September 2, 2010

USA: Aging includes a cruise on the river called 'denial'

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EAGLE RIVER, Alaska / Alaska Star / Opinion / September 2, 2010

By Frank E. Baker

I am so deep into denial regarding my advancing years that I never thought it possible to be writing a column about the subject. But the amusing things that have occurred in recent years have far outweighed the travail—enough to justify some commentary.

To completely understand irreconcilable, uncompromising age denial, one must be privy to a recurring conversation I have with my doctor. It goes something like this:

Photograph of Frank E. Baker (right) and the Alaska scene courtesy: AlaskaVerse

"You have osteoarthritis in your knees from long-term wear and tear. Have you considered the fact you are getting too old to climb mountains?"

"No, and I won't. I know guys in the mountaineering club who are past 70 and still climbing mountains."

"You are not them. You need to start throttling back. And you can't keep downing anti-inflammatory pills like candy. They're destroying your kidneys."

"Give me a shot of cortisone, then, so I'm ready for this coming weekend."

"What's happening this weekend?"

"I'm climbing a mountain."

And so goes denial –from the stuff I spray on my head each night to retain hair follicles to the glucosamine I swallow each morning to supposedly build cartilage in my joints to vitamins I pop for extra energy.

But lately there has been a new development. I've been coming up with what I believe are astute observations about aging. And with breathless exuberance, I've been relating them to my wife in third person, as if they were happening to others and not me.

"It just occurred to me why older people often have grouchy, grimacing looks on their faces," I say.

"Why?" she replies, trying to act interested.

"Because they're in extreme pain!" I exclaim. "It's hard for them to be blissful about the world when they're ravaged by pain."

"Who are you talking about?" she asks.

After our Internet went on the blink recently, I returned the defective modem to the store, all the while worrying the replacement would be a different model that would have strange connections and adaptors that would be difficult to figure out.

"Now I know why older people appear so worried all the time," I tell my wife.

"Because they can't find a doctor that will take Medicare?" she responds, again trying to act interested.

"No. It's because they're stressed out about someone thrusting new and difficult technology at them."

"Who are they?" she asks patiently.

The revelations just kept coming. "I now know why older people use mirrors rather than turning around and looking back over their shoulders when backing up a car," I announce smugly.

"Why?" she says attentively. I sense she is becoming adept at feigning interest.

"They know they'll pull muscles in their neck if they turn around that sharply."

"Who does?" she interrogates with the acumen of a district attorney.

The age denial phenomenon goes on and on, from wearing sunglasses to cover eye wrinkles to baseball caps that cover thinning hair to not choosing the senior selection on restaurant menus to trying to climb mountains that seemed easy 20 years ago, and using only one walking stick instead of two.

Another thing age-denial people do is hang out with younger people. Most of my friends over the past 20 years have been about 10 to 15 years younger. In pursuit of activities like hiking and climbing, it presents some challenges:

"They want to go too fast!" I complain to my wife.

"Who does?" she says, trying to act interested.

"All of them. They're all in a hurry."

"Take your own car and go at your own pace," she yawns.

"Not a bad idea," I muse. "That way I can stretch what they want to be a three-hour trip into six hours, or even a one-day trip into a two-day trip."

Some cultures revere their elderly, like the Eskimos, Indians and Polynesians. Even if I were a member of those societies, I'd probably still fight the inevitable slide into old age, or as the late comedian Johnny Carson called it, "the final glide path."

But the most notable change that has come with advancing years, even eclipsing aches and pains and short-term memory loss, is the bounce-back—the recovery time after a strenuous activity.

"It really takes older people a lot longer to recover once they overexert themselves," I observe.

"Who are you talking about?" my wife replies, this time not even trying to act interested.

"I don't know… those older people."

When you're a child, adults will tell you to "act your age." As you reach senior-citizen status, you might receive that same admonishment from your children and friends. Sorry, no can do. A couple of winters ago I built the best snowman in our neighborhood. Next winter, with the right snow conditions, I'll see if I can make one bigger and better.

Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and member of the Eagle River Rotary.

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