No Where to Go But Up

I’m a boomer and I’m married to one. Our birth years fall before and after the peak year 1957, when 4.3 million baby boomers were born. Growing older is not an option it’s a fact and I’m not alone.

Consider this statistic: “as of 2016, the number of baby boomers ranged from 74.1 million to 81.3 million, depending on whether the generation begins with the birth year 1943 or 1946. By 2056, the population 65 years and over is projected to become larger than the population under 18 years.”  (Information cited from The Baby Boom Cohort in the United States.) The question is how golden will baby boomers ‘golden years’ be.

My folks are both still alive in their 80’s and for the most part independent. They provide me a glimpse into what my later years might well look like. When I began reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande it was like I’d been given a key to unlocking some of the mystery to changes I’d seen in my folks  granting me a greater understanding of those changes.

Over the past several years my mother has had two orthopedic surgeries and has elected to not have another because of the long grueling process of getting back to a measure of normality. Consequently the severe arthritis she suffers from will eventually limit her mobility, which we’ve briefly discussed.

My Dad has been on blood thinners most of his adult life prompted by a surgery gone awry in his 30’s. While he celebrated his 70th skiing Sun Valley, he has slowed down considerably. A bypass surgery and circulation issues have taken a toll despite his disciplined diet and exercise. On my husband’s side we have had the unique experience of participating in hospice care for both his dad and mom; the one in their own home the other in ours.

You need look no farther than the evening news to hear about the latest medication to ‘ask your doctor about’ with a promise of eliminating the discomforts of getting older. The good news is that there is more hope than advertisements suggest for staying youthful and finding anti-aging supplements.

There are many books on staying young, but I recently came across several books on the subject of aging which is what attracted me to Gawande’s book and taking a candid look at this topic. I recently listened to a local webinar about servicing the aging population in our libraries giving me food for thought and leading me to investigate what our library has available on the subject.

Popular blogger Ashton Applewhite writes This Chair that Rocks. The library has her latest book by the same title This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. Applewhite is passionate about the subject, and is widely recognized as somewhat of an expert by the American Society on Aging. She asserts that stigmas associated with aging are largely overlooked when it comes to marketing, despite the fact that the ‘silver market’ is the fastest growing. Advertisers cater to 15 to 35 year olds. For a well-researched look at this topic, this is the book that looks to be very relevant.

I remember when I turned 50 years old and felt enthusiastic to make some sort of contribution to society, as if raising a family and working the greater portion of my life wasn’t enough. I surveyed my first 50 years and rationalized that the larger portion of my life had passed and if anything meaningful and creative were to occur I’d best get started.  Laurie Russell’s Journey to 50: How to Live with Gratitude, Grace, and the Effects of Gravity captures the same spirit I once aspired to. She offers women a practical approach to navigating the 50th decade, sprinkled with humor and spiritual insights. Here is a quote: Giving up is easy. Letting go takes effort and can be painful- but it frees you to become anew.

Eric B. Larson, MD is an expert on the science and subject of healthy aging. He has spent much of the past 40 years studying the aging process. From our own backyard in the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Larson is a clinical professor of medicine at the University Of Washington School Of Medicine and of health services at the UW School of Public Health. He has worked and cared for thousands of elderly people. In his book Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long Active Life, co-authored with journalist Joan DeClaire, Dr. Larson shares case studies giving the reader a scientific and medical perspective. Right up front he states “There is no magic bullet’,” He believes resilience in those who age well is born out of their capacity to adapt and grow stronger in the face of adversity and stress. The book discusses key concepts that contribute to individuals in the aging process. They are proactivity, acceptance, and the three reservoirs: mental, physical, and social.

If Our Bodies Could Talk a Guide to Operating and Maintaining a Human Body by James Hamblin M.D. is not solely about aging. It contains a plethora of subjects addressing an exhaustive list of questions; questions you may want to ask your doctor but think are too silly to ask. Take for example these two: How much sleep do I actually need? and Can I train myself to sleep less? This book is broken up into six categories associated with the body and how various parts operate. There are hand drawn diagrams that combine entertainment with educational answers, breaking up what might otherwise have been too technical. Whether you read one or two sections, you will find plenty of practical advice including the main topic of this blog: ‘Enduring: the dying parts.’ I really enjoyed the book jacket depicting a colorful word cloud.

If you’d prefer to read a less technical book with a more personal connection, there is Malachy McCourt’s memoir Death Need Not Be Fatal. Or you may find solace in reading Thomas Moore’s latest book offering a more philosophical approach, Ageless Soul: The Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy.

Life is a series of seasons from youth to old age, how we weather those seasons is largely up to us. As I look forward to my golden years I’m grateful for my health and the many resources available at the library to help me through them. I realize golden may look bronze or silver, but that’s OK!

Sarah’s Picks

sarahmontage

Have you checked out our Facebook page lately? If not, you now have another reason to since Sarah has been reviewing her favorite reads. In case you missed them, four are published here for your enjoyment. Go Sarah go!

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

beingmortalcoverThe author has simple prose on a highly complex topic. As a surgeon and author, he looks at the successes of modern medicine, and how it can prolong life, and attempt to stave off the inevitable. As many Americans age, our health care system has morphed into something that wants to increase longevity, but at what expense to emotional and quality of life? Gawande illustrates the evolution of the nursing home, what their original developers intended, and how industry has taken over. What used to be assisted living in people’s own homes, with as little intervention as possible, has morphed into a complex, multi-billion dollar industry, where individual control and autonomy has been taken away. He looks at how we value our elders in this country, and what we can do to make sure our loved ones have their wishes fulfilled in the end. This is a hard look at a subject that most people want to avoid. But he gracefully documents evidence on how to make the unavoidable process of death more pleasurable. He draws on his own experience with his dying father that is both touching and sincere. A good book for anyone wanting to work on living wills or end of life conversations.

