Disability + Aging = ???


I just returned from a trip with my mom to visit my aunts and uncles, as well as a dear friend from graduate school, in Florida. We were having a great time chatting and catching up at a restaurant when I decided to share a story about taking my mom to lunch after an appointment at my prosthetist’s office.

“So I had a hydraulic leak in my ankle,” I began. “And–”

My aunt choked on her drink, mid-swallow. There was a brief pause, and then everyone at the table began laughing. I looked around in confusion.

Still chuckling, my aunt said, “That’s just not something you expect to hear anyone say.”

I smiled. “True enough. It sounds like a car repair or something.”

Surrounded by family and friends, all of whom were retired or near retirement, I stopped to think about how my continual need for prosthetic repairs and adjustments and for managing phantom pain would continue to happen in the context of aging.

I’m 49 years old, a generation younger than my mom, aunts and uncles, and friend. I thought about the health problems that my loved ones face as they age–some serious, some less so–and it occurred to me that my process of aging will (or already does) include aging in the body I actually have, not in a hypothetical body.

This insight may seem obvious, but it points to the difficulty in imagining our bodies in states and contexts that we have not experienced. We can try to imagine ourselves 20 or 30 years from now, but it is difficult to feel what it will be like to inhabit that future, “old” body.

Disabilities and chronic illnesses never remain constant; we have good days and bad days, some symptoms resolve and new ones appear, pain ebbs and flows. And one of the factors that intersects with our current health is our bodies’ aging processes. The damage done to my body by chemotherapy, medications, anesthesia, and surgery isn’t over–it changes and evolves as my body ages.

Proponents of a positive approach to aging advocate for “an appreciation of the aging process. Challenging the longstanding view of aging as decline… [the Taos Institute] provides resources for understanding aging as an unprecedented period of human development.”

I embrace the ideal of appreciating our development throughout the life course, and I see many exciting possibilities for living a good life for however long I have. I admire my older friends and family who cope with their health challenges while also continuing to engage in activities they enjoy.

Yet I can’t help but think about dozens of little things I cope with now that may become really big challenges in the future. How many steps do I have to go up to enter my house?  What will I do if I can no longer take the pain medications I use now? What if I need to have knee replacement surgery or surgery for the painful neuroma in my one remaining foot? What if my spouse needs care that I cannot provide? Will the chemotherapy make me more likely to have kidney failure?

I am searching for the balance between thoughtful planning and needless worry for the likely needs of my future body. As I think about retirement in another 16 years or so, I remain positive but cautious.

I am deeply grateful to be alive and aging, and at the same time, I know that aging in my disabled body will include particular unwelcome challenges, like hydraulic leaks. As long as I am able to keep laughing with loved ones, I think I can handle whatever comes next.


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