Errrt! Errrt! No aches and pains before dessert

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday August 19, 2012

Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland

My 95-year-old mother, who is making the most of her bonus years, living independently in a condo on the West Coast of Florida, is a font of wisdom.  Not long ago, she said, “You know you’re getting old when half the names in your Rolodex end with MD.”  Our son, her grandson, in his 20s said, “Grandma, you know you are getting old when you know what a Rolodex is.”

Despite myths to the contrary, many good things happen to you in your bonus years.  For most, these include more patience, perspective, knowledge and wisdom.  Still, there is no doubt that declining health and health-related events are evitable facts of later life.  That’s why so many names in our address book are physicians, clinics and pharmacists.

Sometimes health problems come out of the blue and hit us between the eyes – calamities such as a heart attack, stroke, cancer or some other dreaded diagnosis.   But most of the time health problems just creep up on us – and then we adapt or compensate through adjustments here and changes of habit there.  Because health problems are something we all experience, sometimes we don’t notice how much of our time – and our later-life conversation – is dominated by health issues, especially when we are with friends our age.

I was reminded of this a month or so ago when I visited Partners in Care and discovered that 80% of the transportation services they provide to members in their bonus years living in Ann Arundel County are for doctors’ appointments or to get a prescription filled.

A few weeks ago while traveling in the Midwest, Mary Sue and I joined some out-of-town friends for dinner – five couples, 10 people altogether.  Nine of the 10 were well into their bonus years.  Most of us knew each other, but our group included friends-of-friends, two people most of us were meeting for the first time.  The husband, Henry, was a widower in his early 70s who had remarried.  His bride of nearly three years, Susan, was in her late 40s and a delightful lady.  However, judging by what transpired, it was clear that we had a generation gap at the table.

Less than 10 minutes after we sat down, one among our group started talking about a friend who just had a successful liver transplant.  This was quickly followed by another’s story about how a knee replacement had brought great relief from the pain of arthritis.

About that time, the buzz of dinner table conversation was interrupted by an arresting, ear-piercing – Errrrrrt! [pause]  Errrrrrt!  – like the sound you might hear on Wheel of Fortune or some other TV game show when the contestant gets the wrong answer.  The conversation stopped, abruptly.  It was Susan, the newbie wife in her late 40s.  She said, “Henry and I have a rule and it works pretty well: No organ recitals at dinner or any place else where civilized folks gather.”  Everyone listened as we realized how much of our time is taken up with the discussion of health issues.  After a good laugh, the conversation carried on about other topics.

Less than five minutes later, another started talking about her bouts with sciatica and how it’s often a struggle just to walk.  She said her doctor wanted her to get some kind of shot in her lower spine, like an epidural – did anyone know anything about that?  Errrrrrt!  [pause] Errrrrrt!  Everyone looked at Susan.  She was sounding off again.  “No health talk.”  She didn’t wag her finger, but she had a finger-wagging look in her eye.

Oh my gosh, the woman is serious!  No health talk.  Everyone went back to eating.  Not much was said for a few minutes.  People took bites and then nervously smiled at each other and then chewed and then smiled again.  As everyone was biting, smiling and chewing and then smiling again, they were frantically Googling their memory for things to talk about now that health issues were off the table.

Finally, and thankfully, the silence was broken when another started talking about his grandkids.  Whew!  Grandchildren are a topic that comes easy to people in their bonus years.  And then the forest fires in Colorado, where one of us had two cousins living in Waldo Canyon.  And then the economy, where we talked about how some of our sons and daughters were having trouble finding jobs and how the younger generation was getting stuck with out-of-control government spending.  When another started to talk about the insolvency of Medicare, we were skirting close to health problems, so another quickly interrupted to talk about the ups and downs of the stock market, where no one could figure out what was going on.

Wow!  Just like old times, before health issues, when we gathered with friends and talked about, well, just about anything.  As time passed, our dinner conversation drifted into a civilized discussion about politics and the upcoming presidential election, though I must say that when we turned to politics, Susan got that Errrrrrt!  Errrrrrt!  look on her face.  I think our delightful new friend with a bow-wow manner also wanted to declare politics out of bounds.  However, she was smart enough to know she had pushed her luck to the limit, at least for this time around.

The experience was convicting.  Still, one of my good friends, Janice Lynch Shuster, an Annapolitan writer and voice of balance about aging and end of life issues, reminded me that “… people talk about where they are in life and, unfortunately for older adults, it’s often illness, health care and the system.   It’s through those conversations that people learn. They find out new things, know that they aren’t in it alone, and they learn about options they might not have considered.  There is something to be said for what we learn from story-telling, even at the dinner table.”  She’s right of course, but…Errrrrrt!

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