Missoula:Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

missoulacoverThis is a tough but important read. Krakauer examined years of mishandling of rape cases at the University of Montana. Various agencies veered from the proper channels, and did not adequately prosecute the cases. The university is home to a beloved football team, and when some of its players were accused of rape, the community was split. Victims were not treated well by police, and faced public humiliation and shame, while some of the accused walked free, without the cases being properly looked into. The entire fiasco got so out of hand that the Department of Justice was brought in to investigate. Krakauer does an excellent job looking at the root causes of what went wrong, and sheds light on the victim’s predicaments, as their cases are dismissed. This book reminds us that rape happens more than we think…and the majority of cases are not reported to authorities. I admire the strength these women had, in order to testify against their attackers. I only wish the authorities had done more to make sure the criminals were prosecuted at trial. This is Krakauer’s latest installment; he’s best known for ‘Into the Wild’ and ‘Into Thin Air.’

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

deliciousfoodscoverDelicious Foods by James Hannaham is a unique book where crack cocaine is almost a reliable narrator. The drug tells it like it is, and recaps the trials and tribulations of one of his biggest fans, Darlene. Darlene turned to crack after the murder of her activist husband, Nat. Their only child, Eddie, is left to fend for himself, as his mother becomes increasingly addicted and withdrawn. Darlene is picked up one day in a minivan, which promises her steady work and an even steadier supply of crack. Darlene is whisked away to Delicious Foods, a type of labor camp, where addicts toll and sweat away, in exchange for a constant high. Eddie is abandoned and attempts to locate his mom, and eventually ends up at Delicious as well. This book is reminiscent of the slave trade, human trafficking, and had elements of addiction, family dynamics, and greed. Difficult to digest at times, but a completely unique storyline with quite a remarkable cast of shady characters. I think this one might be seeing some awards in its future.

Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes

barbaracoverThis catchy title proves to be a worthy debut collection of short stories. Holmes’s voice is honest, and her tales of young relationships showcase her likeable and realistic characters. In “Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall in Love,” a woman falls fast and madly in love. But her pet pit bull hates her new boyfriend.. As their relationship progresses, the novelty of him wears off and she finds herself increasingly irritated, while her dog warms up to his presence. “Desert Hearts” showcases a couple, recently graduated from law school living in San Francisco. The young man is hard working in a new firm, while the woman finds part-time work at a local sex toy store, and deals with the consequences from her friends and family. Barbara, in the title story, has set her sights on Princeton after high school graduation. She is able to ignore the taunts from her peers, and focuses on helping her autistic brother and her academic future. Holmes debut is fresh, relatable and easy to digest. A perfect quick read for the end of summer.

Morbid Curiosity

It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.  ~ Death (A Play) by Woody Allen

Most of us are fans of denial when it comes to thinking about shuffling off the mortal coil. The idea of dying is at best depressing and at worst terrifying so not thinking about it seems like the healthy thing to do. And yet, if you’re a mass of contradictions like me, you can’t help being morbidly curious about the people whose professions have them dealing with death all the time. Happily, well maybe not happily, there is a small subgenre of memoirs that are from coroners, undertakers, doctors and others that deal with ‘death issues’ on a daily basis. Here are three recent ones that I found particularly illuminating. Do be forewarned though, they contain realistic descriptions of procedures and situations that are not for the faint of heart.

Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
workingstiffThis is the tale of Melinek’s rookie year as a New York City medical examiner. From suicides, accidents, murders and the much more common ‘natural causes’, the author lays out the particulars of how the bodies she performs autopsies on reveal the manner of death. Despite the gory details, this is not just a cold and calculating CSI type memoir though. She gives everyone involved, both the living and the dead, humane and complex portraits. As she describes her duties you really get a sense of what it must be like to work in a profession where you are confronted with mortality on a daily basis. Layered throughout the book is the classic attitude of realism, gallows humor and humanity that is required to survive in ‘the city’ and that comes in particularly handy in the medical examiner’s office.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
smokegetsinyoureyesWritten by a practicing mortician and host of a popular web series titled Ask a Mortician, this book is an entertaining memoir but also a serious and thought-provoking examination of how society tries to deal with death and the dead. The author recounts, in admittedly gruesome but humorous detail, her introduction to the ‘death industry’ working at Westwind Cremation and Burial in Oakland. As she encounters the methods and tools of the trade (cremation, embalming and the horrifying trocar to name a few) she uses the opportunity to examine the history and social context for each practice. Many interesting conclusions are reached, but a central one is the great lengths we go to as a society to separate ourselves, both physically and emotionally, from the dead and the damage this separation causes.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
beingmortalWhile this book is far less gruesome than the previous two, I found the ideas it presents the most disturbing. Gawande is a practicing surgeon but this is not a memoir about his profession. Instead it is an examination of the disconnect between the medical profession’s view of death as a failure and the inevitable fact that we all die. He cuts through professional jargon such as ‘end of life care’ and ‘assisted living’ by interviewing and telling the stories of those facing the indignities of aging and death and modern medicine’s response to the process. These stories include his father’s decline and they are touching, instructive, and difficult to deal with all at the same time. By confronting the experience head on, however, Gawande gains important insight into how the medical community, and all of us, can actually serve the needs of those facing their final chapter.

Well, after reading these books I guess there is no denying the fact that I’m going to die someday. Wait, I refuse to accept that. I’m sure we will all be fine.