December 6, 2017

Are We Defined By Our Health?

It is absolutely true that if a group of seniors gather, medical conditions and problems will be discussed. We seem to eagerly trade stories of a misdiagnosis, a lingering illness that won't go away, a troubling test result, or the struggles of a friend or relative. 

Ask young people about their future as older folks and declining health is likely to be part of their description. Watch a TV show that includes an older character and he or she will probably show some evidence of physical or mental impairment. 

I suggest that too often people of our age are defined by our health rather than something positive about our lifestyle or accomplishments. And, that description comes from not just younger people, but us as well. It seems almost like a badge of honor to talk about our diabetes or high blood pressure. Special diets and a regime of pills validates us as officially a senior.

Recently, I was listening to a program on the Internet, produced by the BBC's station in Northern Ireland. It dealt with the problems that come from misconceptions about what older folks can do and need. Government and the private sector have ideas what being 65, 70, or 80 means. They attempt to approach what they perceive as our reality with programs and products. 

One of the comments that generated the idea for this post was this tendency to think of older people by their limitations and not their potential. The idea that retirement is not the end but the beginning of a completely different stage of life is a recent development but something that is not universally believed.  One of the people interviewed on that show is 42. She said she is looking forward to being 65 and free to start something completely new from what she is doing now.

What a great attitude, and one that represents the feeling that most retirees I come in contact with have: age means freedom, opportunity and rejecting artificial boundaries.

Of course, we have declines in health. That comes from being human. We are not as spry as we once were. Our memory has some holes in it. Hearing aids are used when needed. It may take a bit longer to stretch and feel limber each morning. 

So what? If that is what happens as the physical body ages, why do we allow others (and ourselves) to define us by what is very natural? Why do we think about the walls instead of the space beyond? Why do we define who we are by what our bodies are doing instead of  what we can do? 


Talk about anything but your last visit to a doctor!

May I suggest next time you are with a group of friends you don't talk about health problems, but life experiences. Talk about what is new or different in your life. Get really brave and start a discussion about some political issue. Ask what travel plans others have. 

Just don't compare medical charts. 


If you have a spare 27 minutes and want to listen to the BBC show I mentioned above, click this link: Live Long, Work Long?



22 comments:

  1. It depends on where you are in life. I am in my mid-60s and when I am meeting friends common topics are: transitioning to retirement or conversely about how hard it is to find work at anything past 50, things we've seen or done, recent travel, hobbies, children & grandchildren. We don’t talk much about health issues but luckily we don’t really have anything serious wrong yet.

    It's easy to for someone at a healthy 42 to imagine all the things they'll do in retirement but it's also wise to note that the "healthy years" are the first 10 years or so (depending on when you retire of course).

    For my parents (they divorced 50 years ago) it's a different story, they are pretty much defined by their health. My father 92 has been 2 months bedridden from a broken hip and his recovery from the surgery is very slow, he's still not walking and it seems unlikely he'll be able to return to his home again to live independently. Among other issues he also has cancer in his liver but the doctors have been able to control it, though not eliminate it, with biweekly injections for the last 4 years (medicine has advanced hugely and continues to do so).

    My mother 88 is in a wheelchair from a combination of ailments though the initial problem was very painful arthritis that has been with her, and worsening, for the last 25 years. We are looking at options for her too now as she is not able to keep up with her condo even with meals-on-wheels and help coming in several times a week.

    As I have said many times before "When you are retired the future is now". I agree that (early) retirement should mean freedom, opportunity and rejecting artificial boundaries but that's time limited. Artificial boundaries become, sooner than you think, actual boundaries. Don't waste energy worrying about money or whatever and don't let worry you hold you back, just get on with what it is that brings you joy.

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    1. Betty and I are no spring chickens, though she is 5 years my junior. We belong to a small group at our church, composed of widows mostly in their 70's and some couples, a few with serious health concerns. Discussions about medical problems and procedures, and prayers for them, are very common among this group.

      Betty and I always leave these meetings feeling pretty good about the state of our health at the moment but know our time is coming.

