for release May 24, 2002
by Melodie Davis
Note to Editors: This is part 2 of a special 3-part Another Way series on Aging
Reinventing the Way We Age: It Isn't Easy Getting Old
I recently had the occasion to sit and eat with a woman I'll call Martha. She is in her 80s, has increasing blindness, and also has great difficulty walking due to ongoing hip and knee problems. She had hip replacement surgery and is fortunate to get around with a cane. In this column we're looking at a few of the many difficulties that come with aging.
All her life Martha has been very active - working, volunteering, traveling. She and her husband enjoyed a good income but were also very generous, and gave of their time as well as their money. So I could hear the wistfulness coming through when I asked how she was doing. She can no longer quilt, read or do much of anything with her hands because of failing eyesight.
"Well, I'm almost getting to the place where I can sit and do nothing. Almost. I don't like it, but I can almost do it." Then she added, "Losing my eyesight, that's hard. It is hard to give up driving. We can't really travel by air, either. I really miss that. This morning my kids are flying to California. I envy them."
One of my husband's aunts told me recently, "Don't ever get old, Melodie. Aging is not fun."
Since we live near my husband's relatives, most of my recent experiences with elderly people have been through his family; they've taught me a lot not only about aging, but living.
We went to visit an elderly aunt. She had no appetite, and was wasting away. We all worried about her, urging her to eat, bringing her milkshakes, fried chicken, all her favorites. Frequently she would push everything away and say, "I'm never hungry."
One day I responded, "That's funny," meaning, "That seems so strange."
This aunt retorted, "That's not funny!" and I had to realize, she's right. Losing your appetite is not funny or a blessing or anything else we who struggle with weight might think it to be. It is scary and life threatening. While her situation was made worse because of an operation she had had, other senior citizens have told me that appetites change with increasing age. A juicy pork chop doesn't even sound good, they said. Food doesn't taste or look the same.
Another time this aunt's meal tray arrived and she just looked at it. I started cutting the food, and tried to put it in her mouth. "I want to feed myself!" she managed to say. I was ashamed. Of course she wanted to be as independent as possible.
Then there is the problem of battling changes in mind, memory and mental alertness. My grandmother and grandfather lived in small quarters adjoining our home, so I was very fortunate to have that blessing during the first 14 years of my life. Really it was ideal: they had their own separate living quarters, so they and we had privacy. Grandpa and Grandma were everything you'd want in grandparents, and they were available just beyond the door.
But I also remember Grandma's growing confusion as she aged. I remember her continual worrying over the "gypsies" that were camped up in the woods. My father actually drove to the woods on the adjoining property to check out whether anyone was camping out in the woods, just to reassure her. He would tell her over and over that there weren't any gypsies up there, that he had gone and checked.
I have watched as friends at church, in the neighborhood and family struggle with the increasing and encroaching indignities of aging. One vivid picture in my mind is of a very refined elderly woman, a friend of ours. Her first indignity came, she said, when she had to have a bowel movement on a port-a-stool in the middle of her hospital room, rather than in the seclusion of a bathroom. She said suddenly she became aware that the door to her room was completely open during this private moment. Her next indignity came when her need to use the bathroom was so urgent she had to ask her visitors to step out, because she knew she couldn't control the urge. Finally, one night she lay wet in bed all night, being too chagrined to bring it to the attention of a nurse. Her experiences made me hurt and worry about the future.
And therein lies the other hard part of watching your friends and relatives age. You are seeing your own probable future stretched out before you.
Getting old isn't easy. But I'm encouraged that there are many, many people standing by to help folks along the way.
For a free booklet, "Growing Older Without Fear," write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.
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