever, a sense of overall weakness/lack of energy and slowly mounting cough; by day two the cough is a deep, hacking repetitive monster settled well into one’s lungs.  By day four the fever and sore throat are gone but the cough remains in full force although one can begin to feel it lifting its locus from the lungs into the throat.  By day seven all symptoms are gone except for a general weakness and the cough.  I am now into day twelve of this illness and it continues to tease me with feelings it is disappearing followed by kicking my butt if I so much as try to start acting normally.  But across this entire situation I’ve experienced no congestion in either my lungs of my head, something that’s very surprising given the cough.  From what I’ve been told the cough requires around three weeks to completely disappear.  I was quite impressed with the fact this organism was capable of knocking me flat on my back for the first five days; all I did was sleep, drink gallons of water, sleep, try to hold down some soup and sleep.  In the first 96 hours of this battle I believe I sent 78 hours in bed.  As the fever and sore throat departed and the cough moved up into my throat my need for sleep has diminished although I’m still making sure I get at least ten hours a night.

All told this has been a most unpleasant time and it has caused me to reflect upon myself as a patient and my lifestyle as a single human being.  I’ve known since childhood I am a lousy patient and my demeanor is directly proportional to how bad I feel; in this case imagine an old grizzly bear awakened abruptly from hibernation only to find snow and cold outside his den suffering from severe hunger and possessing a fuse maybe a sixteenth of an inch in length.  I feel so bad for my dogs as although I honestly try they still get the brunt of my negativity and Heaven knows they do not deserve it!  In fact given my largely comatose condition across the first five days and their almost non-existent exercise they have behaved wonderfully.  Yes, I did get up to let them outside three times a day and made sure they had food and water but that was about as much as I could muster yet they responded by being perfect family members.  Really makes me proud of how I raised them but much more so proud of their intelligence, patience and loyalty.  It always put a smile on my face when I’d finally awaken in the morning and find Qanuk’s favorite tennis ball by my head; he ‘gave’ it to me just in case I might want to awaken and play a bit.  Anana is the classic Mal; endless patience broken only by random periods of her need to ‘talk’ up a storm.  I love the Mal vocabulary of howls, grunts, wheezes and similar and thus I’ve always encouraged her to be vocal.  As I’ve improved I’ve been able to get them outside; I’ll often load them in my Escape and drive around handling important chores.  Upon finishing I drop them on a back road a few miles from the house and allow them to chase me back home.  A real advantage to living rural is the complete lack of traffic on the back roads!

This is as ill as I’ve been in many decades and it really did cause me to reflect upon my choice to be living solo with just my dogs in a rural setting.  Because I am still relatively new to south central Alaska I have yet to build up a robust network although I must admit I was surprised and pleased by so many genuine offers to walk the dogs, make store runs and similar!  I knew Alaskans are known for being caring, sharing people but even so I did not expect this level of support.  Yet this remains quite different from what so many folks have in terms of support be it a significant other or close by family.  In working through my desire to relocate to this area I was painfully aware I would be putting thousands of miles between myself and my family and friends.  I was very concerned about this concept but saw no resolution if I went ahead and made the move.  To be honest once my folks passed my closest sibling was in Chicago (240 miles to the west) but he soon moved to Albuquerque (NM).  My sister has almost always lived in Colorado and hence she was well over a thousand miles to the west.  I have some loosely held connections with cousins and Aunts but they are mostly 500+ miles to the ESE.  So as far as family the move didn’t really involving making a separation but rather exacerbated that which already existed.  This was not the case with my network of friends in Michigan and this caused me the most angst in deciding whether to move so far afield.  In the end I was chasing a 16 year old dream and I couldn’t not say ‘Yes’ to the opportunity.  I sometimes have second thoughts but then it was a huge lifestyle shift and it only occurred 19 months back.

But this current bout with whatever illness I’m still locked in battle against did give me some long, sleepless periods during the coughing spells in which I could review my choice and my situation.  No surprise many of these times were rather negative as I struggled with trying to quell the cough and the up-welling of illness induced concerns about caring for myself as I age and illnesses become more impactful.  Sometimes it was downright desperate in nature although I also realized the sickness was skewing all my thought processes in such a negative direction.  I did realize it was much better for me to be alone with this illness given just how close to ‘Hell on Wheels’ I was in terms of my overall personality.  No one should have to be subjected to me when I felt that bad!  So this was a good thing.  In addition I was aware that despite how devastated I felt during those first four days I was also still capable of rational thought as I set it in my mind that if the cough remained in my lungs by Monday I was going to break down and visit the Sunshine Clinic just three miles from here.  In addition I had the phone numbers of two neighbors who would gladly have come by to check on the dogs and me.  So all in all I was ‘okay’ for the short term while I monitored my own progress and reacted accordingly.

Of course as one really ages – such as crossing the 60 year old mark – I believe it becomes paramount to begin to recognize one’s infirmities and to plan ‘round them such that one’s abilities are not too diminished while living safer.  My stairwell is narrow and steep in this place; from the time I moved in I started training Qanuk to never, ever be on the stairs with me.  He is far too excitable and energetic; I could easily see him knocking me down by accident and me ending up at the base of the stairs with a broken ankle or leg…or worse.  If there’s outside work that requires getting up to the second floor or higher I’m paying to have it done; I’ve recognized my balance isn’t as good as it used to be!  There are a plethora of other ‘concessions’ I’ve made with plans on how to minimize their impact on my lifestyle.  I do not want to ‘wall myself in’ with so many restrictions I cannot enjoy life; this would be a travesty.  But I do want to live a little smarter and safer; in pursuing this goal I recognize I should shy away from things I may have done without a second thought at age 50.  Part of my leanings in this direction stem from watching my folks refuse to accept age related infirmities and pay for their denials.  Seeing Dad on a ladder at his place cleaning out the second floor gutters when he was 90 years of age scared the daylights out of me.  And I saw the results of Mom climbing up a short ladder to fill a bird feeder and losing her balance.  These were extremely healthy octogenarians plus yet the infirmities of age negatively affected their abilities.  I am in nowhere near as good shape as them but I do recognize that I just cannot do some of the things I did when I was 45 years of age nor should I try.  That’s life…

Learning to accept that age often means a lessening of one’s abilities particularly in the extremes is a part of aging and something I feel is necessary.  In one sense I suppose one could make a case for me holding myself back based on these beliefs.  But in another I accept the fact that I can ill afford a major injury like a broken leg when living my lifestyle.  Because of this I’ve adopted a simple approach which has served me to this point:  I accept I do have some age related infirmities which will restrict some areas of my life but I do not dwell upon them or bemoan them; they simply are a part of my aging process!