      What struck me about the 42 year old's comment in the BBC story was she almost sounded like she was wishing her life away to get to 65 and freedom. That struck me as kind of sad. I would suggest she needs to be doing something she loves now, not dream about what might be 23 years in the future.

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  2. Hi Bob! I doubt it is any surprise to you that I LOVE this post exactly because it puts the focus on the possibilities and opportunities that we have available as we age--rather than the downsides. And that is exactly why I've written my latest book! "Positive Aging--A SMART Living 365 Guide To Thriving And Wellbeing At Any Age". At 62 I'm well aware that my body doesn't respond the way that it did 20 or 40 years ago. But the advantages of this age are AMAZING and I love talking about it. Of course the entire "retirement" aspect is bound to come up in most conversations I have these days--but again, I believe we have the choice of talking about the advantages rather than the downsides. Like so many things it in life, our attitude guides our perception. Thanks for the reminder (and letting letting me shamelessly plug my new book!!!!) ~Kathy

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    1. I noticed the book plug! When my new ones come out in the next few months, look for one on your site!

      Seriously, you and I are singing the same song. I do not want to have my public definition be that I am that guy with acid reflux or the one with the sore back. That is not who I am.

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    2. Kathy, one thing to keep in mind is that your body responds better now than it will 20 years from now. I did read once that, if you are healthy, your 60s are probably the best years of your life. The stress of a full-on career and raising a family are gone and you can mostly do what you've always been able to do.

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    3. Hey Bob! I'll look for your new book! Let's do a book exchange. :-) And I agree with you ddavidson that there is no doubt my body will continue to change as the years add up. But again, even though my body isn't what it was 20 years ago, I still see the "silver lining" of this age. And from all my research...people in their 70s are the happiest of all so I have so much to look forward to! In case you can't tell...I'm one of those people who believes that a positive attitude is the most important trait we can have--no matter what our age. ~Kathy

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  3. Well, Bob, you said it - talk about what is new or different in your life. And sometimes that is health (whatever point on the spectrum that may be). How health is viewed is testimony to an individual's perception - focus on the abilities or the limitations? internal or external locus? A holistic perception of health includes mental as well as physical well-being, one affecting the other. Managing one's health can be a full-time job for some; ask my friend with MS. It permeates every aspect of her life, of course. I like the reference that was made to health span vs lifespan that was posted in the blogosphere. So to your question - are we defined by our health? Yes, because it imposes limitations as well as opportunities.

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    1. I was all set to disagree with you, but you are right: it imposes limitations but also opportunities. Even so, making health the center of so many conversations doesn't really help any of us. Health is what we have, not who we are.

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    2. Absolutely! I work with adults who have disabilities, not disabled people. They are extremely able in some ways, and every one of them is unique. When I retire (soon, soon) I don't want to be the one with the gimpy hip--I want to be the fiber artist with the retirement blog who's learning new languages and playing harp with friends.

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  4. Last Sunday we celebrated Dave's 70th birthday with great friends. I'm certain we were the oldest, (by a long shot), in the room and none of our friends could believe he was 70. Over the years most of our friends have been younger. As we got into our 60's we continued to enjoy the company of younger people, some are even friends of our kids. Age is a state of mind. I've always believed that. When I'm around folks who want to discuss their latest medical issues I make a quick getaway. That's the last thing I want to spend time on.
    b

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    1. I would have guessed that about you and Dave: both your circle of friends and your refusal to focus on health issues. That isn't your style.

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  5. Maybe it is because I am one of the few 64 year olds around that has never been on prescription meds of any kind, or saddled with persistent ailments, but I have always disliked when older folks start talking about their physical problems. It serves no useful purpose, you turn off those around you who do not to discuss such a depressing topic, and you take away from other conversations that could be of interest to all. I am sorry if that strikes some as arrogant or unfeeling, but if something does nothing useful for anyone involved (including the person bringing up the topic), why belabor it? Get on with life, accent the positive as the old song states, and bring some happiness to others. That said, an early Merry Christmas wish to you and your readers, Bob!

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    1. I understand that some folks get some comfort from sharing medical problems and I will politely listen. But, like you, I know there are more interesting and productive topics we could spend time on. For too many of us of a certain age, I'm afraid it is almost expected to share these details.

