Old and Resilient

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 18, 2021 # Lifestyle

I came across a year-old Atlantic article the other day that immediately woke me up. The headline: “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward The Elderly.” My instant reaction was, “Oh, those poor old folks,” until I remembered I was 75. They were talking about me! I scanned the article, anxious to know where this heartless cruelty was occurring so I could stay away from those people. There was one purely anecdotal paragraph where someone heard a twenty-year-old on the street saying old people should get COVID because they’re going to die anyway. A second third-hand comment talked about the young wanting the old to die because they have mismanaged the planet. A few callow Millennials, in my mind, did not constitute a major uptick of elder abuse. Didn’t we just elect a 78-year-old as President?wheelchair on track

Ageism is the real deal, especially in the workplace, where oldsters, who usually command higher salaries after years of loyalty, are scooted out the door while 20-somethings with more energy, education, and supposedly more fluid minds get hired. Especially if you’re in a wheelchair, younger people will often assume you are much more fragile and weaker than you really are. Or that you are headed to a nursing home or already live there. The elderly are, in general, underestimated in their strength and skills. That egregious assumption can mess up a lot of older lives.

The truth is, older Americans, even those with disabilities, are getting healthier and living longer every day. Aging baby boomers that I know don’t think seventy-five is anywhere near the end of the line. As my wife recently pointed out to me, the number of knee, hip, and joint operations has skyrocketed because the recipients want to stay physically and mentally active as long as possible. And though nursing homes have been in the news lately because many are Petri dishes for the spread of COVID, it turns out that only 4.5% of adults 65 and over reside in nursing homes, according to the NCBI, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institutes of Health.

So, beyond the right amount of exercise, the right foods, and access to quality health care, how do us oldsters develop the resilience to handle stress, disappointment, and inevitable setbacks? According to psychologist and prolific writer Adam Grant, you may already have one of the greatest resilience-building tools – experience. Events you might panic over when young, you won’t when you are older, because you’ve been there, experienced that. Take it from me, you only have to go nearly bankrupt once in life to know how to alter your behavior, so it doesn’t happen again. And you know that most disappointments and defeats are short-lived because you have survived more than a few of them and continued to carry on.

As geriatric psychologist Alan Castel, the author of a recent UCLA age comparison study put it, “If you’re 65 and older, you’ve lived through wars, depression, and various presidents. You know we get through it and that it takes time to do so.” When in doubt, remember your earlier comebacks, including the one following your paralysis, not the setbacks that preceded them.

Also crucial, says Castel, is a positive attitude toward aging. I know, you’re sick of hearing the constant mantra, “Be more positive,” but the positive results are research-based. Oldsters with that attitude, he discovered, had “better health, mood, and less loneliness.” In fact, he found that older adults already have higher expectations about aging than 25-year-olds, even during the current pandemic where they are most susceptible. Another expert made this life-enhancing suggestion: “Hang out with optimistic people.”

And always keep in mind psychologist Martin Seligman’s three P’s for dealing with trauma, including paralysis, complications of paralysis and aging, or the loss of a loved one, the latter an inevitable consequence of aging. Personalization: blaming yourself for a traumatic episode. Pervasiveness: thinking the event will color all aspects of your life. Permanence: believing that the aftershock will go on forever. I repeat these cues because I constantly forget them myself.

I’ve been in a wheelchair for nearly 25 years and I often find myself bemoaning my fate of being old and disabled. One day it’s a problem wound that won’t heal, the next something that has nothing to do with paralysis, like arthritis or the episode of mini-strokes I had a while back. It feels like a double whammy. But I tend to snap out of it when I put my collective aches and pains in the larger context of my life. In general, I have to say that to quote the famous Joe Walsh song, life’s been good to me so far.

Allen Rucker was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, and has an MA in Communication from Stanford University, an MA in American Culture from the University of Michigan, and a BA in English from Washington University, St. Louis.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.