I was old for a couple of months this year, and then I stopped.
Old age started abruptly, out of the blue. I began feeling tired every day and worrying in a boring way about a work overload. Something was wrong.
One day I had been reading after lunch in the sun. Then it was time to get back to work.
But no. I felt tired—again. Tired? How daft was that? I’d already been resting like a dear old Methuselah for the last half hour or more. (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a fascinating book with an onion of a story, hard to stop reading. It’s Anthony Marra’s first novel, set in Chechnya, 2004.)
I drew the logical conclusion, or so I thought: maybe it’s time I began to work less, relax more. So I stayed in the chair and read another chapter. By the time I finished, my hands were shaking: I was more tired, not less.
Off to the GP to be diagnosed with a harmless little condition that is, I’m told, almost universal after a certain age: postural hypotension.
Prescription: don’t stay too long in the same position, whether lying, sitting or standing. Drink enough water and a reasonable number of coffees. (I can handle that.)
And when you feel tired, don’t just sit there — move! Get that blood pumping again.
Knowledge is power. Now I know what to do, so I don’t get tired. I’m back to normal, which is full of beans.
Work overload? Bring it on. That’s normal too, and no reason to worry.
Around 2 per cent of people have a brain abnormality known informally as face blindness, and I’m one of them. Either I was born that way or it happened when I got concussion at the age of seven or eight. You probably won’t spot this (apart from thinking I’m a bit weird or rude sometimes), because most of us can cover up with fancy footwork. We refrain from using your name. We use other cues like your hair, clothes, context, and voice to figure out who you are. (Paying close attention to facial detail is useless, even counterproductive.)
Moderate prosopagnasia is not a life-wrecker. Sure, movies, videos and TV can be confusing because everyone looks the same — like potatoes in a bucket. But only rarely have I failed to recognise a husband or son or sister, and many people do kindly tell me their names. So I can live with it.
What if you can’t recognize your own face?
It’s my own face that causes me the most trouble. As a child I would stare in the mirror and struggle to see what made my face any different from all the other faces in my world.
Nowadays I recognise various skin cancer scars and also my jawline from certain angles, which is progress. But in my seventies my face is changing again.
How can I be who I am when I don’t recognize my own face?
Three selfies: three strangers
I took all three of the photos in this post yesterday morning. I haven’t touched anything except the colour.
Although it’s hard to tell other people apart, I know they are not all the same person. I can count, you see. And in a cruel twist, these three selfies look like three different people. Which one is me?
A half-awake, swollen eyed, lopsided, puffy faced but moderately cheerful old woman?
An intensely wrinkled dried up depressed terrifying old crone with no bones in her face?
A wide awake woman upright and on the move?
I have no idea what other people see when they look at me — and I’m less and less sure it matters.
The aging of identity
I think I’ve spent enough time contemplating who I am (outwardly) and how to be me.
It’s quite difficult enough to do this existential acrobatic trick subjectively. And if I attempted to imagine how other people might see my face, my selfies and my avatars, that would well and truly do my head in.
What on earth does that mean, be who I am? I see this as one of the toughest tasks in my self-imposed boot camp for the bonus years. It looks easy, because who else would you be if not yourself? But aging, like puberty, challenges and changes our sense of self.
In one sense I still feel just like a five-year-old — don’t you? But I look in the mirror and I do not see a five-year-old or even a fifty-year-old. I see a funny old woman and I have to get used to the sight of her.
So for now, let’s think about that person in the mirror, who is, according to logic and science, a reflection of ourselves.
Selfies for the young
Once upon a time it was possible to avoid looking at photos of ourselves. They were small and slurry and sepia. As children we were lined up a few times a year for the Brownie box camera, and it never occurred to us to protest or care.
But once we hit puberty, we all care about how we look. I tried to look pale and interesting whenever a camera appeared, which luckily wasn’t often. I worried about my awful haircut, I primped and patted, and I was fascinated by the cute models in Seventeen.
I presume most of my contemporaries were equally preoccupied with their changing appearance, but how would I know? An unsuspected case of prosopagnosia (face blindness) doubtless exacerbated my own identity puzzle.
Considering the metamorphosis of puberty, even a young woman with a healthy self-respect is forced to adjust her self image at that time. Thanks to self-facing (not self-effacing) phone cameras, photo apps and social media, young people can shape their image instantly, frequently and publicly.
But never mind the young: how about older people swept up in life changes that are every bit as scary as the dawn of adulthood? We too wonder how we are supposed to look, especially when merely looking old is such a horrible fate, when President Obama takes the very word “old” as an insult. He bats away a student questioner who asks sincerely for his perspective on “aging toward a very senior life.”
