THE SISTER’S GUIDE TO MIDDLE-AGING
“Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” Anonymous
The irony is that apparently, I had a really good memory in college. At least, that’s what my former roommate Denise says. I don’t remember having a good memory.
So, when I called her Friday to wish her a happy birthday, I didn’t realize it until she answered: “Dang! I did it again!” I realized as she said hello. “It’s NOT today! It’s, its…tomorrow?” I asked her.
“It’s Sunday, you silly girl!” she replied. I always think it’s the 16th, but it’s the 18th. Every year. Has been since I met her in 1984. That’s 34 years ago, 34 years to practice remembering that her birthday is March 18th, not March 16th. But I keep forgetting.
She claims I used to have a stellar memory. “You could remember everything!” I like to think she remembers accurately. Her own memory, she tells me after the birthday greeting on the phone, suffers too.
“I have to write everything down,” she says. People are so impressed with what appears to be my good memory now. ‘You have such a good memory,’ they say. But I tell them it’s all here on these sticky notes. That’s the only way I can remember.”
We lamented that, initially, the actual process of having children seems to drain a woman’s brain, then the day-to-day process through the years of having children continues the slow, but sure drain. We both gave birth twice, both were the busy mothers, and now, as we both turn 52 just a month apart, we like to think we’ve got the upper hand again: we simply realize the secret to a good memory–we have to write it down.
If only all other aspects of aging could be hacked so easily.
Denise was kind enough to dig up some old pictures of us from our college days, the days of youth and invincibility. The days when our hair was still one color. For me, the days of the gap teeth. Age has many benefits. It worked my teeth together. This one was taken at a formal we both attended in 1986.
Because I have not yet figured out a shorter way, I take pictures from a text, copy them privately to Facebook, copy them to my desktop, then copy them over to my blog.
Interestingly, when I posted this to Facebook, even though it tried with the boxes around our faces, Facebook couldn’t identify us. Apparently we have changed.
About 12 years ago, we ran into each other at a water park. We lived about 100 miles apart, and both of us decided to take our kids here to this park that was right between our homes.
It is fitting that I can’t remember where this next picture came from, but it was taken with Suzanne, and it was within the last several years. It popped up in the series of pictures we had texted to each other on my phone.
When I was preparing to turn 40, I was whiny and full of dread. Ugh. 40. It was a dark, empty place that loomed straight ahead; no detour.
Then, I got the kick in the pants I needed: I was called to see a 39 year-old woman for speech therapy. She had just had her 6th child, had a massive stroke and lost function on her dominant side. She did regain some function, and was able to return home with her family.
Since I met her, I have never complained about my age again. Every time I even consider it, I remember her, and I remember my good health.
Apparently, I needed yet another reminder that, as a healthy human being, I have absolutely zero room to complain about age. Shortly after I turned 50 almost two years ago—and I don’t remember complaining about it, I was called to see a man just a few months younger than me with a diagnosis of ALS—Lou Gehrig’s disease. He passed away shortly after his 50th birthday. My heart still breaks for his family.
I never shy away from giving my age. I am proud to be whatever age I am, which is currently 51.
One of my favorite coffee cups; a birthday gift from a dear friend. Life is good.
I have a friend who wasn’t entirely honest with me about her age when she first told me. She claims she didn’t lie about it, I say she did. She says she simply didn’t state the truth completely. She didn’t give me a number, she said something vague like “I’m your age.” She is almost exactly one year older. I recently asked her why she did that; I can ask her honest questions and expect honest answers. “Because I didn’t look my age,” she replied. I have done what I can to convince her that age is truly a gift, and we should never hide it.
Another friend, whom I’ve known for over ten years, refuses to tell me—and likely many other people—exactly how old she is. Even though her birthday is just two days after mine, and some years we actually have a birthday lunch together, I am not privy to this information. I recently asked her why she refuses to state her age.
“Because everyone pays too much attention to a number. We assign certain things to people based only upon their age, and that’s just not right,” she replied.
I cannot fully disagree. I recall in my Introduction to Sociology class at age 18, the instructor—who has since become my favorite professor, teaching my favorite subject, pointed out this fact: “Most of us, when we scan the obits, look for the age. It tells us if it’s okay if they died.” For many years, I have scanned the obits in my daily paper first to see if any of my former patients are there—many times they are, and then I look at ages. I must acknowledge that I consider that a factor in the level of attention I pay to their particular obit.
But what is that magic age when it becomes okay to pass away? I know for me, it used to be a whole lot younger than what it is now. As I age, that number keeps getting bigger.
Since this is the Sister’s Guide to Middle-aging, I went to Gail and Suzanne for their advice.
Suzanne, who is 47, may not have quite as many years of wisdom Gail and I have, but she has life experience beyond Gail’s and mine: she is a cancer survivor. When I asked her for her advice, she gave me two pieces, and they are golden:
“Never dread or regret another birthday. Be glad you are still having them.”
“Don’t worry. Worry steals your time.”
Words of wisdom from an expert.
She adds: “Worrying is actually praying for what you don’t want. So don’t do it!”
Thank you, Suzanne.
