About thirteen months ago I posted the last chapter of Shedders, thus ending a serialisation that had lasted the better part of a year. Shortly after, I began this journey of chronicling day-to-day life in our co-housing community. Since then I’ve posted almost every week, on the general themes of co-housing, relationship, retirement, ageing, and, always, community.
But—how about this?—I’ve just realised that in that whole year of weekly posts, I haven’t had a single one on the theme of health and well-being. Can you imagine fifty visits to a friend and not once having a serious conversation about maladies, aches and pains? Not ever talking about your latest diet? Or about how you should be getting more exercise?—This omission becomes especially astonishing when one’s body has somehow wandered into 60-plus-years-old territory.
I’m going to rectify that with a three-part series, during which I’ll make observations about the perverse topics of ageing, of exercise and of diet. Starting today with…
Oh, my aches and pains
There’s something about the absolute unfairness of being unwell that has us need to go on and on about it. There’s an old truism that when you’ve got your health you’ve got everything; when you don’t, nothing else matters at all. In other words, when your health is in jeopardy, it can become an obsession.
You could say that ageing is really just a slow trip into bad health. Our cells are winding down and becoming poorer at their jobs. We’re used to bodies that improve and generally do what we direct them to, and are shocked that they would consider failing us. So we rail against ageing—occasionally letting it dominate our conversation.
I have a dear friend who recognises that, while it feels a relief to count the little miseries of a failing body like colourful beads on an abacus, it doesn’t usually accomplish much. So she and I have a ritual where, on any given visit, we allow ourselves ten minutes to have a hearty whinge about whatever’s going on with our health, and that’s it. Only the most fleeting of references to ailments is allowed after that. Obsession is denied its day. Considering my friend has been through two major surgeries this year, it must take something to give up that focus. How can you possibly look at an abacus and not feel the need to shove the beads around?
It’s not just my friend and I who struggle with this. There is a general perception that older people tend to go on and on with complaints about their well-being. I’ve known some myself, as we all do. My mother is an exception. At 92, she really is quite an old person, and she certainly has a lot of challenges in her body to grumble about—but she rarely does. A few years ago she found a book called Chrones Don’t Whine and promptly adopted it. The title says it all. The book gave her any excuse she needed not to complain.
The Shedders are generally a low-complaint household. Rick never complains, but that could be because he rarely has anything go wrong with his body. Housemate Michael, an active and physical person, had a serious knee injury a year and a half ago, tearing three major ligaments, and has had a slow recovery from that. But he rarely protests about it. Judy had double-hip surgery last spring, and though the pain before and after must have been intense, seldom had much to say on the subject. “Well, it’s not a very good day,” she’d say, and that would be that. Eve, who tackles the garden like a banshee—you’ll often find her swinging the mattock or shovelling fiercely in the compost—sometimes does herself a little damage but other than explaining why she’s not doing a certain yoga pose, you don’t hear about it. When pressed, Daniel might articulate an issue or two, but he doesn’t complain about them.
Our day may well come, but meantime we’re taking pains, so to speak, not to add to the negativity in our world.
In Adele Horin’s blog, Coming of Age, she recently went to battle with a newly-published list called 50 Signs of Getting Old. Adele takes a dim view of such nonsense, and says, “Mostly I like being 62. It’s so much better than middle-age with its juggling, stress, competitiveness, and need to prove yourself. It’s also better in many ways than youth with its angst and insecurity. But am I ready for anyone to write me off? Do I want to be one of those Grumpy Old Women on TV who are kind of funny but, in their negativity…, kind of pathetic? No way.” She adds: “Old is always 15 years away.”
I can relate to that. I remember when I was 25 how 40 crossed the line into old, and at 50, how I would turn old at 65. Now, at 67, I feel like I’ll hit old sometime in my early 80’s. (At 90, my mother talked about playing drums for the “old people” in seniors’ homes.)
The truth is: we are getting older. We’re all getting older, but baby boomers like me are getting seriously older. It’s unfair and disconcerting when the body begins to give out, when in spite of all our attention and hard work, our fitness slides backwards. Life becomes about decay rather than improving—or if we’re more enlightened, about embracing the decay. I’m not sure I’m ready for that mindset.
I have a dodgy ankle, left over from having had polio when I was little. In sixty years, I’ve never quite got past the injustice of it. My complaints rumble on. As I get older, the ankle gets dodgier, which is also unfair. Mutter, mutter, mutter.
So: we age; that brings on more aches and pains; that in turn has us complain. And in reality, we can’t break the cycle. We will age, we will experience to our great surprise those effects, and we will speak about them to anyone who’ll listen. It’s an outlet, a way of testing the reality of our ailments in the real world. The mystery and unexpectedness of our decline makes our heads spin, and words fly out.
It’s reality that our conversations these days are different from years ago. No longer do we worry about whether or not we should take the job in Perth, dislodge the kids, risk a pay cut. Our new reality often involves bodies that are demanding more of our attention—and our conversations shift accordingly. The blade of grass we tripped over yesterday suddenly becomes newsworthy.
There’s no point suppressing or ignoring that reality. It’s chewing at our attention, demanding to be acknowledged. We just need to watch out that we don’t fall under the spell of complaint, which surely must accelerate ageing. Like my friend with the ten-minute rule, we give it a nod and move on.