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Aches and Pains

Posted Jan 06 2011 8:31am

IMPORTANT UPDATE to Tuesday's post on 2011 health care changes: the provision for Medicare to pay physicians for annual, voluntary, end-of-life counseling has been rescinded. Robert Pear, writing in The New York Times yesterday, explained:

“While administration officials cited procedural reasons for changing the rule, it was clear that political concerns were also a factor.

“The renewed debate over advance care planning threatened to become a distraction to administration officials who were gearing up to defend the health law against attack by the new Republican majority in the House.”

The lunatics win again.

category_bug_journal2.gif All my life, there has been strong cultural pressure against elders talking about their aches and pains. Indeed, this supposed transgression has been fodder for comedians for as long as I can remember.

In my experience, this stereotype that elders dwell on their physical afflictions is undeserved. I've seen only the opposite; hardly any old person I have known or know now mentions them. And with the rise of our youth-centric culture in the past few decades, I suspect some elders are loath to acknowledge aches and pains for fear of appearing old (as if sags and wrinkles are not evidence).

But I think there is value in occasionally talking about these things among ourselves (I doubt young people care – yet) so that we might be able to share our experience and methods of alleviating or, if necessary, find ways to live with these minor maladies.

I'm not talking about the serious pain of disease such as various forms of arthritis, nerve pain from diabetes and others that need to be professionally treated. I mean, instead, those random botherations that appear for no apparent reason and then disappear or, sometimes, remain to be dealt with as best we can.

One of the mini-miracles of getting old for me is that new experiences soon becomes so ordinary that I hardly notice them. It's been a long time since I bounded out of bed in the morning. It's more like a crawl these days, but by the time I've got my robe on I'm upright and moving easily.

I was still working when I first noticed that upon rising after sitting for a length of time, I could not immediately take a step. Not wanting to let my young colleagues think I was becoming decrepit, I learned to stand up at the end of meetings or in restaurants in time for the juices to flow through my legs so I didn't hobble for the first few steps. I don't pay much attention anymore; I've become accustomed to the pause.

Occasionally, especially when I'm chopping onions or doing something in the kitchen that requires a lot of arm or hand strength, a finger joint or two suddenly locks and won't straighten out until I hold my finger out for a few seconds. Once it “unlocks,” the pain stops. What's that about? It's been happening now and then for several years.

For most of my life, I could walk for hours on the sidewalks of New York City. It was easy to do five miles or so at a stretch from my home to – oh, say Central Park on a nice spring day, and back again too.

Nowadays, my feet wear out. It's not that they ache or there is pain; it's that my feet and ankles feel tired and there appears to be no remedy but to walk for shorter stretches of time.

Many years ago, a friend's father who had been in the habit of walking miles a day in New York, had to give up going much farther than the neighborhood deli in his eighties when the padding on his heels had worn thin. I dread the thought of that.

Remember those stitches in younger years usually after strenuous physical activity? Now they occasionally appear suddenly for no reason at all – sitting in a chair or, for example, on my feet cooking in the kitchen. Stretching in the opposite direction can usually alleviate the pain after a few minutes. Where do those come from?

Bending slightly for any period of time longer than five minutes or so produces an ache in my lower back. It goes away when I stand up straight. At Christmas this season, I avoided it by wrapping packages on the kitchen counter which is higher than the dining table and doesn't involve bending. I think that's my ongoing solution now.

Not quite in today's category, but in July, a persistent itch alerted me to a mosquito bite on my knee. No big deal; break out the hydrocortisone cream to keep from going mad with scratching and it will be fine in a day or two.

But this turned out to be like no other mosquito I've met before. I went through most of a small tube of cream until it finally subsided in November. Was it a strange northwestern bug of which I have no knowledge? Or was it age-related slow recovery? There is no way to know.

Look, I'm grateful my maladies are few and minor. But it's still a surprise after decades of no pain without an obvious cause that these things creep in to daily life. And, of course, one wonders what's next.

So far I've been able to accommodate mine without diminishing my life. But that famous embroidered pillow Bette Davis owned is good to keep in mind: Old age ain't for sissies.

Now it's your turn. How have you dealt with the minor aches and pains of age? (Remember – we are not physicians. Please, no amateur diagnoses or drug suggestions for others of us.)

At The Elder Storytelling Place today – Johna Ferguson: Joy of Friendship Through Post Cards

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