A couple of days ago, a colleague and I co-presented at a women’s conference in a rural community. We had decided on a conversation format for our talk, so had asked the organizers to put two armchairs on the stage for us. When I approached the temporary dais shortly before our talk was scheduled to begin, I realized it was the worst possible height for someone like me with failing knees: too high for me to be able to step onto it unassisted but not high enough to come equipped with a step or two to get me up there.
Fortunately for my pride, we spoke right after a break, so I managed to manoeuvre myself up while conference attendees were distracted as they refreshed their coffee, picked up a sweet treat or bought a book or two. Once there, my feet solidly under me, I headed for one of the chairs. Challenge number two: while the chair was very comfortable, it was so soft that I was pretty sure I’d have trouble getting out of it. I settled in and decided I would worry about how to make a passably graceful exit once our talk was over.
In the end, I persuaded my co-presenter that we should remain in our chairs through the draw for various door prizes and the end-of-conference closing remarks. As the audience members chatted to one another and made their way out into the sunny afternoon, I got myself back onto the floor, upright and with my dignity intact, assisted by my co-presenter and without undue attention.
A few days before this, I had been at a two-day in-person meeting where, along with another mature participant, I found that it was really hard to hear some of the speakers. How could it be, I thought, that I was suddenly having trouble hearing? And then it occurred to me: when I am in zoom meetings — which is how most of us have been meeting with one another for the past three-plus years –I often turn the volume up and down in response to how loudly or quietly someone is speaking. Now that we’re back in person, we don’t have that luxury.
These two recent experiences, coming so close together, were humbling and, to some extent, embarrassing. Much as I am more than happy to assist or accommodate someone else, I don’t like to be the one asking.
It’s a fact of life
I gave up trying to convince myself that I wasn’t getting old some time ago. How could I not? I can see that the grey in my hair is fast advancing. Every time I look in the mirror, I see more of my mother and less of me. I can hear my joints crack and creak when I move. I notice how often I sit down to complete tasks I used to do while standing. I’m aware that I no longer get down on the floor to play Jenga with my youngest grandson.
I know that my partner and I have the television volume control set higher now than it was five years ago. I find myself minimizing the number of trips I make up and down the stairs and checking every couple of weeks to see if any appealing bungalows are for sale. And there’s no denying that, many nights, I have to trek to the bathroom two or even three times.
I like to think my faculties, including my memory, are largely intact but, as I recently admitted to a friend, even that’s a bit of an illusion: much of the credit for my memory really should go to my strong list-making skills.
I may look more like my mother every day but, unlike her, I am willing to admit the obvious: I am getting old. Until dementia took her into her own little world, my mother expressed faux shock if she was offered the seniors’ discount or any kind of assistance that she felt was intended for “the elderly.” I’ll take the discount, thank you very much. Unlike her I am happy to let VIA staff lift my suitcase onto the train. If my knees, despite my daily application of Voltaren, are acting up, I take my walking sticks with me. I clatter about in the winter with crampons on my boots, because I am terrified of a slip and fall.
Last week, when a teenaged boy asked my partner and me if we would like the chair he was occupying at the community centre so we could change from our street to our indoor shoes, I had a frisson of indignation as I briefly channelled my mother. “Why would you think I need to sit down to change my shoes?” I thought, but did not say. After all, putting shoes on and taking them off is one of those tasks I now prefer to do while seated.
More serious matters
Of course, ageing brings with it much more serious issues than grey hair and middle of the night bathroom runs. This has been brought home to me over the past few months by my partner’s heart attack and serious health crises for a number of close friends. I am fortunate to have a body which, while hardly a temple, serves me reasonably well; but I also know that can turn on a dime.
Then there’s the financial side of things. Despite my desire to leave paid work in favour of finding time for other passions, my annual tax season review of my paltry RRSP investments recently reminded me that, if I want to maintain a comfortable standard of living, retirement is still a few years away.
But the fear that keeps me from sleeping many nights is that – like my mother – I will develop dementia, and my body will stagger on long after my mind has left it.
It’s a mixed bag, this getting old, and it’s definitely not for sissies.