Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thoughts on MS and Aging

I liken MS to premature aging. Not everybody has MS, so it’s sometimes difficult for people to identify with my situation. But everyone gets older.

At certain milestone birthday parties, like a 40th or 50th, well-intentioned friends and loved ones often poke fun at the guest of honor by presenting him or her with symbols of old age such as adult diapers or a cane. It’s all in good fun, but it highlights the fact that items such as these, and many more, are associated with growing old, and growing old is associated with becoming feeble. And if MS is like growing old, well you get the picture.

Then there are ailments which are all considered part of growing old: cognitive decline, fatigue, stiff joints and muscles, sensitivity to both hot and cold weather, and balance and strength problems. Another classic marker of old age is the propensity to watch the Price Is Right. These are all blessings that MS has bestowed upon me, albeit prematurely (remember to have your pets spayed or neutered).

Many older people are known to complain about their accumulated infirmities, and perhaps they have earned that privilege. But in certain instances those who are complaining should take into account whom they are complaining to. For example, my father found it more and more difficult to walk pain-free during the last few years of his life. Out of sheer habit he repeatedly grumbled to me about this unfairness, and how growing old was a burden. He did this as I listened to him from my wheelchair, in my mid-40s. On one level I was offended by his insensitivity, but in the end I just cut him some slack – he was inconsiderate but not malicious.

When I go out and about in our neighborhood during normal working hours I am often embraced by the retirement crowd as one of them, even though I’m clearly much younger. Just yesterday I was at the grocery store, in the embarrassing medicines aisle, when a very kind 73-year-old gentlemen approached me and struck up a conversation.

“What did you do for work?” he asked. I looked at him with some level of bewilderment. Sensing my confusion he said, “I assume you don’t work anymore?”

“Yes, I am retired,” I replied. “I used to be an engineer.” Apparently this is how retiree small talk works.

We each went on to brag about our children, and in his case, grandchildren. We also complained about the weather, the rising price of everything (even though inflation has never been lower), and several other injustices. He was a very pleasant fellow, and I enjoyed our conversation. Me and the old folks – we get one another.

As my abilities continue to fade in certain areas, I sometimes can’t determine if it is due to normal aging or if it is due to the progression of my MS. If I start to forget people’s names more often than I used to, is that MS progression or normal aging? If I need to take two naps a day instead of one, MS or normal aging? Become constipated? MS or normal aging? In the end, the root cause doesn’t really matter because the treatment, if any, is the same. But nevertheless, I occasionally lose sleep wondering exactly which incurable affliction is putting the screws to me, the one that everybody has or the one that only a few of us have.

I think we can all agree that certain aspects of growing old suck. But having the body of a 95-year-old when I’m only 49 sucks the big one.

Until scientists solve the aging problem, and Ray Kurzweil predicts this will happen as early as the year 2045, old age stereotyping and good-natured ribbing will continue to exist. Do I feel uncomfortable when this style of humor is used at milestone birthday parties? My honest answer is yes. However, I’d rather be invited to the party and feel uncomfortable for a few minutes, than not be invited at all.


  1. I'm feeling it today, brother! The rain is coming and my knees are speaking to me. Oh yes, and I have MS.
    Good're right on the mark!

  2. so right on. my father, who just turned 80, and i often compare aches and pains. i had a therapist a while ago said that what i had was "aging plus." when i encounter a new ache or pain, i wonder, is it because i am 55? overweight? is it MS? some combination of these? so i have chosen to stop trying to identify the source. while i honor getting older, and i like the perspective of my years, the MS part does nothing but suck.

  3. We visit my mother every day in her nursing home, and I often think I have more in common with those residents than I do with my peers!

  4. Daphne, we're not supposed to be so old so young!

    Stephen, you are wise to have stopped trying to identify the source of your aches and pains. And yes, I agree that aging is not all bad. The wisdom we gain is the silver lining.

    Muff, you're such a good daughter! Do you think you could survive in a nursing home if you had to?

  5. Good description. I tell people I'm 55 but my body is 85.

  6. Climbing, thanks for stopping by and commenting. they say that it only matters how young you feel on the inside, but it's hard to ignore the outside!

  7. I gopt PPMS diagnosed 10 years ago
    My short term memory has suffered but my will to do things myself as often as possible is called being plain stupid
    I see it as a bigger picture as if I give up trying I shall sit in a corner and festate
    My biggest annoyance is when out Police see me as drunk when I do not drink
    Hmm many times taken in for that

  8. Greg, there certainly is a balancing act between trying to do as much as you can by yourself and just being overly stubborn, or stupid as some people may call it. Since I'm in a wheelchair nobody mistakes me for a drunk, but I'm sure they do mistake me for somebody that should be pitied.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Good luck to you.

  9. I hear ya brother. My newest volunteer venture is to call on elderly citizens to conduct a satisfaction survey on the county provided services they receive (meals on wheels, personal care, light housekeeping, respite care for their caregivers). The survey is valuable for quality assurance for the counties. The survey is personally valuable to get me out of my freakin' head. Needless to say once the survey gears up, all hell breaks loose. Many of them so need to talk to someone....and talk they do. Their stories are priceless! After close to 30 years with MS symptoms, I found myself riding the Bitter Boat when it came to elderly (especially spry) folks. This emotional exercise has unleashed a kindly monster in me. Don't get me wrong. Some clueless old people can still piss me off royally.

  10. anonymous, the old folks are an enigma, aren't they? They have so much wisdom to impart upon us, but they can be difficult. I'm sure we won't be difficult when we're old.

  11. Mitch, really enjoying your blog. When I said I 'call on' elders, I meant that I phone them. It's amazing how they open up to a kind stranger on the phone (after I identify the organization that I'm with). It's interesting how some of these elders,that pride themselves on semi-independence, are likewise hungry for connection with others. It might be time to step up my game (as if) and do some visiting to 'facility bound' elders. Call this my own Karma exercise. Ya know: goes around, comes around. These elders peeps do get us!