Now, to Gail, at age 58. Given that she never has been a worrier, she gave advice that is more practical, and its importance became crystal-clear to her just this week:
“Slow down. Your body is slowing down, so slow down with it.”
Gail, the multi-tasking workhorse, took a spill on her back step last week. She was carrying in eight bags of groceries, moving along at a fast clip. She likely had somewhere she needed to be in order to get some work done, so she decided to do it all in one trip, and what a trip it was: the eight bags spilled all over the floor as she was halfway in the house, but that’s not the worst of it: she twisted her ankle like never before, hurt her leg and hip, and ended up in considerable pain, bruised, battered and in need of her boss’s care (the chiropractor).
She is bouncing back; she always does. I asked her (in jest) if she thought ahead to take a picture of the mess on the kitchen floor for this week’s post, but she said she didn’t. She was willing to stage one, but you get the idea…
Gail, in my estimation, may try to slow down, but will have greater difficulty doing so than, say, me. I move fast because I have overscheduled myself, and I hate it. She, however, loves it. Having a lot to do is her normal mode.
I do, however, use the slow down advice with my patients. About half of the work I do as a speech therapist with the adult population is to address swallowing problems. Many people are sent to me because they are coughing and choking more when they swallow for no apparent reason. Often this problem is caused by a stroke, head injury, Parkinson’s disease or some other attributable cause, but often, it’s not.
I have “cured” many swallow problems first observing a patient eating and drinking, and diagnosing them with “you’re eating too fast.” Most people, myself included, eat quicker than what we should. We don’t take small bites, chew them thoroughly, savoring the taste and the texture before we swallow them. We gulp, we wolf; scarf our food. And most of us can get away with it. Until we can’t.
As the body slows down with age, the swallow process slows down, too. Simply increasing one’s awareness of this quick intake, then taking conscious steps to slow it down can be the difference between coughing and choking, and a quiet swallow. Everyone knows what it means to clog the drain, and I use this analogy. Our drains don’t drain as fast, and we must respect that slowdown.
It would behoove all of us to start taking this advice now, even if you are not having any problems. Given that about 95% of us eat too fast, just slow down. There’s your free advice from me, a licensed, certified and experienced swallow therapist. I am confident I will cause no harm to any reader with this professional recommendation.
I try to follow Gail’s advice in all physical movements as well. Seeing many people with physical therapy in my work settings because of falls has made me keenly aware that falls are far too common, and much too heart—and body—breaking. Because I am a trivia nerd, I looked it up: 32,000 people die each year in the United States alone as a result of a fall. If they had just paid attention and had been more careful. If they had just slowed down.
Perhaps it was around the time of my 40th birthday when I started to notice. I now look very closely at those people I meet who appear to be aging gracefully, effortlessly; smoothly. I have met perhaps a thousand people as my patients who are older than me since then, and in our interactions, I am not afraid to ask those who stand out: “What is your secret to aging well?”
Most of them are flattered, and are not shy about answering. There are many variations on two central themes: 1: keep moving your body, and 2: do the things you like to do.
As I write this on Saturday afternoon before Sunday evening’s post, I was inspired by the first answer to take a break and get up to walk the 2/10 of a mile to the mailbox and back. And, since it was such a nice afternoon, I walked the loop around our neighbor’s driveway, and back to the mailbox again. I try to keep that motivation close at all times.
A 90 year-young woman recently told me precisely those two answers. She loves music, plays several instruments, and played in bands with her husband. She still plays for him. Music moves her. It keeps her young.
Gail also gave advice not just on the physical part of aging, but in how we think, feel and react to life and all it hands us:
“Life is too short to worry about things you cannot change. The longer we are alive, the more loved ones we will lose. Don’t let death rule your life. Instead, live your life with them to the fullest. There are so many other things in life we have zero control over. Some diseases just happen. I know this with my daughter. Just do what you can to live with it.”
Good advice about the heavy stuff from Gail. Now, on a lighter note from Gail:
“Don’t let other people control your thoughts. That’s letting them live rent-free in your head. And don’t subscribe to their issues. Cancel your subscription if you have to. Again, don’t be bothered by the things you cannot change. Like the wind.”
Good stuff from Gail.
And from the three of us, we like to illustrate a very important point by our travels, and all our interactions: Have fun. Life is simply too short to deny yourself this. Whatever fun looks like to you, simply have it.
In summary, we are leaving you with eight words:
Slow down. Have fun. Don’t worry. Keep moving.
As soon as I finish writing this post, I am going straight to my all-purpose notebook and I am going to write down Denise’s birthday: March 18TH. Just like she does, and just like I tell my patients who are working on memory, writing it down is the best way to remember. I sent this to Gail and Suzanne several hours before posting, as I always do. Suzanne, in her wisdom, came up with another way to remember Denise’s birthday: I met her when I was 18. Brilliant. Thank you, Suzanne.
Happy Birthday Denise. You make 52 look effortless, and I look forward to getting there.
Denise, circa 1986. She and another roommate were in an 80’s air band, and she was getting ready for a gig.
Denise and her husband, present day. Happy Birthday today, March 18th.
Gail, Suzanne and I through the ages, mostly middle age.
2010: Our first Colorado Labor Day trip. Like age, these trips just keep getting better too.