Preview of Your Coming Attractions

When I retired after 40 years of writing columns for the San Jose Mercury News, I figured I'd said about all I could say. Wrong. I've realized that at age 76, I'm about 10 years older than the oldest baby boomers, who are now turning 66. My very average body has had a lot of experiences in those 10 years. I've learned a lot that could be helpful to people just starting on that same path -- what to do, what to avoid, what to keep an eye on.. Consider me your canary-in-the-coalmine for the boomer generation. Tune in regularly for the heads-up advice.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Don't Delay

     What made the folks dubbed by Tom Brokaw as “the Greatest Generation” so great? Well, they did win World War II, which isn’t shabby. But some experts theorize that they accomplished that – and as much as they did overall -- because they practiced deferred gratification. They were willing to put off getting what they wanted for themselves to make it easier for those who followed after them to get what that generation needed. Sacrifice now, enjoy later.
     But I’m not suggesting that you do the same thing.
     No, I’m not saying you should be like some of the subsequent generations who sought mainly instant gratification: “I want it now. I want what I want when I want it. Save for the future? That’s only for old people.” Way to self-centered.
     But you are older now, and there are things that you want. I think you should go after them. Not all of them, mind you – this is an “everything in moderation” suggestion – but certainly, go after some of them. You’re not getting any younger, and that’s the problem.
     Travel, for instance. If there’s a trip that you’ve been wanting to take, you probably should take it. While you still can. My wife and I just got back from a great tour of New Orleans. Doing it right required considerable walking. We had to climb or descend occasional flights of stairs to explore some of the city’s great old buildings. We had to have the stamina to get up early and party late, at least for a few days. We did it all. We had a ball. But there were some people on our tour who had put off going for too long. One woman needed to use a walker to get around, meaning that stairs and narrow passageways were impassable. Others had hip or knee problems, or tended to fade as the day got longer. Oh, sure, they had a good time. Just not as good as we did.
     So don’t delay all your gratification. Spend some of your kids’ college fund if need be – they’ll get by; it builds character – but get yourself out there. Do some of the things on your bucket list before you kick it.
     You may even want to emulate the dowager whose will, read at the end of a long and fruitful life, said simply of her estate: “Being of sound mind, I spent it.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hair Raising

     Getting older can be a hairy proposition. I mean that literally.
     Sure, some people actually seem to lose hair in the process. Men go bald. Women’s hair can become seriously thin, or their foreheads get higher and higher. It keeps wigmakers in business.
     But I suspect that we don’t actually lose hair. It just is sucked into our craniums somehow – sort of the way a gopher will pull one of your prize plants down into its hole – and the hairs pop out at other places on our bodies.
     Ears, for instance. Hair begins appearing on the inside edge of your ears, just above the lobe. If it isn’t trimmed back regularly, it could develop into such a tangle that you’d probably have trouble hearing. You’d certainly have trouble getting a hearing aid through the thicket.
     Eyebrows, too. The brows just start growing as if they have minds of their own. Women pluck them, as they’ve done for years, but now with greater intensity. Men tend to tame their brows with scissors (we have lower thresholds of pain, apparently, and plucking is no picnic). Let the brows go, of course, and you get the Andy Rooney effect. People looking at you may be able to detect your eyes under there somewhere, but don’t count on it. Clearly, Rooney is not self-conscious. Clearly, he is the exception.
     And then there are the hairs on chests and arms. All of them get longer. And longer. If we still lived in caves, only the elderly would have a chance at survival by weaving those arm and chest hairs into blankets. You thought those pictures of cavemen showed them wearing animal skins? Not so. They were growing their own animal skins.
     None of this is particularly pretty. None of this is particularly ugly. It just is what it is.
     Hairs to you.
     Hairs to us all.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bad Stuff II

     As you get older, statistics indicate that one of the Big Three – cancer, stroke or heart attack – will get you.
     Well, I’ve already told you about my experience with prostate cancer. Now, let me tell you about my stroke.
     It happened in mid-February. I’d been having a persistent headache in my right temple, which a doctor diagnosed as a possible sinus/allergy reaction. But then, when I went for a shopping trip to Costco, the other shoe dropped. I tried to reach into my pocket to get out my Costco card, and found that I couldn’t. My left hand wasn’t working, I wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do. Uh, oh. Headache and paralysis – two of the warning signs. Instead of going shopping, my wife hustled me to the hospital instead.
     Walk into an emergency room, tell them you think you’re having a stroke, and lots happens fast. They quickly stuck my head into a CT scan machine, where it was discovered that there had been bleeding – a puddle of blood at the temple where I’d felt the headache – that was affecting my left hand. I was given anti-seizure medication (the paralysis was diagnosed as a non-convulsive seizure), plus medication to reduce that blood puddle, and taken to the ICU for overnight evaluation.
     Subsequent brain scans showed the bleeding had stopped. It took awhile for the docs to get the proper balance of meds to keep my symptoms from recurring, but eventually they did. If the bleeding had continued, they would have had to go to Plan B – drilling into my skull to drain the blood – but that never became necessary. Good thing. I didn’t need another hole in my head.
     I had no recollection of bumping my head, which might have caused the bruise on my brain. It may have been that blood-thinning medication I’d been on to forestall heart problems had been contributory. No way of knowing for sure.
     But what I do know is that today I am symptom-free. The blood puddle has been reabsorbed. My left hand works the way it did before the stroke. The medication – and getting to the ER in a hurry – did the trick. If my stroke had been caused by a clot, and if I’d also gotten to the ER within three hours, they would have used TPA, a drug that busts clots, and I’d be in the same good shape afterward as I am now.
     The take-away from all this:
     Recognize the symptoms of stroke: sudden numbness of face or limbs, sudden severe headache, sudden dizziness or loss of balance, sudden difficulty speaking or understanding, sudden trouble seeing out of one or both eyes. You don’t need to have all of them. Any two will do.
     And if that happens, call 911 or get to a stroke center ER within three hours. Don’t put it off or hope you’ll get better. You will get better – but only if you get prompt help.
    So for me, that’s two out of the Big Three, and I’m still up and kicking. If I ever do have a heart attack, I hope I’ll be able to tell you about that afterward, too.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Get a Leg Up

     I don’t remember when I lost my ability to hunker. I only know that I can’t hunker any more, and I miss it.
     You know what a hunker is, right? That’s the sort of squat where you sit on your heels, knees bent. Kids, Native Americans and rural folks from the South and West are sort of famous for hunkering. They do it with no sweat. But now, when I try to hunker I find that I can’t. It’s too painful on my knees, and I don’t have the leg strength to get back up.
     I wish I’d worked harder at maintaining that leg strength when I was younger. Without legs that work well, you’re in danger of all sorts of bad things. Being too sedentary is bad for your health. Worse yet, a friend of mine has lost the use of her legs altogether – they’re just too weak now – and has become bedridden. Not many good outcomes follow that.
     So my wife and I now walk everywhere we can. We climb 10 flights, of 15 stairs each, every morning at home, weather permitting, and when it’s raining, I’m pedaling on my stationary bike instead. When I visit an office building, I try to use the stairs there, too. As I said, I’ve lost too much leg strength, and I’m trying to maintain and build up what’s left.
     I’d recommend that you keep your legs in mind, too. Use them. A lot. Get up out of your chair without using your arms (leaning forward is the key). Hit the gym when you can. Do laps around the block. Swimming is good, too. Get those muscles working regularly. Don’t take anything for granted.
     And don’t just sit there. Unless you still can hunker, in which case do that repeatedly as often as you can for as many years as you can. I guarantee you’ll miss it when it’s gone.