December 13, 2011

Health Update & Reflections on Aging and Living

I saw my back doctor yesterday -- a follow-up to my car crash on August 22, when I fractured a vertebrae. This doctor and my physical therapist had both told me that recovery would require about four months. So, even though I'm still experiencing some back pain, I'd hoped to be back in action, and feeling fine, by the end of the year.

After the X-ray, my doctor gave me the usual mix of good news and bad news: the fractured vertebrae is fully healed, but the lingering pain is caused by something else -- a build-up of arthritis in the lower spine, unrelated to my accident. In turn, that bad news was followed by more good news: my doctor thinks a new exercise regimen is the answer. So, I'll meet with a physical  therapist twice a week for the next month. If that doesn't work, we'll consider cortisone injections.

Earlier this week, I had occasion to reflect on various aspects of aging. These thoughts fall under three headings:

1. My 80s as the Mirror Image of My Teenage Years

I put up several posts this past week about falls as a leading cause of death and disability for those of us over 65. Coincidentally, a good friend and his family have been in turmoil trying to arrange immediate and long-term care for my friend's 87-year-old father, who injured his hip in a fall leaving his girlfriend's home. The father has a house in a retirement community in Texas. Most of the family members live here, in the Washington area. That geographic separation -- so often the case for families these days -- complicates the process of finding the best course of action.

The father has been spending the summer months with his family in the DC area. I've gotten to know him, and have thought him a vigorous octogenarian.

I was thinking "Jeez, Sam [the father] is only five years older than me." Then it occurred to me that while a five-year age difference is inconsequential for most of our adult lives, when you are in your 80s, a five-year difference is often a bigger deal -- just as it is during our teen years.

Two men, 37 and 32, don't think much about their five-year age gap. But a 12-year-old IS different from a 17-year-old. When a 37-year-old man marries a 32-year-old woman, not an eyebrow is raised. But a 17-year-old boy dating a 12-year-old girl? Different story.

Physical, intellectual and emotional changes come fast during our first 20 years on Earth. During our middle years -- say 30 through 60 -- those changes flatten out, dont' they? Then, a kind of reverse acceleration kicks in -- and we often begin to fail, just as we began to develop in our teen years.

I don't even want to think about the "reverse image" of what happens to children from birth through age ten. Yes, most of us will suffer great losses in physical and cognitive abilities in our senior years -- a mirror to the amazing gains of childhood. But you might prefer to think of the full, happy, vibrant lives of the  93- and 94-year-old mothers of two of my friends. You can  think, "When I grow up, I want to be just like them."

Don't despair. My next two thoughts are more upbeat.

2.  Chronic Degenerative Illness as a "Three-Sided" Coin
At a meeting last week with friends who also have Parkinson's, someone catalogued all the things he can no longer do... things that once gave him great pleasure. We gave him the typical response: "Yes, but don't forget the other side of the coin. Think about all the things you can still do."

Then one man added: "And that coin has a third side -- the valuable new things that Parkinson's introduces to enhance our lives." The more I think about it, the more I like his perspective.

Parkinson's has brought me new friends. I've been strengthened in my attempts to deal with adversity, seeing how others handle problems more challenging than mine with courage and humor. My desire to help others now has a clearer, sharper focus. Working on this blog has given me a project I love, a purpose that draws on the research and writing I've always enjoyed.

Perhaps best of all, Parkinson's has given me a new serenity in facing aging and end-of-life issues. It's hard to explain -- a little mysterious -- but several friends dealing with cancer have told me the very same thing. In spite of the trials that come with disease, how can we not feel a little... lucky?

Let's conclude appropriately with what should always be our primary focus -- making the most of each day ahead.

3. Sunday Was Another "I Love My Life" Day!
I've mentioned before that I occasionally find myself exclaiming "I love my life." These wonderful, rare moments don't occur when I'm doing or seeing something "spectacular." Instead, they seem to happen when I'm doing something ordinary. One of my first WOW feelings washed over me as I returned home from a long bike ride on a glorious fall day.

It was my good fortune that Sunday brought another "life-loving" moment. The day started happily: my housemate invited several of his young friends to play basketball and then come back to the house for a Nepali lunch. After all the years of living here alone, I love having young people coming in and out of the house . . . occasionally. I still treasure my alone time. Fortunately my current living arrangement gives me both

But the highlight of the day came later. I'd decided on the spur of the moment last week to get tickets for the annual "Celtic Christmas" concert at the historic Dumbarton Church in Georgetown. My son, his girlfriend, and one of my good friends joined me.

I'd never attended this annual concert before, and the church was a beautiful setting. The concert began at 4pm, as the setting sun illuminated the beautiful stained glass windows. Before we knew it, night had fallen, and the church glowed with candlelight.

The concert featured four musicians -- Linn Barnes and Allison Hampton, a couple devoted to the study and performance of the lute (Ms. Hampton played the harp as well); Joseph Cunliffe, a flutist who has recorded jazz, classical, pop and "world" music and who has been part of these Celtic Christmas concerts for nearly 20 years; and Steve Bloom, a highly regarded drummer who played a variety of other percussion instruments.

Here's the group (and the backs of a few heads of the attractive crowd in front of me):

During intermission, we enjoyed hot cider and gingerbread with whipped cream (and topped with pomegranate seeds!). For me, the highlight of the evening was Cunliffe's flute rendition of "Silent Night." I couldn't find a YouTube version by Cunliffe. Here's one that comes close:

My "I love my life" moment occured as the song ended. But it was more than the beautiful performance of this treasured carole. The church setting, the candlelight, and the rest of the program (especially the readings, with musical accompaniment, of poems by Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas). Most of all, my pleasure came from sharing the experience with family and friends.

The concert was followed by a nice supper and chat with my son and his girlfriend at the Blue Duck Tavern, one of my favorite restaurants.

Illness... check.  Aging... check. These are realities in my life now. But my wonderful Sunday reminded me again what we all know so clearly already: let's make the most of each day. If we're lucky, we'll have another "I love my life" experience before we know it.

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