Monday, May 20, 2024

Aging is Painful by Adam Cifu from Sensible Medicine

"Aging is Painful

Anybody who gets to middle age knows that things don’t work like they used to. Around my house we say that any day that nothing hurts is remarkable. My patients are full of pithy phrases to make the point that aging is physically difficult.1

“Getting old is hard, but it beats the alternative.”

“Aging is not for wimps.”

“Every time I look in the mirror, I ask myself, how the hell did that happen?”

People respond to their progressive disability in all manners. Some fight at every turn. Every visit, irrespective of age, is spent discussing aches, pains, and things that can no longer be accomplished. There are demands for me to make things better. I find it challenging to address the concerns, rather than dismissing them with “it’s just age,” while also letting people know that some suffering is “part of the human condition.”

Other people accept frighteningly steep and acute declines. My challenge at these visits is to balance, “She’s not asking me to address the problem, so who am I to pry” with “This actually seems like something I should explore, even if she is willing to accept it.”

Where there is little diversity is our ability to adjust to disability. I was taught that people rate the quality of life with a disability higher when they are living with it than when they are watching other people live with it. Thirty years of clinical experience has made this real. We should add to the saying, “There but by the grace of God go I” the addendum “but, when I end up there, I’ll be OK.”

Aging is Sad

When I was an intern, I admitted an elderly woman with pneumonia. Her biggest problem was not the pneumococcus but her depression. Her mood made her miserable and the associated psychomotor retardation was going to make her post-hospital rehabilitation impossible. She was already taking an SSRI and seeing a therapist. I called her primary care doctor, a geriatrician. Like a true intern, I expected he would have an answer to her misery. His response was, “Yup, it is a sad time of life.”

There is a lot to be said for the golden years: retirement, family, friends, greater financial security – but as the years go on, the psychological costs mount. Besides the physical decline, there is the constant loss. I repeatedly hear, “Everyone around me is dying.” Siblings, cousins, friends. It sometimes seems like those who are most connected suffer the most – that big family that has always provided support now provides an unending procession of funerals.

People mourn their losses as well as their own mortality. You cannot ignore what is to come when your peers are dying. Those who deal with this best seem to be the people who can be honest that their grief about the loss of a friend is partly the fear and sadness that they are next.

Loss is Never Easy

I never felt like I had enough time with MM. Not that she needed time for me to attend to her medical problems. She was blessed with enviable genes and an outlook that combined cheer and steel. I just wanted time to hear more about her life and her experiences. I wanted to learn from her.

On one unpressured Friday afternoon we chatted. I did not have another patient to see, another note to write, or another meeting to run to. Her daughter would not pick her up until 6:00 PM. I told her that I still thought about her husband, also a patient of mine, who had died about a decade earlier.

She paused and then remarked. “We lived together in the same old house for more than 60 years. Every time something stops working there, I curse the damn house and I curse Charles for leaving me alone in it. He was always puttering around, fixing things. Then, of course, I think of the wonderful years we had here. I cry because I still miss him, and then I thank the house for reminding me of him.”

I can’t write anything original about loss and grief and mourning. We’ve been writing about it for as long as we’ve had written language. What strikes me, though, watching so many people experiencing loss, is that it is always hard. Losing a loved one is hard. It does not matter if your father is 50 or 90. It does not matter if your mother’s death is sudden or expected. It does not matter if you have come to terms with the complexity of your relationship with your sister or have not.

Our losses become a part of us, they shape us. The tearing, searing grief might last days, or weeks, or months, or years, but it always ends. Nobody, however, ever “recovers.” Nobody “gets over it.” Having known, having loved, and having lost makes us who we are."

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