Elderly is not a number. Elderly is a physical and mental and emotional state of being. I was elderly when I was 35 but I’m not elderly now, at age 73.
At 35, I became elderly overnight.
I woke up one morning and I could not put my foot on the floor when I tried to get out of bed. By the time I saw a doctor, they were talking about amputation due to the severity of what they thought was an infection.
Hospitalized for seven days, I woke up each day with another inflamed joint. They couldn’t amputate every joint! I could not open my mouth because my jaw was affected. My feet and legs looked like they belonged to an elephant. I could not sit up by myself. The only tears I shed was when I couldn’t move my fingers. I had just been learning sign language as I studied for a career working with people who are deaf. My fingers would move but with excruciating pain.
Luckily for me, my doctor went on vacation.
The covering doctor asked if my mother had arthritis. I told him my mother has psoriatic arthritis and has suffered with iritis all of her life (a form of arthritis affecting the eyes). When my doctor spoke to my mother on the phone, she kept saying, “in the case of your daughter’s arthritis…”.
I thought she was reading the wrong chart. So far as I knew, I didn’t have arthritis. Well, how wrong I was!
My new doctor explained I was genetically pre-programmed for arthritis, which probably would have happened in my older years but due to “reactive arthritis”, it had hit me full force all at once after a bout of food poisoning. The systems in place to keep foreign invaders at bay went rogue and attacked healthy tissue. There was not a joint that wasn’t affected.
So there I was, at 35, with a 17-year old daughter and one who was only 8. I had a full-time job and I was close to graduating with a Master’s Degree from the University of San Francisco. Just a few weeks before I had been hiking in a valley near Big Bear Lake in California. I’d been running the bases at the company picnic. I had a life ahead of me and things I needed to do.
But now I used a wheelchair or walker to barely get around. I was in pain 24/7. I tried to return to work but I would fall asleep due to the pain medication. I doubt I was overly useful when I was awake. I took a leave of absence but in the long run, I lost my job.
Life was now a struggle to get from one day to the next. Where was the energy? Where was the creativity? Where was the joy in life?
Now, 38 years later at 73, I no longer feel elderly. How can that be? I’m not free from the disease. In fact, now I have other medical issues to contend with. But I can move! I’ve made peace with my ability rather than dwelling on my disability.
These are the things I credit with my current state of mind and physical health:
- While I prayed to God to help me, I also believed God put doctors and scientists and researchers on the earth for a purpose. I tried medications. I found physicians who would listen to me and work with me toward good health.
- I kept moving. In my pre-35 life I may have been able to take 10,000 steps a day. In my post 35 life, I celebrate 100 steps and then 1,000 steps. I took water aerobics classes because they are non-weight bearing. In the water I could run and bicycle and feel almost normal.
- I found “half-way”. The pain is going to decide how far you can go but if you go all the way to maximum pain, how do you get back home? Instead of a marathon trip to the grocery, I might take two or three trips to the grocery over a week’s time. I would plan out what was most important to purchase – calculating how many steps I had in me that day – and then use half of those steps to obtain what I needed so I had energy to get back home or back to the car.
- I relied on others. As an “I can do it all by myself” person, this was a hard lesson to learn.
- I substitute what I can do for things I can’t do and try hard not to resent not being able to do some of those things any more. Hike – not so much, but road trip – yes. I found hobbies like wood working that I can do in a seated position. I can also take breaks and now that I’m retired, there’s no rush to get a project done. It will get done when it gets done.
- I do things that make me happy. Particularly since I retired, I have made it a mission to reach out to not only current friends but friends from the past. I have re-connected using Google and e-mail and cards and letters and phone calls. I have made a conscious effort to invite someone over for lunch
I’ve had a daily motto for years – “something to look forward to – something to remember”. Seek joy. Even on painful days – even on lonely days – if I have something fun to look forward to it will help the time pass pleasantly and then, after I have accomplished the fun thing, I have something to remember. Physically, I may be elderly but mentally and emotionally I’m not.
“I searched for a contrast picture to show how disabled I was with arthritis – perhaps something in a wheelchair or using a walker – but, apparently, I didn’t allow anyone to take a picture of me then so all I have is “now”.
Ruth Jackson is the mother of two perfect daughters and four delightful grandchildren. For 50 years, Ruth worked with people who have a disability. For 32 of those years she has been a Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF) surveyor, who compares the work of a rehabilitation agency to a book of standards for the purpose of accreditation. She can be contacted at email@example.com.