How to survive a road trip into the land of aging
(No. 99) by Stephen P. Williams
Garden gnomes always congregate near old people. Photo by Stephen P. Williams
Last week I drove to a small town on the edge of the Adirondack mountains with a view across Lake Champlain to the Green Mountains of Vermont. I was visiting family and friends at a massive summer compound with at least five houses and 10 old, well-kept cabins. The owners live in a large 19th century cottage at the top of the hill overlooking acres of lawn that slope down past a tennis court and a boathouse to the blue water. Their mother was close friends with my mother. Every August, starting when I was five years old, my family would spend two or three days driving from Kansas to the northern reaches of New York State to vacation at this lovely family’s property. After 10 days we’d turn around and drive back, us kids sleeping the ride away on a mattress in the back of the station wagon. No seatbelts, of course.
Now, all the people who were old back then are dead. And all of us who were young, are old. At least that’s how I see it. Yet, I’ve learned that lots of older people refuse to engage with their own aging process. It was wonderful to hang out with my old friends, though at the tennis court one of them said, “I don’t know why you want to write about aging when you are only 64 years old -- I never think about it myself.” He was over 70, I’d guess. Not sure.
I get this comment fairly often. But in my mind, if you are 70 and haven’t yet started thinking about who you really are and what could happen to you as you get older, you’ve already got cognitive issues. I find aging fascinating. Still, if I ever want to be invited to a party again, I have to remember that most people don’t. Which reminds me of a story.
He fell, he balked
A few weeks ago a 64 year old friend of mine said he didn’t ever feel old at all. As he talked, he rubbed his leg, which became inflamed very quickly when he walked around the city.
“Age is just not something that affects me,” he said.
“Interesting,” I said. “Do you remember a few months ago when you came out of a restaurant in Chinatown and tripped over absolutely nothing and ended up having knee surgery to repair the damage?”
“Oh,” he said, chuckling a little. “I didn’t think of that.”
“Yeah, that fall was aging telling you to pay attention.”
The dreaded call
I spent just one night at the lakeside paradise. On my first, and only, morning I got a phone call saying one of my relatives in Massachusetts was feeling disoriented, possibly from a new medication for a urinary tract infection. So I said goodbye to the old gang and drove a few hours to her house.
“Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m really 86 years old,” she told me.
I agreed. She’s always appeared able to bend the world to suit her desires, and I never get used to seeing her moving slowly and suffering more. I’m inspired by the way she continues to live alone on a country hilltop, adapting to her new reality. I stayed a few days and she got better.
I’d rather have a cardiologist…
I didn’t get back to the city in time to meet up for a drink with the creators of the Two Old Bitches podcast, as we had planned. I’ve never met them, though a few months ago they interviewed me remotely for their wonderful podcast. They definitely don’t deny the realities of aging. They embrace them. I like that. I was sorry not to share their energy.
That evening I walked over to my favorite pier on the Hudson River and pondered life. I decided that my seventh decade on this planet was going pretty well. And I hoped that would continue — I was to see my cardiologist in the morning. I confess that I’ve always had a little crush on this doctor, though I would never tell her that. I’d rather have a good cardiologist than a girlfriend.
She checked me out and said my heart was beating well, which was a huge relief -- I’m always nervous before these checkups. On my way out, I gave blood for a cholesterol test to a very old nurse. As I left she insisted that I give her 10 stars on the digital survey that popped up on my phone. In the elevator I did just that, thinking about the indignity of making an old person beg for likes.
Stepping into the din of Manhattan I thought, “I have finished my tour of the land of aging. Now back to my youthful self.” Ha ha.
Walking home, I listened to a podcast that said, convincingly, that the anti-aging resveratrol and NMN supplements I was taking weren’t nearly as magical as I thought they were. The host, a young whippersnapper with a zillion followers even laughed at the thought of taking this stuff. I won’t get fooled again.
That night I came across an amazing documentary called Some Type of Heaven, about the Florida retirement communities called The Villages.
I’ve long been fascinated by this place, which is billed as a tropical paradise where the party never ends, until God shouts “last call.” People over 55 can move to The Villages to access a fantasy world of accessorized golf carts, synchronized swimming and dancing to aging rock bands on summer evenings. According to the documentary, there’s also drug addiction, homelessness and infidelity to boot. Not to mention an 81-year-old womanizer who lives in a scary van. The lesson: When you go to paradise, you take yourself with you, no matter your age. Watch it on Hulu.
Oh yeah, and yesterday I got my blood results: I’ll be cutting back on the heavy cream in my coffee, and the steaks and cheese because, yeah, my cholesterol went up during the pandemic.
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