Archives for category: aging with dignity

GRANDPARENTHOOD

 

My next job description in life’s journey appears to be that of “grandparent.” In a matter of months I expect the title along with the attendant salary. Oh, there is none? Well, I’m not surprised. In order to succeed, I will rely upon my experience as a parent and also as a sort of grandparent to three dogs. I’m reasonably confident I would get good references from my three children, and I’m absolutely confident in the canine corps.

 

*****

 

I’ve not reflected upon being a grandparent prior to learning “it’s happening.” This approach is consistent with my attitude towards parenthood, to marriage and to my former career. Some say this is “not normal.” Apparently, I have a natural tendency to conserve brain cells. Yet, when the bell has rung, I’m proud to say each endeavor has been successful. The kids are healthy, happy and “off the payroll;” the marriage is nearly thirty years old; and, the career didn’t need to extend past my 40’s.

How did I do it? I cite adherence to three basic tenets, namely: the best action is often inaction; if at first you do not succeed, quit; and, no good deed goes unpunished.

My wife, Katie, an ultra-diligent sort of person, has often taken issue with all three pillars of my philosophy.   Probably in conjunction with her admirable example, we raised successful kids. In addition, as I’ve always admitted with regard to my career path, I had a lot of LUCK.

 

*****

 

Grandparenthood looms with a tinge of bittersweet. When I became a parent, in my thirties, mortality never crossed my mind. Cinematically speaking, if I’d considered my expected view of my children’s lives, (which I did not) I would have realized I might not make it to the final credits, but most of the good parts would be seen. To become a grandparent in one’s sixties is different. Realistically, I hope to be functioning well enough to enjoy some high school graduations and, perhaps, see a college graduation or two. Weddings? If I’m there, I may be wielding a walker and brandishing a bib.

How to process this? Clearly, I will have to focus on enjoying the time I do have with the grandchildren. Some grandparents emphasize their favorite aspect to be: “At the end of the visit or activity, you give them back.” But there must be more to it than that – a second opportunity, perhaps, to enjoy youth sports with less heart-pounding seriousness; or a chance to see new sites and activities that didn’t appeal to my own children.

Another mental hurdle is my sense that grandchildren cannot possibly be as enjoyable as grand-dogs.   My mortality is not in play with regard to the dogs, due to their shorter life spans and presumed obliviousness to mine, and they always seem thrilled to see me. The dogs are unfailingly cheerful and undemanding in circumstances that human offspring are not. True, they need to be taken outside in any weather to relieve themselves, but changing a soiled baby diaper is not exactly a pleasure.

 

*****

 

If I accept that I have aptitude to be a successful grandparent, I must also wonder how much of that aptitude will be tapped. When it came to parenthood Katie and I operated on the basis of “all hands on deck.” If assistance was available, we availed. Grandparents’ involvement, however, is measured by a critical intermediary layer. Will our input be valued by our children and/or their spouses?

We have experience and they do not. Yet, there is a tendency for every young parent to believe they know what’s best in every situation. A lot has changed since Katie and I felt certain we made all the right choices. Now there are movie screens in cars, I-pads and computers everywhere, smart-phones. My interests will skew more analog — a walk in the woods, a simple game of catch. Delicate negotiations with the parents may be necessary. A bitten tongue may be essential.

 

*****

 

Katie and our daughter, Sarah, were recently slated to enjoy a mother-daughter day at a Disney musical production of Beauty and the Beast. The animated version was a staple of Sarah’s childhood circa 1993-1996, ages four-seven. Sarah didn’t feel well so I filled in and found myself nearly the only male in attendance not describable as a father, grandfather, or supremely unhappy little brother.

Pouring into the theatre were excited little girls in gowns and tiaras. Several sported gossamer wings. The production was splendid and, I must admit, I enjoyed seeing the inevitable happy ending. It didn’t hurt that the Beast’s ultimate triumph was to throw the bad guy, Gaston, over the wall of the castle. Gaston reminded me of someone much in the news, preening in front of his mirror, flexing his muscles and abusing even his own sycophantic henchmen.

Most important for me, I had a chance to savor the show as seen through the eyes of hundreds of enthralled little girls. When Sarah watched the tape three or four times a week back in the day, I doubt I was enthused. I hope she never noticed me roll my eyes when she asked to see the tape again. From a young parent’s busy perspective, those hours and years seem like they will never end.

Unexpectedly seeing the show offered me the opportunity for a healthy perspective to approaching grandparenthood. Embrace the moments you NOW know are not forever.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

WHACK-A-MOLE

We attended a season-opening “Newcomers Alumni” event last week. The group’s name requires some explanation. Chapel Hill has a “Newcomers Club” that helps recent arrivals meet each other through a broad array of activities. After three years in Newcomers, however, members are gently evicted to make room for new arrivals. Those who wish to continue join the “Alumni” club. Its schedule is less extensive, but occasional get-togethers allow members to stay in touch with a broad array of friends and acquaintances.

