Tuesday, July 06, 2004

The Aging Lottery

Tuesday, July 6, 2004
7:49:00 PM MST

The Aging Lottery

I don't have a picture of my friend Eva, so you'll have to settle for pictures of my parents. The distinguished man on the left is Dr. Frank E Funk, former Dean of University College, former Director of Continuing Education at Syracuse University, former president of the Wilmington Railroad Museum in Wilmington, North Carolina, and former WW II navigator who spent some time in Stalag Luft 1. He's in his eighties now, still doing work for
the railroad museum, still an elder and recording secretary at his church, still working out in an upstairs room at his home, still active, reasonably healthy (albeit a little deaf) and happy.

Exhibit B is my mom, Dr. Ruth Anne Johnson, as she was in the late 1980s. Having had polio, hepatitis C and encephalitis at various times in her life, she wasn't in great health when I was growing up, and was in rather lousy shape by the time she moved to Tucson in the early 1990s. Sometime around 1990, she gave up teaching speech and drama at the Brevard campus of Barry University after a series of small strokes. She was troubled by multi-infarct dementia and diverticulitis, worried about Alzheimer's and her 2001 ostomy, fell fairly often toward the end of her life without ever breaking anything but a tooth, and suffered from depression and other psychiatric conditions. She smoked and was sedentary, but those were just secondary causes of her difficult final years. She was just 75 when she died--a good run, but not at the end.

And then there's Eva. She's not a relative of mine. I've only known her a little over a year. I pick her up for church at St. Michael's most weeks, if she's well enough and doesn't have something else going on that morning. After church we sit at coffee hour and gab. Some weeks she invites me and my friend Kevin over for ice tea and some kind of high-carb dessert. Eva turned 99 years old on May 18th. She's a retired nurse with several generations of offspring, dead and alive. She grew up in Seattle, lived in Alaska, divorced one husband and buried another, and has generally had a full and interesting life. Her hearing isn't great and neither are her eyes, but her sense of humor is intact and so, for the most part, is her mind. She's grateful for the ride to church and appreciates our friendship; but really, Kevin and I benefit from Eva's friendship at least as much as she benefits from ours. She's a joy to be around.

Since my mom died in December, 2002, I've been very aware that my dad probably doesn't have a lot of years left; but you wouldn't know it from his busy schedule of charity work, travel and social events. And here's Eva, laughing at Kevin's witticisms and seldom complaining about anything, health-related or otherwise. Eva and my dad both won the aging lottery. Yes, they both kept active, they don't smoke (although Dad did when he was younger), and they both have a good attitude, which helps a lot. Even so, I'm sure that luck and genetics are involved as well. It's impossible to say which factors matter more, the ones they control, or the ones they don't.

When I talk to either of them I can't help thinking about my mom, especially her last couple of years, which she spent in and out of rehab facilities and the adult care home. I'll never forget calling my dad on Thanksgiving and crying, because my mom was so out of it that day (we never knew whether it was a psychiatric problem, a medical one or overmedication) that she consistently failed to get any food on her fork before bringing it to her mouth. (I also can't forget the day, many years earlier, when my dad cried because his mother no longer remembered him.) I wonder: how much of my mom's poor health was bad luck and bad genes, and how much was bad habits and bad attitude?

Do I have the discipline--and the genes--to live like Dad when I'm in my 70s and 80s, rather than like Mom? Is every day without working out, every dietary indiscretion, leading me inevitably toward strokes and dementia, no matter how hard I work at keeping my brain active? The answer is less than 30 years away.


Written by mavarin . Link to this entry
This entry has 1 comments: (Add your own)

Your father sounds like one of those people I wish I could be, with energy and drive and positive thinking. But your Mom sounds more like me. Fighting depression since I turned 30, Graves Disease, then getting MS at 50. I'll tell you one thing though the MS cured my depression, well not really Prozac helped, too. LOL .But MS has given me the gift of finally being able to sit back and smell the roses. It sounds like your Mom was one of those creative types (like me). But she did a lot with her life, too. Songwriting and all and teaching. My daughter goes to Barry in Miami Shores. But the dementia thing worries me, too. I forget a lot already and I wonder is it MS or Menopause or ME? Thank Goodness for this journal...keeps me connected.
Comment from gypsytrader49 - 7/7/04 12:40 AM