“That’s pretty low!” replied Obama and “C’mon, you hurt my feelings.” All right, it was meant as a joke. But what are our options if looking old is not allowed? Dying young? Endless plastic surgery? Amortality?
If you’re on social media or in business or otherwise in the public eye, you’re obliged to display some photographs of your head and shoulders. As I get older, updating avatars and publicity photos has become somewhat intimidating.
Selfie-haters may righteously distinguish between avatars and selfies. But even if we just grab part of a casual shot for our avatar, we are still consciously manipulating the way we look, deliberately choosing the way we wish to be perceived. Who are we, now, at our age? Are we still carefree adolescents under the skin? And is that what others see? Doubt it!
Image from “The Book of Photography, Practical, Theoretical and Applied” (1905) Paul Hasluck and Arthur Hands. No known copyright restrictions.
It’s funny how people tend to be much more sensitive about damage to hearing than about impaired eyesight.
I certainly include myself in this over-sensitive group. Cheerfully I admit to hearing loss. Proudly I wear my cunning little Phonax hearing aids. But poke me the wrong way and I’ll still bristle with indignation.
Partly, I’m reacting to another funny thing about human nature: I’ve noticed that the more defensive people are about their own hearing, the more they are likely to comment on other people’s hearing.
So when a person with poor hearing comments on my poor hearing, logic flees. These two people are incapable of having a sensible conversation on the topic of hearing, because rumbling under the spoken words are other powerful silent messages, such as…
“Your hearing is worse than my hearing.”
“You need hearing aids.”
“Pot calling the kettle black.”
And our listening gets worse and worse. Neither of us can bear to hear certain truths.
During one such exchange recently, a sister had to step in and tell us two deafish persons to drop the subject. Our conversation was going nowhere. Hearing sensitivity had rolled us right into social ineptness. Stupidity. Craziness. Rudeness.
This is kind of weird, don’t you think? I never pick up on similar vibes about eyesight. Maybe that’s just me. I love glasses. If you’ve got it (poor eyesight), flaunt it—like Dame Edna Everage.
Finally I did it: joined a gym. I’ve done it twice before, lasting a couple of years each time. But this time, I’m serious.
For years, neuroscientists have been discovering and proving and publishing a single message loud and clear: exercise is pure gold, a panacea, catholicon, philosopher’s stone and holy grail all rolled into one. If you care about maintaining a healthy brain into old age and if you follow health and lifestyle news even casually, you know this already.
No need to wait for dementia: how to be daft right now
So we all know, at some level, that to sit around all day is just plain crazy. That’s an interesting choice: to knowingly live in a way that makes you more likely to go daft in the future.
What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. Exercise is the starting point for geriatric sanity. Better body, better brain. Not surprising, when the brain is part of the body and needs a truckload of blood and oxygen to function well.
Easy for me to say, when my joints and limbs are still mobile. But I’ve made a vow to move whatever part of my body I can move until the day I die. I am growing the habit of taking my body seriously. It’s been good to me, and I must return the compliment.
A top-of-list life change
Some life changes are exponentially powerful compared with others. They send off ripples that affect the rest of your life.
Regular exercise is one of these. It lifts your spirits, counteracts depression, gets more blood to your brain, helps you think more clearly, and somehow helps get rid of physical niggles. It may also raise your levels of confidence and optimism. It often has a social component which is good for us too. Exercise improves your sleep and even starts some people eating healthier.
I knew all this. (So did you!)
The missing link
Before the boot camp self-inquisition, my exercise regime had a few fixed pegs (tai chi every morning and dance rehearsals every Wednesday evening) and a few depends-on-the-weather items (random swims, random walks on Mt Victoria). Also, I walk around town doing my chores: big deal, not.
The more I read about exercise for the elderly, the more I could see that two things were missing in my life: a weekly schedule and strength building.
My sergeant major yelled at me about this every hour on the hour.
And yet, and yet … I postponed acting on this knowledge for six months. Back in January of my boot camp year, I already knew I must review my exercise habits. I procrastinated by focusing on less important changes. I procrastinated by reading scientific studies and books. I procrastinated by budgeting. I procrastinated by investigating every gym in town, looking up bus timetables, drawing up schedules that might work.
Finally I took myself by surprise. I attended a trial Power class at a gym close to me, called the Exodus. (Exodus from where, I wonder—Slobvania?) I joined the gym straight after trying the class. Since then I’ve attended two Power classes every week and I feel very happy about the change.
