December 4, 2017
Old Age: A Cavalry Charge
MONTPELIER – There probably aren't too many of us over forty who, presenting at a clinic or emergency room with a busted clavicle, Charley horse, wry neck or clicking meniscus, haven't heard the knell tolling our mortality: "You know," the doc says, "you're not as young as you used to be."
Well, duh, you think; I know that. You need a medical degree to tell me? But in your heart you know she's telling you something else: It may be time to slow down a bit. Which very few of us do. We shift to knee and elbow braces and bottles of anti-inflammatories, trying to stave off the inevitable and imminent. Bedeviled by painful and ever more unreliable joints, we temporize with arthroscopy of the meniscus ("Yours looked like canned crab meat," the surgeon told me afterward – not a good omen), and, finally accepting the injunction to slow down, we do.
Joints get replaced. Running becomes cross-country skiing or skating. Our polka becomes a two-step. We join Triple-A, and maybe even AARP. If we don't have health insurance through an employer, it becomes a major interest and a major expense, and we find ourselves playing "What if..." What if I get hurt and can't continue the health insurance premiums? Answers to important questions get ever more complicated. So we march, all of us at the same pace, toward a future guaranteed to challenge: What will get us? When will it happen? Whom will it choose?
As I approached Social Security age, about 17 years ago, I was somewhat conflicted. The law at the time put a rather low cap on personal earnings while receiving benefits. I was still pretty busy, and was about to opt for 70 as my enrollment age, when at the last minute Congress changed the law; we could earn as much as we could, as long as it was still subject to FICA donations. The other good news was that I could leave our for-profit health insurance plan, which was costing me and Mother $11,200 a year 'way back in 2000, and go on Medicare. I consider it the greatest thing since indoor plumbing. For fairly modest monthly fees, one deducted from my Social Security check and the other from my credit card account by a private insurer, I'm covered. My only regrets are that so many of my fellow citizens are suspicious of a similar plan to cover everyone in the country, and that Bernie looks so much like a Socialist.
So Mother and I headed into our seventies, she about five years behind me. I can't say that we gave too much thought to the end game, although the last two houses we've built have concentrated the living quarters on one floor. I built a ramp on the back porch of our latest house because the old dog couldn't handle steps anymore. The dog is long-gone, but the ramp remains, and it's perfect for this old dog.
Time erodes us, subtly in most cases: arthritis, stenosis, deafness, macular degeneration, muscle and balance loss. And sometimes rudely: falls, dementia, neuropathy, cancer. Life in old age becomes rather like a cavalry charge. Every time you look around, there are fewer of your comrades still beside you, and you begin to wonder what you might do if you actually survive to the enemy lines. I visit Mother every day in her nursing home, and walking past the rooms of a dozen or so patients, guess we're about the same age. Luck, genes, habits, environment – who knows what fates have sorted us so?
A little after six in the morning a few days ago, headed out for breakfast with the boys, I mistook ice in the yard for water, and a split second later was lying on my back using words I didn't know were so close to the surface of my vocabulary. I waited a day – obviously a bad bruise, at least – before my daughter Martha gently got me to the emergency room. No fracture; but there was a complication: I was nursing a case of bronchitis before I fell. I didn't dare cough – still don't – but couldn't not cough. I skipped church; somebody'd have started CPR if I'd had one of those doubled-up fits during the service.
My puppy, Kiki, who normally gets quite restive and importunate about walk-time in the afternoon, seems to have adjusted to this break in the action. When I get into a contortion of back spasms caused by coughing, she hops up onto the desk and sticks her fur face into mine. I have no idea what's actually on her mind, but it feels like sympathy – those eyes! – so I'll take it as such.
What this accident has reminded me of is how getting old can change a person's point of view. I no longer look so much for others to blame for our current sorry state of affairs. I keep as a mantra a line of Tolstoy: "Granny, if this boy should be horse-whipped for stealing an apple, what should be done to us for our sins?" Forgiveness seems to make it easier to face life – whatever's left of it.