The Center for Disease Control defines aging in place as “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” A lovely, simple notion with a growing fan base working to insure services and community spirit are there to allow such aging in place to happen. Everyone benefits. I, though, define aging in place as waking up every night at 4 a.m. wracked by joints and muscles crying out for attention. There is no position that offers solace. I am in my early fifties. I used to look younger than my age, used to be in the top fitness level for my age, but now I am aging rapidly in place, courtesy of living on chemo.
My last ct scan documented the necrosis nibbling away at my bones, most notably my hips. Chemo apparently interrupts the blood flow leading to bone loss. What I know is that I bend to pick things up as if I am imitating an old, old, old person. If I sit too long, I rise at an attention-attracting slowness, pulling myself up and then lurching stiffly the first ten steps until I start loosening up to resemble someone younger than 80. I cross the street with care knowing that I have but one speed; there is no spurt capability to rev me out of the path of an unexpected car. I used to be known for a different one speed. I zipped as if I saw a fire that needed to be contained. A favorite childhood photo shows me as a determined toddler, using speed, hands engaged, forward leaning, eyes focused, as I jettisoned my toy baby carriage to whatever captured my attention. I was always on a mission.
Ironically, as I return to chemo next week after a 55-day break from all treatment, I anticipate some lessening of joint discomfort. The cytoxan (one ingredient is mustard gas) is used in a pill form to treat arthritis. When I started it back in early June it miraculously cleared up my walking woes – I went from a woman needing a cane to a woman moving through life with relative ease. Perhaps that will happen again!? While I hope for some respite, I know that same recipe of cytoxan and avistan will further the cumulative damage to my body in its effort to keep cancer at bay. And, of course, the nausea will be back.
I need to accept this body under siege as my own. I have been fast forwarded through an aging process courtesy of treatments. I look older but mainly I feel significantly older than my years now. The ct scans show that it is not an imagined feeling. The wear and tear is real. While I resent this, my form of acceptance has me seeking out the humor in it. There is much irony to be found.
I, who fret not getting to live through old age, am having it delivered to me. It seems that really, middle age is what I may not experience. My entry into cancer world was an entry into senior world, cancer being a disease that disproportionately impacts older people. I am ‘retired’ despite my current age being labeled as “peak earning years” – another joke as I downsize text messaging out of my phone plan to save a few dollars. I join the daytime tai chi classes filled entirely with elders. Almost everywhere I go I am the youngest, often by far. My mother and I now face the same issues – burial plans, sleep time discomfort and movement challenges. But she is in her eighties. She is chronologically suited to this aging in place.
An early on cancer pal, Val, since deceased at the age of 44, died looking so young and angelic – her wasting body resembling some innocent 10 year old. She was a filmmaker and poet who loved to get people’s stories out of them. She loved elders – the wisdom and whatever else attracted her. I never fully understood. She told me her biggest regret was not getting to live those senior years. Her plan was to interview them to gain access to the experience. I never asked her how she dealt with her own aging in place – frankly, her treatment arc may not have given her that experience. She went more from exuberance to frontline treatment to long remission then to 18 months of active wasting away. My trajectory is more steadfast decline.
So much of life’s journey seems to be about taming the ego. I am middle aged but feel much older. It sucks but really, why care? If I let go of my ego (Don’t I look good for my age?) I can enjoy the sublime truths of being multi-age, nimble once, swerving towards dowdy now and voluntarily raising my hand for any treatment option that keeps me on this planet albeit feeble and slow moving. The same day as I drafted this I watched an older woman in her late 70s perhaps even early 80s, quite attractive, move swiftly from curb to the middle of a busy street where she then adopted a more sedate pace. I admired her. That is who I intended to be; instead I stick to my new one speed. But in that speed I bike wherever I need to go, I accumulate 12,000 steps daily per my pedometer’s tracking with 30 minutes of these steps taking place on a trampoline as I jog in place with weights in my hands hoping to rebuild some bone. I am not what I expected at this age or any age but with my new mantra of ‘slow and steady’ I get where I want to be and I have gained skills in leaving my ego aside. Perhaps, I am a more evolved person at this sedate pace, as if I care.