My new schedule includes a good dose of exercise every day from Monday to Friday. I’m happy about this too.
But hey, in the weekends I will just slop around as usual. Like now, for instance, I’m just a dear old granny typing to myself in a rocking chair.
Drawing from Hand-book of calisthenics and gymnastics : a complete drill-book for schools, families, and gymnasiums : with music to accompany the exercises (1864) Watson, J. Madison. Public domain. Photo of Angela at the Exodus gym: Rachel McAlpine, CC BY 3.0
Who am I to give advice about walking? Somebody who used to be not a human as we know it but a balloon on a string, that’s who.
I deeply appreciate the joy of walking for that very reason: for years I was virtually unconscious of my body when out for a trot. All my attention was locked inside my brain. And what an astounding machine it was too, by gum.
I was a mindless walker
Think think think. Puzzle puzzle puzzle. Imagine imagine imagine. I was a biological thinking machine, propelled forward horizontally by mysterious means. I was conscious only of my thoughts; I cared only for my thoughts.
I experienced myself as a free-floating brain sailing over footpaths and dangling something vague beneath me. That something vague was… my body. Legs? What legs?
You were right on the button, Vi!
My mother-in-law Vi used to say, often, in fact pretty much daily, “As long as you’ve got your health…” A cliché, and so true. By the time she died, she had 20 serious health conditions—19 that she knew about, plus dementia. She began suffering from arthritis in her thirties; even at that age, the idea of going for a walk for pleasure was completely alien to her.
Well, Vi, I’ve been a hell of a lot luckier than you were. And I’ll carry on walking, which is both a cause and effect of having my health, as you put it.
Walking up and down stairs. Walking to the pool on Tuesdays. Walking over Mt Vic on Fridays. Walking to town for errands and entertainment. Walking the compost bucket to the community gardens. Walking my grandson to the park on Saturdays. Walking to meet friends. And once in a while, most deliciously, walking on a beach or in a forest.
Enjoy your walk!
You’ll have your own walking routes and reasons. Walking the dog? Hiking in the Solomon Islands, shopping for hot air balloons, touring the estate?
Enjoy your walk. It’s your very own. Your walk is your choice, your walk is you.
Enjoy your walk. Even if you are in a wheelchair or using a walker.
Enjoy your walk. That’s not just a cliché: it’s a prescription.
Image from Chiaroscuro 1910, Senior Class Yearbook, University of Montevallo, via Internet Archive Book Images. Image of cyclists taken by a friend or relative, but I forget who, sorry.
So, how can we walk more mindfully on our everyday excursions? (Not during a formal walking meditation: that’s a different kettle of fish.) And what can we copy from the best young walkers? And what else makes a walk through town a delicious adventure?
These are tips to myself, and some may appeal to you. Some are not possible if you’re very old, or if you have certain disabilities. But if something I suggest resonates with you, why not experiment a little? Strange to say, some of these tips can be followed even in a wheelchair or a walker.
Walk fast, Rachel, at least some of the time.
Bounce along. Lift your feet up.
Raise your breastbone a smidgen. This will automatically improve your posture with no other effort. You will be taller!
Lift up your eyes. Elevate your personal horizon a few degrees.
Look around. Look at sky, trees, traffic lights, graffiti, bicycles, children, lapdogs, posters, gorillas and fuschia buds.
Trust yourself. Be aware of trip hazards in your peripheral vision, but don’t walk along looking at the footpath or your feet. That’s no fun and can upset your balance.
Don’t jaywalk, Rachel. Stop it right now! You know that’s dangerous, especially if you trip over your ball gown or a wheel comes off your shopping trolley. You know you are setting a bad example to your grandchildren. (Trying to retrain myself on this one.)
Enjoy your body, Rachel. Be aware of one part of your body as you move along. One day, feel what’s happening in your arms. Another day, your thighs. Another time, the way your arms swing. Enjoy the warm sun on your face: what a glow! Enjoy the cold wind on your face: you’re alive!
And smile at strangers. Deliberately. Often. With eye contact. This is extremely interesting, not to mention fun. Count the number of smiles you get back in return. (Ed. I know, you don’t have to tell me that.)
Image from “History of the Ninth and Tenth Regiments Rhode Island Volunteers, and the Tenth Rhode Island Battery, in the Union Army in 1862” (1892) Spicer, Wm Arnold. Public domain. Painting by Lesley Evans of four little girls CC BY-NC 3.0. Lesley is my sister! https://www.facebook.com/LesleyEvansArtist/