Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Thoughts on MS and Aging
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.