Walking amidst groups of people at these events I reliably hear details of illnesses, surgeries and recoveries. The concept of TMI (Too Much Information) rarely makes an appearance. Sometimes, at a dinner or cocktail hour, I pay attention to how long it takes the guests to broach such subjects. Rarely is it longer than fifteen minutes. Knees, backs, eyes, joints, hands, you name it, and folks at these social events can discuss them ad infinitum.

Though the Club is not limited by age, most of its members are self-described experts on the inner-workings of Medicare. For a few more years, I’ll continue to be at the younger end of the spectrum. Accordingly, I don’t share many of the maladies that afflict members as a mere consequence of age. However, primarily due to playing tennis, if I choose, I can participate in the litany of complaints with the most infirm of them.

*****

I haven’t had a surgery for nearly a decade (left knee) and I haven’t had a BIG surgery for twenty years (herniated disk) but I do deal with a seemingly never-ending skein of minor irritants. As soon as one disappears and I experience a week or two of pain-free tennis play, it seems something else pops up (or out). For instance, in the last two years, I’ve successively had a sore right wrist, plantar fasciitis to the left foot, a tender right ankle, a quirky left knee, and a tweak to the right hamstring. For the sake of continuity, perhaps, throughout most of the last thirty years, the tendon in my right elbow has been sore to the touch – the dreaded condition known as “tennis elbow.”

Not all of the news is bleak. Following surgery to my wife, Katie’s rotator cuff last year, she undertook physical therapy. Among her exercises was an arm and shoulder stretch conducted with a thick rubber band. “Why not?” I said to myself, and I started to do the stretch every day. Not only does my shoulder now feel stronger than ever, my elbow is finally pain-free, and so is hers!

I considered what other activities I might do to forestall injuries. For instance, I now work with a hand-strengthening ball; I continue to stretch my back; I walk daily. But there is not time enough in the day to anticipate and correct for every possible twinge and tweak.

Sometimes I wonder, or am asked: “Why continue to play tennis if it is so difficult on the body?” My response is that tennis keeps me relatively thin and fit and keeps my competitive juices flowing. It also affords me social contacts across a wide spectrum of ages and backgrounds. Most importantly, I enjoy the physical challenge of hitting balls back over the net. I enjoy the mental challenge of adjusting to speeds and spins and competing with a like-minded opponent.

Still, I’m aware there appears to be a price for that enjoyment and my best days of gazelle-like running and lion-like leaping are behind me. Accordingly, my next home, wherever and whenever that is, will have to be close to a facility with a ping pong program, just in case….


BE PREPARED

For thirty hours, I consumed the prescribed yellow glop, and almost nothing else, in preparation for undergoing a colonoscopy. The AARP should include a coupon for the procedure, a classic rite of passage into life’s second half.
Unfortunately, the five-year interval between procedures keeps passing and the promised end of the preparation ordeal never seems closer. It’s like the 100-mile per gallon cars that are always five years away. They remain there, elusive, out of reach.
By the morning of the procedure I am completely without energy, without content and without charm. My wife, Katie, has long since found something to do, somewhere, anywhere else.
“Um, I have to go see if the public library needs help alphabetizing,” she said yesterday, when I was halfway through the liquid. This morning, she said, “I have to check on the bird-feeders.”
“But ours is full,” I said.
“I mean the ones in the rest of the neighborhood,” she said. I heard the door close behind her before I could reply.
I don’t usually consume large amounts of liquid. I force myself to sip water between games when I play tennis. I’m not a coffee drinker and I’ve never chugged a beer or even iced tea from top to bottom of an eight-ounce glass. Sixty-four ounces is a long, slow slog.
The first time I did this, ten years ago, the purgative tasted and looked like chalk. In a modest measure of progress, it now hints of lemon. While the taste is slightly better, the visual and physical challenges of consuming a gallon of vaguely yellow liquid persist.

