Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Slogging Through Old Age: We Can Do It!

I trudged through the icy slush of a graveled path on a sub-zero January evening, reflecting on how Us Old People get exercise just making it to the door of the gym.  Then the gym door swung open in front of me and what I can only term as a Little Old Lady walked by me on her way out.  She’d already had her workout.  Neither icy slush nor self-pity-party slowed her a bit. 

Did I mention she looked a lot older than me?

I used to belong to a very fancy gym. It had multiple pools and hot tubs AND SAUNAS and classes and it was like taking a cruise every time I went. I loved it. Then the recession hit, I moved away, I gave up workouts as beyond my budget and locale and mindset for a while. However, I continued to age. I also became less active. Those nice muscles I had inherited and taken for granted all of my life lost some tone, then lost some strength. This didn’t exactly happen overnight, but it seemed like a few short years were almost overnight. The changes of age seem to come without much preamble, although in fact if I was paying attention I could’ve been more attuned. I just wasn’t thinking in terms of losing my lifelong growth pattern. The ageing and dying process catches one by surprise. I should write a song about this to help spread the reminder that yes, we are dust in the wind. Oh wait, someone wrote that…

So when my life swung around and pointed itself in another direction, all these things became clear to me. And after moping for a while—serious moping, over lost jobs, lost loves, lost niches in forsaken communities—I revived a bit.

When you are depressed, as many of you know, you don’t know you’re depressed. When a dark cloud is stuck like glue all over your consciousness, its hard to see through it. It’s hard to even realize that it’s stuck to you. Like sunglasses you never take off, constant darkened days become the norm, and sunlight becomes the strange.

When my personal metaphorical sunglasses finally started to crack and wear and my dark cloud got dissipated by chance winds, I noticed that my body had fallen into disrepair. Like my favorite hornets nest, which hangs in my guest room: a huge insect-engineered concoction of tough, papery fiber which begins to disintegrate as soon as the hornets move away/die/fail to repair it constantly against the wind and damage. No upkeep = instant decay. When you pass that nice upward growth spurt in life, somewhere after your 40s, this is pretty much what happens to your body. It requires constant attention or it falls apart.
Which brings me back to the gym. I lately found this no-frills gym just a few miles from my house. A short straight drive and a small, adjacent parking lot. Easy access. Inside the converted mill, well-maintained equipment fills two open levels. Aside from its no-nonsense layout, however, most interesting to me is the cross-section of people who fill the gym. High school students, seriously ripped 30-somethings, seriously overweight adults of all ages, middle-of-the-road adults of all ages.

And nearest and dearest to my heart are the people who are “like me.” Fifty-plus adults. Some are looking really toned and fit, some are looking not so toned and fit. I am personally proud of them all—and of me—for showing up. My inside knowledge of arthritis, and muscles that nose-dive if given half a chance, help me to appreciate the extra effort required to keep the old body humming like it used to.

As I head for the women's coat rack, an overweight woman somewhere in her sixties and taking various meds (we've met before)  is seriously consulting the personalized workout sheet in her hand. She devised it with the help of gym employees. This wonderful educational guidance comes with the very cheap monthly fee. An elderly man—even more elderly than me—walks, kinda limps, by on his way to the free weights. I know his muscles are stringy and slack because of his unfortunate fashion choices. Sleeveless tank and shorts drape over his slightly bent forward frame. His gray hair is thick and damp around the edges with sweat. So, maybe free consult on age- appropriate muscle wear would be good to throw in with the fee, too. But—hes kinda limping to a muscle workout; he could be home watching Vanna White or snoozing in the armchair with potato chips in a nice warm fleecy sweatsuit. Hes not. I’m not.

All us old people are right there with all the jocks and the kids, trying to improve our quality of life. Wow, is this America or Scandinavia? I knew we Yanks had it in us, to provide for quality of life opps AND take advantage of them.  I've hung out in Ann Arbor, after all. And sure I’m prejudiced towards Baby Boomers, but you gotta admit that their tidal wave of self-absorption has made for some big changes from the personal repression and lack of amenities that the Great Depression and Great War handed to our folks. They worked hard and used muscles because they had to. We have choices. I think both meeting the hard challenges of survival and choosing to go beyond whats handed to you are admirable. Pat us on the back

And I like that when I brush by another person at the gym, we are all more or less the same age. The old woman who whipped out the door past me, into the cold night, with the briskness of a task checked off her daily life—which is,still, her life.  She hasn't handed it over to Inevitable Ageing.  Not yet.  Nor have the Overweight Members Of The Club given it up, as they go at it with a plan. Nor the old guys dressed by younger-guy gym fashion standards. Not the med-eaters reaching beyond a careless or unavoidable health history. Nor any of those awesomely inspiring healthy models of lifelong exercise who are all over the gym.  Nor have I. We’re all of us chugging along, repairing and maintaining as best we can, against the decay. Dylan Thomas famously said it best: “Rage against the dying of the light.”