Elderly at 69

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It's not just my mind that makes me feel old. It's my body, too.

For the last several years I've had a permanent numbness in my feet caused by a neurological condition known as "peripheral neuropathy." It makes it difficult for me to sense anything on the skin of my feet. It's as if I were sensing through a thick piece of cloth, as if I were wearing socks.

Fortunately, it's not a progressive disease and mine has been stable for a number of years. The worst part is that the nerves responsible for telling my brain just where my foot bones are in relation to each other (the proprioceptive nerves) are also affected, so I don't quite know where my feet are, which means I stumble constantly and lose my balance easily. I don't know if the worst part is falling into somebody I'm talking to or swinging wildly for a couple of steps as I regain my balance.

So in addition to this declining memory, I feel physically unsteady, too. I sometimes feel elderly, especially when the person I'm talking to reaches out and steadies me or when I stumble over nothing. (Marja and I hold hands on our evening walk. It's not just cute; it would also protect me if I tripped.)

Just to be clear, I know I'm not elderly in either my mind or body. Marja and I backpack into high mountains, carrying our supplies as we hike for a week. Despite the city traffic, I still bicycle everywhere I go (my overall balance is fine; I just can't find my feet). I do over thirty push-ups most mornings, and so on. And I still teach, lecture and lead groups well. But in a society that seems to value youth over everything else, it's a struggle not to feel less-than.

Mostly it's the same old problem: I'm still hanging on to a picture of myself from twenty years ago when I was an athlete and could calculate most everyday math problems in my head. As I've written in this blog several times before, however, a sure path to unhappiness is to hang on to the self I used to be.

I'm sixty-nine, my memory is shot, I'm confused from time to time and I stumble over cracks in the sidewalk. And unless I think I'm supposed to be different, I'm fine with it.

Editor’s Note: David’s journey with Mild Cognitive Impairment was chronicled in “Fade to Blank: Life Inside Alzheimer’s,” an in-depth look at the real lives of families impacted by the Alzheimer’s epidemic. His story continues on his personal blog on AgingCare.com.

An author and former physician, Dr. David Hilfiker was diagnosed in 2012 with a progressive mild cognitive impairment. His doctor thought it was Alzheimer's but additional testing proved this initial diagnosis to be wrong. Now David must learn how to come to terms with the reality of worsening cognitive issues that appear to have no cause.

Visit: Watching the Lights Go Out

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3 Comments

I'm 24. My body is 69. Getting old is not for the timid or faint of heart. It isn't a lot of fun. So I have to make my thoughts fun. And I write and still do art. But yes. It is very difficult not to feel less-than. I still think of myself as 24. But my body doesn't.
I am 68 years old, I am tittering between mid-life and elderly.

There are times when I don't feel that sturdy on my feet, especially walking down a flight of stairs unless there are railings on both sides of the stairs..... I use to get annoyed when I saw new home builders advertisements about their one-level homes for those 55 and older. At 55 I was still a gym rat, still hiking through the woods, working full time.... prffff at getting old..... I come from a good gene pool of *young* elders.

Once I turned 60 it was like a light switch being turned on.... one ailment after another.... and the dreaded menopause, such a cruel joke on women.... why can't I lose these new added pounds?.... I am still a gym rat.

Then cancer introduced itself and my world turned upside down.... even though I am in remission, I am still a deer in headlights, still looking over my shoulder to see what will be catching up with me next.

My memory isn't as sharp and that scares me... I always valued myself as being resourceful, thinking out and solving problems.... now things that use to quickly pop up in my brain are taking a detour, it takes a few seconds longer to find that right file drawer that has that memory. But wait a minute, I come a gene pool of *young* elders. Guess I am breaking that chain.
David, I know what you're talking about. I'm 62 and have always been good with math. Today I was in Lowe's, struggling to divide 55 by 4 in my mind. I had to do it a few times to make sure I was right. Such a simple thing had turned into rocket science. I wonder if it would help to practice the mental math, instead of using a calculator, or if the math brain cells are vanishing one by one.

Fortunately, I can still feel my feet. They just don't go as fast anymore.

The only hope I have for myself is that my mind holds out as long as my body.