How to be old—we're all learning

Why older people talk about their ailments

The six Taylor sisters being schooled at home during a polio epidemic

Aunt Beulah posed (indirectly) a fascinating question in her latest blog post:

Why, as we grow older, do we feel the urge to discuss our health problems at length, when as children we never did?

So many hypotheses rushed into my head that I was forced to share them immediately. Oh dear. So that means I’m a case in point…

These hypotheses are warped by my early life as a cheerful healthy kid with five healthy sisters in the 1940s. My thoughts are bound to be misguided or outright wrong. Tell me, I can take it!

  1. (Worst first.) Our world has shrunk. We are less interested in the outside world and  more interested in ourselves. So we assume the big world is equally interested in our ailments. Ouch. Please let that not be true!
  2. We were strong healthy children. So most health problems were due to “childhood ailments” which we would, by definition, grow out of. By contrast, after middle age any ailment might be, probably is, a sign that we are getting older, and there’s only one way this can end. So we talk about our ailments to stave off decrepitude and death.
  3. Colds, flu, scarlet fever, chicken pox and measles were infectious and non-selective.  With every epidemic our family got a job-lot, six for the price of one. There was nothing individual about being sick, nothing interesting. If I was sick, so were Jill, Deirdre, Prue, Lesley and Penny. Now we feel alone with each new ailment, and we talk about them for company and reassurance.
  4. We’ve lived beyond Doctor-Knows-Best to the Do-It-Yourself era of health maintenance. For every whiff of an ailment we can instantly get 100 solutions on the internet. There is a heck of a lot more information that can be shared, so we share it.
  5. We have a scientific interest in the state of our body and wish to optimize its efficiency for the years ahead. We love being alive and want to make the most of it. So we talk about how to manage our ailments.
  6. We sympathize with friends who have ailments and want to offer support. So we enable their health-talk.

A friend of mine, Elisabeth, lamented the deterioration of a precious relationship. She and her friend (let’s call her Valerie) used to have exciting spirited passionate wide-ranging intellectual conversations every time they met. Now … each entire outing would be filled by Valerie’s health-talk. Not a single other topic was discussed.

Now that’s bad. Endlessly ruminating over health problems must be one of the worst things you can do for your health. It’s boring, and it throws the relationship out of whack — unfair division of time and topic!

I’m pretty interested in the workings of mind and brain, and I am my only available case study, so I’m at risk of becoming a Valerie. But I do have a private rule: no more than 5 minutes per meeting per person may be spent discussing health problems, whether they be bunions or cancer.

This rough and ready private and flexible rule does not preclude sympathy or empathy. But sometimes a change of topic is as good as a dose of aspirin.

Do read Aunt Beulah’s article which stimulated me to think about this! It’s talk about health talk, very funny and wise.