      Thanks for your wishes. The same to you and Deb.

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  6. I'm of two minds on this. We're still relatively healthy and fit. But we do have friends who aren't. And I also understand the comfort people find in sharing their problems with someone who might be able to empathize. My mom used to call this the old peoples' "organ recital" and now she's kind of doing it herself. So while the topic is pretty boring unless it involves oneself, there is value in empathy. I know DH's golf group gets a kick out of sharing their ailments and jollying one another along back to the golf course ASAP after any surgery, illness, etc. They have one guy with two replacement knees, two replacement hips, and one replacement shoulder!

    That said, I don't really like to spend a lot of time with people who ONLY talk about health issues. But it's harder as we age. Very few of us drop dead after a long life of perfect health.
    --Hope

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    1. The empathy aspect and being a good listener are important. Others need to share. Like you, I don't want to just compare ailments. That becomes downright depressing.

      Sometimes I think about the magic age of 40, when most of us begin to need glasses, at least for reading. It is just what happens to older eyes and it doesn't usually become the focus of conversations. We can choose what we share and why.

      Thanks, Hope.

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  7. I am not one to talk about health issues constantly--though I was sick almost all of last year. My doctor said she never saw a positive attitude do more for health. That said my next door neighbor is in her 40s and has constant health issues she talks about and I'm glad to listen
    Some of us dont have spouses and/or children. are we supposed to talk to the walls? I do talk to my oldest and best friends as they talk to me. We care. We take care of each other but can not unless we know. One of my best friends--a woman who has always taken excellent care of herself had a TIA Saturday. Damn straight I want to know everything about it so I can help.
    It is superior to expect people without family to remain silent.
    Loneliness kills more than cigarettes. I can not imagine not having an outlet.
    I used to feel silently superior because my health was so good. Then it wasnt . Now I think it is but I learned that we never know what is going to happen tomorrow.

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    1. I think you may have missed the point I was trying to make: not that we remain silent about health problems or don't help friends who need us to listen. It is that when a group of seniors get together sharing sicknesses or medical limitations it becomes a case of "I can top that with MY problem." Talking about health in a group is too often not about looking for someone to sympathize but to "join the club."

      As we age we all have health problems. If that is how we lead off every group gathering, I contend that is helping to define us by our problems. If I wrote in a way that suggested I was saying to ignore those in real need, then I am sorry since that was not my intention.

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  8. I totally agree with you Bob. Society today looks at aging as negative. But that can't be farther from the truth. We should look at getting older as an opportunity to grow and challenge ourselves. Sure, our health isn't great and our bones aren't what they used to be and so and so on till infinity. But that shouldn't all that's on your mind.

    I love what you said Bob "when a group of seniors get together sharing sicknesses or medical limitations it becomes a case of I can top that with MY problem." Because it applies to everyone.

    "Misery loves company" and if we're all miserable together how are we ever going to be happy?

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    1. Exactly! I recently read a study that says for many people their 60's is the best decade of their lives. I would agree.

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  9. Bob, I know what you mean about certain groups of seniors who give almost a competitive edge to talking about their medical issues. I shudder to think that I am now in a demographic where that is common. On the other hand, with friends that I have had for a lifetime, we have always shared conversation on topics that were typical of our phase of life development, compared notes, and helped each other through. The topics have changed from leaving home, falling in love/out of love, having children, raising teenagers, career issues, to retirement and health issues. I think that it is natural for people to want to talk about what is top of mind for them. Good friends will listen and share about those topics. But in a circle of casual acquaintances, if the main topic is always one’s latest health situation, then I think it is time to find a more interesting group of people to hang out with!

    Jude

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    1. Good friends should have the ability to listen and support each other when the topic turns to health. It is a growing part of each of our lives. Each of us needs a caring ear.

      But, as you note, in a group of people who are just casual, "hi neighbor" friends, I don't really want to know about all of their bodily problems unless they are asking for some help, like a lift to an appointment. Life is too precious, and short, to focus on the downside of being human.

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