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Aging With Grace: Dispatches from the Front Lines

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Why We Need To Read This Book

Somebody asked me the other day, how I got started writing about Aging with Grace. My answer boiled down to waking up to some scary statistics that got piled on top of my experiences as a caregiver of two aging husbands, as well as my father and mother. I started writing a column for the Gulf Islands Driftwood in 2014 when almost 25 percent of Salt Spring Island’s population was sixty-five or more and our median age was fifty-three.

I thought I’d write for one year, but I was still at it when the 2016 census numbers rolled out. Our median age is now fifty-five (compared to forty-one for the rest of the nation). Thirty percent of us are over sixty-five and another 20 percent are between fifty-five and sixty-five. Four hundred are over eighty-five.

Woodie Guthrie wrote a song that some might assume sums up our situation:

You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley.
You’ve got to walk it by yourself.
Ain’t nobody else gonna walk it for you.
You’ve got to walk it by yourself.

Woodie Guthrie

But now that I’ve been writing my column for five years, I’ve learned an important lesson. We’re not alone. If we support each other as we embrace our journeys, we can keep hale and hearty by walking together. And when it’s time to move on toward end times perhaps our pace will be slower, but if we stick together, we’ll still be doing the best we possibly can for ourselves, and for one another.

Helen Hinchliff out for a walk

Excerpts from Aging with Grace: Dispatches from the Front Lines

Salt Spring Island – As Fit as a Fiddle at Any Age

“The proportion of people over age sixty-five living on Salt Spring Island is almost twice as high as the rest of the country. This is a marvellous place to retire and, if we can, those of us who came here from somewhere else tend to stay put. But there are demographic consequences. It’s a good thing many of us are doing everything we can to keep our bodies, minds, and social relationships as fit as a fiddle.”

The Kid Beneath the Wrinkles

“Life is short, so let’s look beneath our wrinkles and get to know and love one another. All we need is an excuse to remember the kid in us we used to be – and be that kid.”

A Lot’s In Our Heads

“Here’s a fun game: try Googling “Seventy is the new . . .” At minimum, you’ll come up with options for sixty, fifty, and even forty. Some mention the importance of staying fit or they suggest other fountain-of-youth efforts, but it turns out a lot of how young we feel is in our heads.”

Keeping Love Alive

“My friend Mary just emailed me one of those Internet bon mots that make the rounds. Called “Twenty-one Rules for a Good Old Age,” I found rule six apt: Regardless of age, always keep love alive. Love your partner, love life, love your family, love your neighbour, your surroundings, and your country. And so I do. Guess what: I love you, too!”

Keeping Hale and Hearty

“My focus isn’t old age; it’s the goal of living a long life in good health. If you want to join me in keeping hale and hearty, then we’ll need purpose in our lives, we’ll make lots of friends, we’ll eat well, and we’ll stay active. In short, we’ll take good care of ourselves and one another.”

Playing the Hand We’re Dealt – And Winning

“Perhaps it might be healthier, from time to time, to count my blessings and be grateful for all that I have instead of constantly trying to improve upon things. I learned that lesson last year from the young fiancé of a friend’s daughter. He was dying of a rapidly metastasizing cancer and there wasn’t time to celebrate their love in the big wedding they’d planned. It didn’t seem fair; it didn’t seem right. Family and friends were trying to be strong but they couldn’t help grieving the loss of all years that had lain ahead. Somebody mentioned something about a half-empty glass. Among the last words of that young man were, “Hey, at least I had a glass!” I’d say he played the hand he was dealt with grace. And won.”

Salt Spring Island – Special at Any Age

“Salt Spring Islanders tend to think we’re special, so I’d like to suggest that when it comes to aging, we’re the canary in Canada’s coal mine. Let’s sing sweetly while shining a light for the entire western world of aging populations, showing how to grow older in good health, with foresight and fun, as well as with grace.”

Jim Dickinson, cartoonist and yoga intructor, and Helen Hinchliff, doing the best she can.

