It’s official: I am now a certified, card-carrying member of the senior set. I am also at present undergoing intensive physical therapy on my right knee (on which arthroscopic surgery was performed two years ago). Will the pain and discomfort, I wonder, ever go away? I realize our bodies change as we get older; we experience more aches and pains; we begin to consume more health supplements; our moving parts may not be moving sprightly to tuneful music; and our coping mechanisms vary.
For myself, a fighter, I continually call to mind my mother’s wise words to a young Patricia, who admired her mother’s acceptance and positive attitude in dealing with health issues. “Always remember,” she counseled, “arthritis loves a rocking chair.” Only now have I come to understand (and experience) that reality concretely.
Why some people develop physical or mental problems and others seem not to, and at what age our bodies start slowing down, are not easy questions to address, given the complex variables involved in each person’s genetics and lifestyle. An epidemiologist named David Snowdon was captivated by such questions. Beginning back in the mid-1980s and continuing well into the ’90s he directed a research project that was dubbed the Nun Study. His subjects were 678 members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., ranging in age from 75 to 104.
He found a direct correlation between the nuns’ educational levels and the level of any disabilities they exhibited. He tracked as well the state of their mental health, attributing the low rate of Alzheimer’s among them to high linguistic and writing skills developed in younger years. Snowdon published the results of his study in a book called Aging With Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives. (Bantam Books, 2001).
Snowdon’s book should expand our thinking about the relationship between longevity and quality of life. Besides the obvious prescriptions—good diet and exercise—social contact, professionals agree, is a critical factor in keeping elders feeling connected to and part of a larger community. Senior centers across the country provide that vital link. According to the National Council on Aging, today nearly 11,000 senior centers serve a million older adults every day. A friend of mine, who for years managed one such center, recalls how sharing meals and activities together visibly buoyed everyone’s spirits. Each person drew strength and determination from others. For a while, they even forgot about their aches and pains.
In my case, a circle of friends—many of whom are already retired—with similar likes and dislikes fills the social bill. Of course, they can’t alleviate my joint pains. In that, we are all on our own. I try to maintain a strict regimen of floor exercises at home each evening and, during the summer, lots of water aerobics at the pool club to which I belong. But those bumps on my fingers, I accept, will never disappear.
No one, especially me, likes a whiner. It is better to put our pains in perspective; there’s always something to rejoice about. In her poem “Self-Portrait,” from Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008), the poet Mary Oliver, then 70ish, wrote, in part: “Onward, old legs!/ There are the long, pale dunes; on the other side/ the roses are blooming and finding their labor/ no adversity to the spirit.// Upward, old legs! There…is the sea/ shining like a song….”
This issue of America appears as we begin Holy Week and recall Christ’s passion. My prayer is for continued strength to accept the baggage that comes with getting older and, most of all, to remember that whatever the future brings, the cross is the way to the crown.