Living and Learning: The Academy of Aging

I entered the Academy of Aging – an informal but ancient and rigorous school – the easy way, reading and writing about it. I was drawn to the subject in my mid-50’s by working on the future of Medicare and its predictable economic crisis in the years ahead. I gained a good academic knowledge of the economic and social problems of getting old, and some insight into its psychological and physical meaning for aging individuals. But I never much worried about getting old myself, tending in fact to laugh a bit at those who had fits about it all, some as early at age 30, others at 40, still others at 60. Not me, even at 70.

Why should I have worried? I moved with some ease into my later years. Everyone had always told me I looked much younger than my age, preserving my vanity. My career improved; my energy level remained high; and I more or less shrugged off some emphysema, a bout with heart disease, prostate annoyances, and late-onset allergies and asthma. I gave little thought to the idea of “slowing down,” something I was told those of advancing years would be wise to consider.

All that geriatric euphoria began to wither away a couple of months ago, just as I was approaching my 82nd birthday. The Academy of Aging was about to put me through an intense seminar. It began with a lecture trip, requiring that I pass through the Minneapolis airport, notable for long treks to its gates. I wasn’t particularly uncomfortable walking and carried only one light shoulder bag. But twice, unbidden by me, the driver of an airport golf cart for the old and disabled stopped to offer me a ride. Then, when I arrived in New York, I had to climb a small staircase (no more than eight steps). At the bottom of the steps, however, a nice lady took one look at me and, unbidden also, said “May I carry your bag up for you, sir?” I politely declined her offer, thinking I could make it on my own. By the time I had reached the top I finally got the point: I now looked old and I walked the slow, slightly unsteady way such people often do. Call that Lesson 1: the end of vanity.

Lesson 2 came with my 60th college reunion. Going through our starting class list of l,100, I could not fail to notice that some 500 or so had died. Of the 134 who attended the reunion, at least half looked like they would be soon joining the 500. Most of other half seemed to be doing well enough, but it was left unclear to me the half to which I belonged. One good reason to go to college reunions is that they are about the only chance you ever get to see people exactly your own age. You may get more insight than you bargained for. Lesson 2: I am just like everyone else my age, even if I’m uncertain whether I am on the short or the long list of life expectancy.

Lesson 3 came days before my 82nd birthday. Going to the bathroom one dark night I tripped, and hurt what I thought was my ankle. I resisted going to a doctor. If I have learned anything from my work with medical ethics, it is that it is almost always best to choose watchful waiting over any treatment. I waited 10 days and the pain did not go away, so I gave in and went to an emergency room. It turned out I had broken the fibula in my right leg.

I instantly understood why those over 65 are warned about the hazard of falls. I also came to notice from my gait and other symptoms that I fall squarely in that geriatric category known as “frail.” The one-time swimmer, tennis player, and runner in me feels simply insulted by such a diagnosis. Lesson 3 is that classy pathologies are hard to come by, with none to be recommended. The curriculum of the Academy of Aging does not offer elective diseases; the unseen faculty chooses them for us.

We decided not to celebrate my 82nd birthday. It was just as well, not a good day. My leg (in a cast) hurt, my breathing was stressed, my allergies were stuffing my head –and then a new malady appeared. My thighs began to hurt badly, so much so that I had to be helped to walk. It took me a few hours to recognize another faithful companion of the old about which I had only read, sarcopenia, a loss of muscle mass and strength. Many people my age say they feel the same inside as they did when young. I used to say that also. I won’t say that again.

I suppose that the great lesson to be learned from my smaller lessons is that there are more lessons ahead. The Academy of Aging starts easily but the course load gets more demanding as time moves on. Yet it is not always a harsh school. It has its good days as well as bad days, and one of the nice features of an aging memory is that it allows us to forget most of the bad days. There are some other advantages of aging but I can’t recall at the moment just what they are. Aren’t wisdom and serenity supposed to be on that list? If so, just when do they start? On my 83nd birthday?

Daniel Callahan, 82, is President Emeritus of The Hastings Center and an editor of Over 65.

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