Growing Old – but Staying Young?

Every today we are younger than we will be tomorrow – and bless the thought, for it will keep us going nicely!

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

There’s an adage I have heard, Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait…’ – of course quoted by an elderly, because which jeunesse doesn’t think that he/she knows all?

Correspondingly, there are some elderly who think they still can do as they used to do when they were young, and get frustrated when they find that they can’t. It can become quite a problem, from a medical point of view, to make them overcome this mental block and persuade them that they have to make adjustments in their ways and habits.

One problem that I have frequently come across is with ageing people (I am here deliberately refraining from using the term ‘old’ – just yet) who have either pain or weakness in the lower limbs caused by the ageing process, for example in the knee. This is neither serious nor dangerous, there is treatment available, but as are there also limitations to treatment, there may be mild residual symptoms, which cause some restriction of activities. This requires minor alterations, e.g. walking more slowly, taking certain precautions when using stairs, going down slopes, or treading on uneven surfaces. It is amazing how badly some people take this, bé tout le temps mone marche vite, docteur!

My usual response, in light vein so as not to cause alarm, is montrez moi dans ki livre ine dire ki bizin marche vite soit faire vite? This helps to shift the consultation to another level, where one can then nudge the person into accepting that this is the way that things unfold as one advances in age, and that we cannot be as agile and strong as when we were young, and there is no need to try and be what one cannot by forcing oneself, which can then lead to harm.

Most of all, one must not feel any guilt about this state of affairs, because there are so many other things that one can do, and enjoy too for that matter, provided one accepts with a degree of realism the change that inevitably accompanies ageing. On the other hand, there are situations when such restrictions are only of a temporary nature, and then one may go back to one’s earlier routine. How soon? – will be the next question asked, and here I must admit that it not always possible to give an exact answer, and really one must advise patience – which old age is supposed to bring, but which sometimes does not manifest enough in some!

Of course, being a regular walker myself, I can empathize with my patients or friends who seek advice or consultation, and I find that the best strategy is to talk about similar problems I have had myself, the ways I coped and the timeline to practically full recovery – and the precautions that I have imposed upon myself. That works wonderfully.

One day a couple of years ago, for example, I was asked by a friend as I had started walking in the morning, ‘why are you limping?’ ‘What,’ I replied, ‘me limping?’ ‘Yes, you are,’ confirmed my friend. And then only I realized I was limping, and the problem seemed to be the knee. But I was in no pain at all, and continued my walking. It was only during the day that the pain developed, and I did not try to figure out why this was so.

By next morning, I was limping de plus belle, and was in moderate pain. But stop walking? Nyet! Slowed down of course, and diagnosed that it was a main ligament that was the cause of trouble. I was too busy to have time to consult a colleague, got myself a knee support, and carried on, without taking any pain killers either. I decided I need ultrasound treatment, and duely had one session, and could find time for a second session only after a week. And that was the end of therapy – inadequate by all medical standards – and I would not advise anyone to follow my example of les cordonniers sont les plus mal chaussés!

Gradually, though, the pain and limp went away and I resumed in full swing. Until I fractured my ankle, and then all was well after some time, and then afterwards I got a backache and then it got better…

And so on, see, this is what ageing is about, and what does one do but overcome things one at a time and carry on! Studies have shown that our arteries start ageing practically as soon as we are born, but we have come a long way in science and medicine in understanding these and other changes that take place in several organs and systems of the body. While it is not on the agenda to promise physical immortality, which many people seem to crave for, sufficiently is known to give sound advice about ageing healthily.

In summary it is to have proper food, do regular physical activity commensurate with one’s capacity, keep mentally active (Sudoku, puzzles, reading), have a good social network and be active in it, maintain optimism and have some savings for the rainy day. This advice is not likely to be radically different even in a thousand years time, and until such time as scientists invent ways to make holographic clones of human beings, we can be assured that by sticking to the simple ways advocated we will age reasonably well.

No need to try and ape the young – what for? After all, we have been there, seen it, done it, haven’t we. Our role is to be their mentors and guides, and support them in whatever way we can. This starts in the family, the best place to learn these skills, and if we are so inclined we may then involve ourselves with others who may not have the benefit of such wisdom otherwise.

Shakespeare described the seven ages of man, and in the last stage we are sans tooth, sans … etc. But we can be in a better state, barring catastrophe of course, if we start early on in looking after ourselves. In Hinduism, we describe instead the four stages of life: brahmachari (student), grihastha (family), vanprastha (service to society), sanyasi (retirement from worldly activities and quest for liberation), each consisting of 25 years, and by the practice of a sane way of living on the physical and mental planes, following spiritual practices that allow us to remain within our limits of emotions and passions, and focusing on all that is positive, we are guaranteed to be able age gracefully.

Just remember that that every today we are younger than we will be tomorrow – and bless the thought, for it will keep us going nicely!

* Published in print edition on 4 May 2012

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