How To Be Old

Most of us hesitate to let others know how old we are.  There is some unspoken taboo against divulging our age, and an even greater distaste for growing older.  The adage It’s better than the alternative is true, but most of us don’t analyze that statement.  Age is somehow correlated with advanced decline, despite the fact that many people age in a positive manner.

**

I met “Lillie” in her home last week.  She is 97 years old and lives alone, with minimal paid   assistance with housekeeping.  Her son lives nearby, and has lunch with her several times a week, and visits at other times, too.  She is otherwise independent.

I met her as a home health patient.  I am a speech-language pathologist, serving several settings including home health.  I was called to see her because her doctor wanted her to receive swallow therapy after she reported to her that she had a little bit of difficulty swallowing sometimes.  She didn’t think she needed much help, but she agreed.

She didn’t need much help indeed, but I was able to offer a few strategies and further increase her awareness of the fact that, at 97, the swallow process had slowed down just like many other processes of the human body.

She had already guessed this, and started making those changes before I arrived. 

I must admit I was a bit skeptical when I was dispatched to her house.  I recall thinking: “At age 97, I don’t know what I can do for someone who likely won’t respond well to new ideas, and suggestions that perhaps she should make some changes in her habits.”

In my 26 years of practice, I don’t think I’ve ever misjudged someone’s character so poorly by what I saw on paper. 

She greeted me at the door with a friendly smile.  I could easily see that 97 years had nothing on this woman.  I could sense she hadn’t missed a beat, and likely was in superior cognitive health as well. 

“Here,” she said.  “You can sit across from me in this chair.  I usually sit here because this cushion helps my back pain.  I guess I’m lucky, because that’s about the only pain I deal with.” 

I sat down across from her, and it didn’t take long for me to realize I was in the company of someone truly exceptional, someone I hadn’t ever met the likes of in my 26 years of practice. 

As I do with the elderly patients who appear to have unlocked the secret to successful aging, I tuned in to all she had to say.  I could see she had it figured out. I want to be like these people when I grow up, so I am in a prime field to glean this kind of valuable information.  When I see it is appropriate and welcomed, I engage them in conversation regarding their apparent defiance of the aging process.

For myself, I welcome age.  I just celebrated my 54th birthday, and I am fortunate to be in good health.  I try hard to keep myself healthy, and I want to know every little bit of information to add to my arsenal to continue to age successfully, so people like her are a wellspring of good information and advice.  I don’t hide my age, and I encourage others to embrace the process.

It quickly became obvious that she knew the secrets that are not really secrets at all, just the things we all know we need to do to maximize our health, but perhaps don’t.

It was also quickly obvious that she treats age as a gift, even though she has lost two husbands, having cared for them both until they passed.  Every day, she knows, is a gift.

She spoke of another woman who lives nearby whom she recently found out about.  This woman is 105 years old, and still going strong.

“I think I’m going to find her number and call her,” Lillie said.  “I want to know how she does it.”

I had no words to respond to that.  Clearly, she doesn’t realize that she, too, is already doing it, and doing it well.

“I take the daily paper, but only for the crossword puzzle, the word search, sudoku, and the jumbled word puzzle.  There’s not much else in it,” she said.

“I like to read,” she said, holding up a small paperback novel.  It didn’t appear to be large print.  “I love these.  I have a little group of people who love to read and we trade books back and forth.  I have read many of these several times, but if you wait awhile between readings, it’s new again.”

Lillie was simply telling me about the things she enjoys doing—reading, puzzles, not realizing that these are the things that keep the brain healthy, the cognitive activities I recommend for nearly all my patients to keep their brains fit.  Clearly, these activities are keeping her brain fit.

“We know how to be young,” Lillie said.  We know how to act, what to do and what to think.  “But we don’t know how to be old.  There are no guidelines past a certain age.”

“I know that as we age, we can get stubborn.  I told my kids to tell me if I’m doing something wrong, I don’t want to be set in my ways.  Please tell me if I’m doing something wrong.”

I sit in rapt attention as this woman continues to give away the secrets.  I am here to do a job, however, so I do need to ask her a few questions.

“Do you drink enough water?” I ask.  This is a routine question for all my patients with voice and/or swallowing problems. 

“Yes,” she says. “I am sure to drink two or three glasses in the morning, a glass with lunch, and the rest in the afternoon.  I don’t drink any in the evening, because I don’t want to get up more than once in the night to use the bathroom.”

She continued to tell me her healthy eating habits.

“When I see someone who is healthy, I always wonder, how are they eating?  That tells a lot. I limit beef, chicken and fish,” she said.  “I like to buy organic vegetables, too.  I believe pesticides are overused, and I want to keep them out of my body.”

I always want to know about how they exercise, so I asked her.

“I stretch every morning and every night.  I used to do yoga, now I do a few stretches to stay limber.  And I do Tai Chi to help with balance,” she said.  I am not surprised.

“I used to love to dance with both of my husbands.  We danced a lot.  That kept me going.  I liked to ride a bike when I was younger, now I have a stationary bike in the basement.”

Clearly, her health habits are stellar for a person even half her age.  Besides tending to her physical health, she also realizes the importance of connecting with others.  Besides seeing her son several days each week, she keeps in close touch with her daughter and all her grandchildren.  As I was preparing to leave, her phone rang.  She had already ignored one other call, and after checking the caller ID, she said, “It’s my granddaughter in Norway!” 

At that, I ended the session, and told her to take the call.  That was more important than me continuing to absorb her inspiration.  When she reached to answer the phone, her cat, who had been snuggled up in her lap, jumped down.  Lillie told me earlier in the visit that her cat was great company for her.

**

I remain in awe of Lillie.  I will see her several more times, and she will likely continue to practice her stellar health habits.  She will likely call the 105-year old woman to see how she does it, even though, in reality, she is already doing it.  She will likely continue to work the crossword puzzle every day, and will drink plenty of water daily.  She will most likely eat little meat and organic vegetables, and she will keep on reading novels.  She will keep stretching every morning and every evening. She will spend as much time with her family and friends as she possibly can, and she will continue to accept the companionship of her cat. 

This is how Lillie does it—she knows how to be old, even though she says she doesn’t.  Perhaps we should all take a cue from her.  Even if it is just adopting one of her good habits, or lessening one of your own bad habits. 

It’s never too late to change.