Monday, February 3, 2014

SO YOU'RE SEVENTY . . . SO WHAT? How to Love the Years You Thought You'd Hate



Balance and Tripping

     THIS MAY SEEM WILD, crazy, and a big fat lie, but for many of us the years from seventy to eighty are one of the best decades of our lives.
     We don’t catch many colds (our immune systems have already met most of the available bugs), we don’t seem to need much food (and younger relatives keep inviting us to dinner), we’ve learned not to take off-handed comments personally, and senior discounts seem to pop up everywhere.
     But there’s more. If we’re still married, we’ve figured out that marital fights are mostly a waste of energy. Even brief separations can make us wives feel like teenagers, ridiculously thrilled to see that wonderful old guy once again. Hey, who’s the handsome, gray-haired fellow in the chair, looking up with a grin as you come in the door?
     Appreciation for each other becomes a palpable ingredient in a long marriage.

     AS LONG AS YOU FEEL good, what’s not to like about seventy?
     As a normal part of every age, though, keeping a grip on happiness takes effort. For instance, there’s the issue of balance and tripping.
     Unless you’re watching an astronaut preparing for the moon, there are better things to think about than what becomes of a body flying through space.
     That is, until the body is yours.
     For some of us, catching a toe on the ottoman and sailing away like a stretched rubber band, is an everyday possibility.
     One of my very dear friends was plagued, in her late seventies, by frequent falls. Each one was a physical set back . . . and some later became calamities.
     Though Barbara was a gifted artist and a mental giant—as sharp as any college professor—her body betrayed her and she kept stumbling over normal, everyday objects, like garden furniture and sidewalk curbs.
     None of those falls did her any good, and some were followed by trips to the hospital, where a few days in bed only made her legs more wobbly.

     FRANKLY, I’D NEVER THOUGHT much about balance—mostly because it had never been a problem. Until something bugs you, why worry about fixing it?
     And then one day I had the craziest accident.
     I’d gone out the front door to retrieve some theater tickets off the porch. Bending over has never been a challenge. But as I started to straighten, the inexplicable happened. I couldn’t get my feet under me.
     Whether it was my new, extra-fat tennis shoes or a simple loss of balance, I’ll never know. I was only aware that I found myself lurching, pedaling, flailing, slap-stepping in my bloated tennis shoes, trying to regain my feet. And somehow not managing to do it.
     Instead, all that fancy foot work launched me off the porch and out over our two front steps. Literally out into space.
     I was airborne long enough to realize there was no soft landing in sight, that cement was everywhere and I would inevitably hit our inlaid-stone walkway. Horrified as I sailed, I came down from an exaggerated altitude and smacked hard onto the stones.
     For seconds I lay sprawled, unable to move. It hurt to breathe. But I was alive. I was conscious. And I hadn’t hit my head.
     I could see my right wrist was torn up, and God knows what else.
     From my ungainly splat on the walkway, I yelled through the still-open front door, trying to attract my husband.
     He didn’t seem to hear. Which was nothing new.
     Struggling to sit up, I could see him across the family room, calmly watching television.
     “Rob!” I screamed. “Rob! Help!”
     He paid no attention, seemed riveted to the TV.
     “Rob!” I screamed even louder, “Rob! Rob! Rob! Help!”
     Some part of me wondered how, for an injured person, I’d managed to yell so loud.
     At last he stirred, as though awakening from a dream.
    “Babe?” He leaned forward. “What’s going on?”
     “Help me!”
     “What?” He pulled himself to his feet, ambled out to the porch. “What happened? What are you doing down there?”
     Taking a nap. “I fell.” A shallow, painful breath. “Off the porch.” Another breath. “I’ve been yelling.” 
     “Jesus, that was you? I thought it was the television. They were showing the Challenger coming apart. People were screaming on TV.” 
      He now stood over me, baffled. “I finally realized it wasn’t all television—it was you. Where are you hurt?”
     “I don’t know. Everywhere.”
     He reached down a hand. “Can you get up? If I help?”
     “I’m not sure I can lift you, Babe. You’d be a dead weight.” He thought a moment. “I’ll call Chris. Maybe he’s home.” He looked down at me again. “Good God, look at your wrist.”
     “I know. It’s a mess. I’m probably a mess in other places.”
     “I’ll go call.”
     Chris was our son, an orthopedic surgeon who lived half a mile away. Rob disappeared and was back in minutes.
     “He just got home, Babe. He’ll be right down.”
     I nodded, instantly relieved. I was alive. And Chris was coming. For the moment nothing else mattered.

     CHRIS IS ONE OF those doctors who makes you feel better simply by showing up. That goes for his wife, too. 
     They arrived together, Betty-Jo with a warm look of sympathy, Chris with his usual aura of concern, almost a smile. The smile, or near smile, is reserved for non-emergencies. I was breathing, talking, clearly not a life or death case.
     Chris looked me over, felt my ribs.
     “Ouch! Ouch!”
     “May be broken. We have to get you up.” He turned to his dad. “Still got that walker—the one with a seat?”
     Rob said he did, and minutes later, Betty-Jo, Chris, and Rob eased me up onto the seat and pulled me up the two steps and into the family room. I explained what had happened.
     With a gentle touch, Chris once more probed and prodded my ribs. “Well, Mom,” he said cheerfully,   “they’re probably broken, but even if they are, it won’t make any difference. We don’t do anything. Just let them heal on their own.” He grinned. “Don’t try to lift any pianos.”
     “I’ll make it a point.”
     “For awhile it’ll hurt to breathe. Take a few painkillers.” He examined my torn-up wrist. “Here, we’ll clean this. Anyplace else?”
     I pointed to my well-scraped ankle.
     “Okay. We’ll take care of that too. You got off lucky, you know. All your other bones are intact. From now on you might also try to avoid the front porch.” 

     THE REPERCUSSIONS WENT ON for a few weeks. X-rays showed I was even luckier than Chris imagined: no ribs were cracked. But then my son has often remarked on our family’s inherited sturdiness. “You and I, Mom, have the bones of a dinosaur. Hopefully we’ve got a better future.”    
     The second thing I did was send back those extra-fat tennis shoes.
     Eventually Chris suggested that Rob and I go to rehab for balance training. For a month the two of us played balance games: Walked on uneven surfaces. Threw a ball back and forth as we strolled. Balanced on one leg. Strengthened our legs on a resistance bicycle. 
     It all helped. But then our allotted Medicare visits termed out. So I tackled the balance issue another way.
     On my own, each day I stood near a table I could grab onto and practiced standing one-legged, first on one side, then the other, always for a count of 50.
     Eventually this quick-and-easy trick paid off. I seemed to recover from momentary stumbles. To my astonishment, I was finally able to put on my trousers any old place, any old time, without sitting down.
     I doubt that putting-on-one’s-pants will ever qualify as an Olympic event . . . meaning there’s no gold medal in my future. But hey, I’m now dressing the way I did at age forty. If that isn’t some kind of victory, I don’t know what is.

     FOR SEVENTY-PLUSERS THE balance issue is huge. But then so is the matter of tripping.
     A few years ago I learned a painful lesson about leaving big things in bad places—like the mid-day when I dropped off a box of books in the service porch, and how I came home after dark and didn’t see it, and did a half-gainer right into our extra freezer. Luckily, it wasn’t open. 
     There’s a rule in our house: never leave anything in your normal pathways. Push everything off to the sides, to places where you don’t walk.
     A temporary solution for stuff you should put away--but organized clutter is better than an unexpected journey to the emergency room.
     There’s a mantra going here: anything you can do to stay on your feet, to remain upright by choice is definitely worth the effort.  


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