*****

When I arrive at the hospital, I’m given a remarkably threadbare hospital gown. Why are they called “gowns” when that sounds so substantial? How about “rags” or “shmattas?” Anyway, the “gown” is open at the back. At a normal medical appointment, this is okay because the patient is sitting, facing forward, his cold feet dangling, as the doctor thumps and harrumphs around him. With a colonoscopy, however, the open rear is the access point, the field where the ball game is played. In fact, it’s the entire disgusting stadium.
The doctor, nurse and an assistant or two stand behind me gaping with attitudes of practiced professional distance. But I know they are just one small fart away from laughing hysterically. I wonder if I’m being compared favorably to other patients; I consider whether I’d like to hear what they say as soon as they’re in private.
To the horror of the assembled professionals, I’ve opted to endure the procedure without sedation. Having already ruined two days preparing, I’d rather suffer pain for several moments than spend the rest of the day in woozy non-comprehension.
“Are you sure?” asks the nurse.
“Absolutely,” I say.
“It can be uncomfortable,” says the doctor.
“I’ve done it before,” I say.
The actual procedure takes about forty minutes. The doctor inserts a prod and manipulates it through the lower intestine revealing cave-like images on the screen before me. Mostly, it’s merely unpleasant. But at two or three turning points, the feeling is intensely nauseating; my insides being kneaded like dough.
“Hmmmm,” says the doctor.
“What is it?” I want to cry out, but remain silent, in order to preserve a tiny shred of dignity, while laying in front of a room of people with my ass exposed and occasionally dribbling yellow liquid.
“Hmmmm,” he says again.
I think he’s forgotten I’m awake. I picture hearing about polyps and biopsies and similar words I never want to hear concerning my body.
“What is it?” I finally blurt.
“Mnnnnn,” he says. “Hang in there a little longer.”
The suspense is torturous. The minutes go by like hours. Finally, it’s over. I release my hold on the metal bar in front of me. I think I’ve made an indentation.
“Everything looks good,” says the doctor, doling out the words like fine jewels.
I breathe deeply and reach for a towel.
“Will this procedure ever become simpler?” I ask.
“Sure,” says the doctor, as he always does. “Within five years, I‘m sure we’ll be able to do this without the prep.”
Is he serious? I can’t tell.


AGING

Thursday is senior citizens day at our local supermarket, Harris Teeter, where shoppers over sixty receive a 5% discount. Fully aware that I am approaching that age in several years, I still make some smug calculations when I encounter discount day. For instance, I steer clear of the self-checkout lines, since the “seniors” are even less technologically able than I, and always seem to get stuck. I also avoid crowded aisles where the carts move more slowly than molasses. And I park in a far-off corner of the lot, since the ding potential from those beige Buick’s is tremendous. Imagine my surprise and dismay, therefore, when the checkout girl deducted 5% from my total last Thursday, without even the decency to ASK if I qualified.
“Do I look that old?” I nearly blurted, but then thought: “If they’re going to insult me by saying I look old, I’m keeping the $2.59.” Still, another milestone on the journey of life was passed.
“What other indignities are ahead?” I asked my wife, Katie, when I arrived home.
“Be happy you’re alive and healthy,” she said.
“You’re right,” I agreed, reluctantly. But I still didn’t like this small intimation of death, like a leaf falling from a tree in late-September.

I’m not certain when I first recognized my own mortality. I was probably around forty when I calculated I was at, or close to, the “back-nine” of life, actuarially-speaking. Yet, at that time, I was still intensely busy at work and ably performing in tennis, softball and soccer. At home, my children were young, and life was simply too busy to pause for reflection, especially on a topic that had no solution, no upside, and no negotiation.
Life is different now. All three children are finished with college and established in their own lives. I retired from real estate law five years ago. If I don’t make an effort to keep busy writing or exercising, reading, or traveling, thoughts of aging creep in, like the grey hair now surrounding my temples.
The realm of athletics is a microcosm, I think, for the issue of aging. There is an inexorable trajectory, from youthful obliviousness, to full-throttle power, to coasting “at the top of your game,” to reluctant recognition that maintenance is all you can hope for before, finally, slowing down.
At fifty, in recognition of the arrival of the “maintenance” period, in the form of creaky joints, I performed triage on my roster of activities. I gave up competitive soccer, softball and racquetball in the hope of competently continuing high-level tennis.
The challenge of remaining competitive against opponents half my age is not to play “their” game. Rather, I adapt to blunting their power with guile, their speed with spin. The task is made increasingly difficult due to my inability to play as frequently as before. Basically, I play “whack-a-mole” with my body. If my elbow quits aching, my shoulder stiffens. When my heels feel solid, the shrunken cartilage in my knees becomes apparent. If, one day, I think everything feels perfect, a twinge in the neck appears.

Sports have always been important to me. My earliest memories involve ping-pong in the basement of our home. When I was four or five, I begged my older brothers to play. Well before I was able to compete with them on the table, I tried to be helpful retrieving balls from murky corners behind furniture and spider webs.
I progressed at five or six to throwing rubber balls incessantly against the outside wall of our house and, as soon as possible, commenced playing little league baseball.
Soccer was added to baseball in seventh grade when I was informed at my new school the other choice was football. While I enjoyed playing catch, being tackled by people intent upon my destruction didn’t appeal. When I was ten, my sister introduced me to tennis and I have played, with varying intensity, ever since. During college, I added squash and racquetball to the agenda. As late as my mid-thirties, I was still adding, as platform tennis, a cold-weather fusion of tennis and racquetball, became a passion.
When I began the winnowing process, it wasn’t because I enjoyed playing less; it’s that my body was not able to play as much as before. I also suspected a subtle lessening of my abilities. “I may be a pretty good shortstop, but I’m no Derek Jeter; I don’t have to do this for a living,” I noted.

