Curtis Cove: older than all of us and doing fine! (Erin O’Mara photo)
It’s so cold in my house that I’m doing something I’m sure no woman in the history of the world has ever done. I’m wishing for a hot flash.
Of course, when I need to turn my temperature regulation on its head, my hormones are stubborn and stable. The wind’s raging and it feels like minus 36 outside and inside and I can’t get hot on demand. Hot flashes, it seems, only happen in situations not helped by a red face and a sheen of sweat.
Aging is a privilege, not a disease, but if there’s a word other than “symptom” to talk about how my older body feels, I don’t know it. And I thought I was prepared but I’m bewildered. We age slowly, over days and months and years, but the symptoms of aging arrive in a stunning flash.
My knees dropped when I turned 30. Overnight, my knees were loose and noticeably lower than the day before. When I hit 40, my back went out of whack and remains in a constant state of disrepair. At 50, I started forgetting small but important details. I so consistently forget names that I seize up when I’m responsible for introductions. I never seem to know where my cellphone is and I’ve been late for umpteen events because I can’t find the wallet that’s in my hand.
Sometimes I even forget how old I am, though I think that’s more of a defense mechanism than a symptom.
It’s too soon for me and lots of my friends to be considered “seniors,” but that doesn’t stop us from talking about our chest pain, acid reflux or knee twinges. We overshare about our health in the way we used to overshare about making out on a first date or training for a first marathon. We’re irrepressible. We want our symptoms known and we want to hear that someone else felt the same thing and is thriving. We want to be understood. This aging business is confusing, and we don’t want to navigate it alone.
I’ve come to understand the magic of AARP, not because they’re solving any of these issues for me, but because their magazine gives me health problems to consider that aren’t mine. I ignored their mailings for years because I didn’t want to face that I was nearing or maybe already in the AARP demographic. I finally signed up for the promise of discounts and a robust lobbying arm that might have my older interests at heart. But when I got the first free magazine, I found the real value. Do you know the stress of work or family doesn’t make the list of causes of high blood pressure, and the real culprit is a full bladder? Did you know that some chocolate has fiber and makes indulging healthy? They’re teasing me with the promise of an article on the diseases our toes reveal, and I can’t wait. When you’re with the right people, quality health facts are cocktail party gold.
The thing about the symptoms of aging is that you don’t understand what it’s like to have them until you do. The concept of insomnia or pain is much different than the reality. Weird body shifts that make elastic waist jeans seem like a reasonable option cause me more anxiety than I’m comfortable admitting.
Years ago, on a cold winter night, a friend suffering through early menopause walked through my front door, ripped off her coat, and dropped it on the floor as she cut a path to the kitchen. She opened the freezer and stuck her head, shoulders and arms in. Since then, we have bought a new refrigerator, and the freezer is a drawer on the bottom, so she and I are both out of luck. If I’d better understood what she was going through, I might have made a different appliance choice.
From watching my parents, I learned the key to aging is a combination of grace, fortitude and humor. I can accept that I don’t need to know if I can still do a cartwheel and running for fitness is in my rearview. I can have faith in myself and find the strength to advocate for what I need to be healthy and happy. And I can seek out laughter and focus on all the joy in my life and my privilege of extending that joy year after year.
By the time you read this, it will undoubtedly be warmer than today and both my mother and I will officially be one year older. At 8:30 tonight, when I fall asleep watching television, I’ll remind myself that I’ve always felt falling asleep in front of a movie is a luxury. Now I’m old enough to also know that I don’t have to fight sleepiness and I won’t miss anything.
I’ll keep wearing sunscreen and hats, practicing yoga, carving spoons, taking trips, nurturing friendships, and laughing.
I’ll keep enjoying a sunset glass of wine, even though AARP tells me this could raise my blood pressure.
Seems another key to aging is knowing when to take advice and when to ignore it.
Erin O’Mara lives in Harpswell and serves on the Harpswell News Board of Directors.