Keeping It Together When You’re Falling Apart

I went to see my doctor the other day for my pre-surgery checkup for a shoulder replacement. He mentioned I would eventually need a knee replacement, too, plus a new joint in my right hand. I joked that I seemed to be falling apart! With a straight face, he said “Yes, you are.” I laughed, but later the reality hit me.

While I had been happily tripping through aging by basically ignoring it, I must accept that I am not one of the lucky ones who will ski until they’re 90 and die while they’re asleep. Still, I am lucky I have the option to keep going as a semi-bionic senior, and I am learning to live this new life by using my penchant for analysis and changing my perspective in three areas: relationships, mind over matter, and physical problems.

Loving friendships and family make my life worthwhile, so I give them far more time and attention than in the past. I am, by my nature, a creature of solitude but I want to avoid the loneliness that is one of the scourges of old age. I’ve made friends that are younger than me and I have been very good to my grandchildren and my friend’s children.

I want my loved ones to know that I care for them, so my papers are in order, the house and garden are being simplified, and I have created personal legacies. I have a small stone box for my son and each grandchild. Inside are notes to remind them that they are lovable and capable. Yes, a paperweight from Baba they can put somewhere or misplace. But it will have weight. I would have given so much, as a younger me, for something on my desk or nightstand that said someone loved me.

Rituals are a comfort, so I have created ones that I can keep wherever I live. I enjoy coffee in the morning, always with a treat. I schedule and look forward to regular meetings with friends, and music helps me get up and putter when I feel stuck. Some days, the best motivators are the needs of those I love and my small furry companions.

I am making an album of beautiful photos: of my garden, animals (especially baby animals), scenery, a few memories, grandchildren, and such. Later, I assume I will be able to flip through this album with just a few neurons. I have art jigsaw puzzles to do when my physical and mental skills are tired. When you lose your short-term memory, puzzles are great because you still know what to do with the new pieces—and they work well for me as a meditation, too.

The physical and medical stuff is the hardest, requiring resilience and determination. Health maintenance takes up so much time that I plan good things around doctor and infusion appointments. Pain medications and fatigue suppress motivation, so I need to be both a philosopher and a cheerleader. Some days I can exercise and some days not, and there is the possibility of a glass of wine as the sun sets.

Body maintenance is hard work for me but cleanliness is basic (since, if that goes, they come and get you and put you in a “home.”) You know the drill: nails, haircuts, lotions, showers, reasonable clothes. I find I can stay sort of slender and still eat my favorites even without aerobics just by focusing on other pleasures. My energetic senior disguise works on most days, and it is true that if you look and sound good, you feel good.

When I lament my lost energy, I remember all that I have learned since high school. Hey, I would go back to that high school body if I could hold on to my painfully gained wisdom. I have no desire to be that naive, unsafe, and driven again. What I am now feels solid and complete. I have become a good person and I am free anytime to crawl into my lovely bed and take a sweet nap.

All this may seem irrelevant to you at 50, 60, or 70, and maybe age will never catch you. I both envy you and wish you well. The thoughts in this column are for all my dear cohorts who are also falling apart. Enjoy every hour you can, love yourself, and all you have been through. Every moment you can stop and find something beautiful to touch, see, or hear. As Louis Armstrong once sang, at any age it is still a “wonderful world.”

Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and a master’s in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.

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