School of Hard Knocks

“Onward and upward!” I declared with a smile. And then . . . I fell flat on my face. I could have broken my nose and my glasses, but – lucky me! – I wasn’t facing forward. Instead, I’d been looking back over my shoulder watching my friend Lynn astride her bicycle as she was gathering speed to climb a steep hill near my home. Meanwhile, I was walking in the opposite direction, unaware I’d soon be flying off the edge of the pavement (which was an inch or two higher than the adjacent gravel shoulder).

Fortunately, I was carrying a four-litre jug of milk. I dropped it as I fell, and my upper chest landed on it with full force. The jug burst, breaking my fall but knocking the wind out of me. It’s my guess it had the same degree of compassion as an automobile air bag. My right cheek was covered with a slurry of milk and grit and I had a few bruises and scrapes on my hands and knees, so it could have been a whole lot worse.
Chances are you also have a tale about some terrible tumble you’ve taken. That’s because the older we get, the more likely we are to fall and, if we have osteoporosis, the more likely we are to break a bone.

Orthopedic surgeon Erica J. Mitchell reported in 2013 that as many as 50 percent of all women and one third of all men over age sixty-five will experience a fragility fracture. This is far more than will have cancer, a heart attack, or a stroke.

In case you didn’t know it, falls among seniors are especially serious, even life-threatening. In 2005, the Public Health Agency of Canada reported that almost 62 percent of injury-related hospitalizations for seniors are the result of falls. It turns out the senior fall-related injury rate is nine times greater than among those under age sixty-five. Moreover, almost half of seniors who fall experience a minor injury while as many as 25 percent sustain a serious injury such as a fracture or a sprain. Of most concern is that falls cause more than 90 percent of all hip fractures in seniors and 20 percent will die within a year of such a fracture.

It gets worse. The Public Health Agency of Canada issued a second report in 2014 announcing that self-reported fall injuries not requiring hospitalization increased by 43 percent between 2003 and 2009/2010. During that period, the majority of them resulted in broken or fractured bones, and more than one third of fall-related hospitalizations among seniors were associated with a hip fracture. Worse still is that the number of deaths due to falls increased by 65 percent from 2003 to 2008. We can understand that a serious fracture due to falling might land us in the hospital and eventually in a nursing home, but how many of us have thought about how hospitalization actually increases the risk of falling when we’re there for other reasons? This is primarily due to being in an unfamiliar environment, being weak because of illness, and/or being disoriented because of medication. A single fall may result in a fear of falling and this can begin a downward spiral of reduced mobility, leading to loss of function and then to greater risk of additional falls.

My mother is a case in point. She fell and broke her hip when she was ninety-one. She was relatively strong, both physically and mentally, so she recovered. But over the next few years, she had several more falls, including two in one week. As a result, her fear of falling became intense. Just turning her in bed elicited extreme anxiety: “I’m falling! I’m falling!” she’d shriek as we began the roll necessary for changing her sheets. Once she grabbed my arm so tightly her fingernails broke my skin.

We don’t want any of this to happen to us, so let’s take steps now to reduce our chances of falling:

  • We can start by paying more attention to where we’re walking. Personal injury attorneys report 60 percent of “slip, trip, and fall accidents” involve uneven pavement. I suppose I could have sued the Ministry of Transportation for not maintaining the shoulder where cars heading for a nearby postal kiosk had worn away the gravel next to the pavement by a couple of inches. I fell by walking straight off the pavement when I hadn’t expected a change in the ground beneath me. But wasn’t I also at fault because I wasn’t watching where I was walking?
  • We can eliminate hazards around the house and yard. The BC Ministry of Health website has an excellent Home Safety Checklist that takes us through each room in our house, providing helpful hints about clearing the clutter, providing more light, and where to have grab bars installed. But let’s also make sure our local hospitals and nursing homes have taken the most up-to-date fall prevention measures for their patients and residents.
  • Finally, let’s get strong and stay fit. A regular exercise program can help improve strength, balance, gait, and reflexes. I know I have often been able to right myself when on the verge of falling and I think it’s due to exercise and practising my balance.
  • And in case we do fall, there’s a great video showing the proper way to get up after a fall – if we are able.
    I could go on and on with this school of hard knocks, but here’s my main point: if you’re like me, we both need to take more care as we push ourselves onward and upward.