Derek Jeter presently is playing out his final season of a long and distinguished career with the Yankees. While his professionalism is admired, it’s impossible to deny the decline in his performance. His defense is slowed, his power hitting non-existent, and his durability is suspect. Several fans have confided they suffer cognitive dissonance when “The Captain” takes the field. They don’t begrudge him his accolades. However, they wish he would surrender his position at shortstop to a younger, more able teammate.
I’d hate for my tennis teammates to experience such thoughts when I come to play. I don’t want to out-stay my welcome. For this fall season, I’ve forsaken the “all-ages” league for the first time, in order to play against “Over-40” competition. I’m not yet psychologically able to sign up for the “Over-55’s,” though I qualify.
If the aches and pains overwhelm, I already have a plan to return to where it all began — the ping pong table. Great sport, no running, no body contact, weightless ball, and no age limits. Every day can be senior day.


SCRABBLE, ANYONE?

This story is about a ninety-six-year-old woman. I promise, however, it is not one of those heart-warming, tear-inducing tales of sweetness and light, of life gone by and now only the basis for retrospective adulation. No, this nonagenarian is still tough-minded and forceful, and can only be overcome by her opponents with intelligence, patience and what she would doubtless declare to be a lot of luck.
Rose Galfand is a Scrabble fanatic. She has rendered opponents miserable over a period longer than most people live. This woman, who never attended college, and studied shorthand as the high-point of her academic career, knows every letter of the Greek, Egyptian and Hebrew alphabets. She knows the monetary units of Latvia and Cambodia, and the spelling of every word that starts with “Q” and does not contain a “U.”
“Qat,” she explains, when questioned, “is the mild narcotic chewed by the male inhabitants of Yemen.”
Rose was not expected to live into the twenty-first century. In fact, persistent tuberculosis kept her bedridden for years in her late teens and provided an anxious drumbeat for her family throughout the 1930’s, when additional depressing circumstances were neither needed nor deserved.
While she was ill, an aspiring librarian named Sidney visited nearly every day. Rose initially referred to him as “The Nebish,” a word that hardly requires translation – it is not a compliment. He came to sit by her bed.
“Go away,” she said.
“No, honey-bun,” he replied.
“You’re bothering me,” she said.
“But I adore you, dearest,” he said, not the least bit discouraged.
He reached for her hand. She pulled it away.
“Please leave me alone,” she said.
Over many months, Sidney’s sheer persistence wore away her defenses. When they were married, the ceremony took place in the bedroom. Rose’s mother cried throughout the ceremony, perhaps for joy, but perhaps also for concern that her daughter would not survive. Sidney’s parents were livid, certain that their son was foolishly falling into a hopeless situation.
Defying the predictions of her doctors, Rose survived; she emerged from bed several months after the wedding. She found work as a secretary and, eventually, raised two daughters. She ran her household while Sidney rose up in the hierarchy of Philadelphia’s library system. Since money was never abundant, Rose decorated their home with art and crafts she had made herself. With Sidney’s dutiful help, she created beautiful gardens filled, appropriately, with rose bushes. As they progressed through life together, Rose came to appreciate the gift of Sidney’s love; yet, she never failed to roll her eyes at Sidney’s endearments, even while she luxuriated in them.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “let me rub your back.”
“If you want to,” she said, moving closer.
“Darling, can I make you some tea?” he asked.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” she said.
Decades before the evolution of “the sensitive male,” Sidney set an insurmountable standard for husbands. He died after sixty years of marriage. Rose mourned for her husband and it would have been understandable if she had faltered. But Rose carries on, full of “piss and vinegar,” to quote one of her favorite phrases. Though she has other interests, she has made a virtual religion of conservative, defensive-minded Scrabble. Accordingly, she pronounces principles that may as well be set on a tablet and carried down from a mountaintop.
“Never get stuck with a V or a C,” she instructs. “Always block the triple word spaces. Don’t squander an H or an F.”
When you play against Rose, she gums up the board with so many little words that it is nearly impossible to attach anything. If you take more than a moment to think, she is apt to drum her fingers and declare, forlornly: “You’re wearing me out.”
Rose is gracious in victory, not so much in defeat. “You had all the good letters,” she will note. “You really know how to pick.”
Rose is not apt to dwell on her longevity or to seek profound answers to the mystery of the meaning of life. “Life is like a Scrabble game,” she maintains. “You either get good letters or you don’t. Either way, you have to play them intelligently. And, if you happen to pick up an S, which I hardly ever do, don’t waste it.”