The Aging Challenge

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on November 11, 2022 # Lifestyle

Tim Gilmer and grandchildrenAging is not necessarily something that happens after a certain age. It happens from the day we are born until the day we die. Still, real challenges seem to come pre-packaged with advancing age. Most people think of aging as a time in life when bodily aches and pains start showing up regularly. Others associate aging with loss of physical strength. Still, others anticipate fading memory, mental decline, vision and hearing loss. But many of us with paralysis or similar chronic conditions have to contend with some of these “aging” symptoms much earlier. That gives us a head start on being prepared for actual aging. In other words, our everyday experiences can translate into some kind of advantage when we do reach advanced age.

For many of us, we might as well change the official name of the old people’s association (AARP) from the American Association of Retired Persons to the Association of Actively Adapting, Rethinking, and Persevering. That’s what we do all the time, not because we are old, but because we have to make continual adjustments to stay active and independent.

For instance, when I was young and doing my best to live a wheelchair farmer’s life, I used to drive a pickup, a used Ford F250 Super Cab that I transferred into on the passenger’s side and pulled my folding wheelchair into the area behind the front seat. It was a difficult transfer that required full use of arms and shoulders, good strength, and a willingness to go for it. When my shoulders started showing signs of chronic pain, making that transfer got harder and unsafe, so I had to adapt and find a new way. I couldn’t afford an expensive lift, so I re-thought my need for a pickup in the first place and decided I could do almost the same thing with a Grand Caravan minivan. So, I bought a used one in good condition, with no lift, for $6,000. Compared to the pickup, transferring was much easier, and it was a more comfortable ride.

The minivan worked fine for hauling most things, and it kept me in the small-scale farming business. Plus, it was much easier to transfer into the front passenger seat and pull my chair in the back, thanks to an automatic sliding door. But time marched on, my shoulders and strength declined some more, and I had to get some kind of lift to board my minivan. I chose a Turny seat instead that came outside the van with remote control and lowered down to chair level. It was costly, $9,000, but a lot less than purchasing a new or used adapted van, and I remained independent.

Now I’m at another crossroads. For decades I’ve had to make a second transfer over a sizable open space from the passengers to the driver’s seat. Now that has become very difficult, and, once again, unsafe. So, my next adaptation will be to build a simple wooden box just the right size to fit between the passenger’s and driver’s seats and cover it with cushioned upholstery. I will then ride the Turny seat into the van, make a very short transfer to my DIY cushioned insert-seat, and another to the driver’s seat. I have also picked up a sliding transfer board with a moveable slider surface built-in for the day when transfers will get even harder.

While most of my adaptations so far have been associated with losing arm and shoulder strength, the ones that are most difficult have to do with losing bodily functions — bladder, bowel, lungs, circulation, etc. Four years ago, I had to have a colostomy, and even though it solved one problem — profuse bleeding from prolapsed hemorrhoids — it created a whole new management regimen. More durable equipment, modest cost, learning new tricks. Once again, even though trade-offs are unavoidable, maintaining independence and quality of life is most important.

That is what many people dread most about aging. They are not ready to lose independence, and they may have little experience in adapting and persevering. That’s where our advantage comes into play. By the time we reach the actual aging bracket, most of us will already be highly experienced at dealing with new challenges, thanks to our very own version of AARP: Active Adapting, Rethinking, and Persevering.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.