July 22, 2016 by Jean
Recently I found myself marveling at what a good summer this has been. Maine has been having sparkling summer weather (although a bit more rain wouldn’t make me unhappy); I’ve been filling my days with an enjoyable mix of work on my garden, reading and writing, and relaxation; I’m excited by my horticulture courses; I’ve finally found a good mix of volunteer opportunities where I feel I am making a meaningful contribution; I’ve been enjoying a social life that includes both old friends and new. And I’ve been feeling good physically.
This last is probably critical to my good summer. Both last summer and the one before that, I experienced pain radiating down my left leg from disc problems in my lumbar spine. The pain wasn’t severe, but it was an almost constant annoyance, it kept me from doing many things that I wanted to do, and it eventually sent me into physical therapy each of those summers. The first year’s physical therapy was not successful in bringing any significant pain relief; but last summer, I found my way to an outstanding physical therapist and began the process of dealing with my back issues by re-learning how to sit, how to stand, how to bend, and how to walk. The result is that I am walking (2-4 miles) just about every day and doing as much as 12 hours per week heavy work in my garden, all without pain.
I don’t take my current good health for granted. Yes, there are things we can do to try to safeguard our health; but, as much as our culture denies it, aging is a natural and inevitable process, and sooner or later, we will all experience health issues. Some problems occur as we age because parts of our bodies start wearing out from use (like the joints in my fingers, my spinal discs, or the thinning of that pesky fatty pad on the bottom of the foot that causes plantar fasciitis). There are also other health problems that are more likely to occur with age (e.g., bone loss, dementia, and cardiovascular disease). The more years we live, the more chances we have to experience randomly occurring health problems (like many cancers).
Health is the wildcard in retirement. Good health enhances the experience, but those who are dealt a poor health hand have to work harder at getting the most out of retirement. And health can turn on a dime. My widowed mother was living happily and independently at home into her late eighties, doing her own cooking and shopping, and taking care of most of her needs with a little help from family when one day, while she was working at her computer, her leg suddenly began to jerk uncontrollably. She was unable to stop it or even to move from her chair and had to call an ambulance. This turned out to be the first symptom of a brain tumor. She never lived independently again as, during the months that followed, she became progressively paralyzed and also lost the ability to write, to read, and eventually to speak. Although much less dramatic than my mother’s experience, I’ve watched one of my friends have her very active life disrupted in recent months by severe foot pain. Two other friends (both non-smokers) have experienced lung cancers caused by random cell mutations.
Right now, I’m enjoying the good health cards I’ve been dealt and trying to make the most of them. I do what I can to stay healthy, but I know that this really isn’t much in my control. I feel some urgency to get my big front garden landscaping project completed while my health still allows me to do this work, but I also know that I have to pace myself in order to preserve that health.
We may think we know what bad card we will eventually turn up, but we don’t. My mother had a history of cardiovascular disease (including both a stroke and a heart attack) and always assumed that was what would finally get her – but it wasn’t. I was totally blindsided by cancer in my fifties while my doctor and I both had our eyes on the ball of my family history of heart disease. More than two years into retirement, I doubt I’ll ever run out of things I want to do and to learn; but the health wildcard will affect my ability to do them. I can only hope that when I turn over the bad health card, I will be able to play the hand I’m dealt with courage and grace.