The election of Joe Biden brought a full complement of emotions on that eventful day in November 2020 when the magic number of electoral votes was reached. But, surely all Americans of both parties were somewhat wary of a president who would be 82 at the completion of his term. This fear was not reduced when a canine mishap placed his fractured foot in a boot during the formation of his new government. The hidden details of the story include a freshly showered Biden greeting his dog, Major, with a ball in his mouth in the bathroom and the subsequent slip on a throw rug, resulting in the injury.
This story, and several other personal mishaps have encouraged my creation of a retiree “health warning” label similar to one which appears on a wine bottle. My label might read: Warning: Retired persons should maintain appropriate vigilance in situations which might result in physical injury. This warning is specifically targeted to new retirees between the ages of 60 and 70 who still perceive themselves to live in the “invincible” stage of life.
I offer up my own two over zealous yoga injuries as Exhibit A: a metatarsal stress fracture, and an IT band injury which greatly impacted a trip to the Vatican, with its endless sets of concrete stairs. Exhibit B involves my friend who got a compound fracture of her elbow after chasing a winning shot at her weekly doubles game with her LOLITAS, little old ladies in tennis attire. If those examples don’t suffice, perhaps my brother’s fall on the trolley tracks with a bottle of wine, fresh from the state liquor store, might get your attention. In his fall, keys were lost in the street, and no passersby, by foot or auto, helped the bleeding retiree to his feet in his state of mental fog.
Stages in the Human Lifespan
I think the need for this warning stems from a lack of knowledge as to which stage of human development we inhabit at the moment. Mark Manson on Quartz.com and Ye Chen on Medium.com have defined four life stages, and have parsed this subject into possible behavioral pitfalls. Some creative thinking can place retirees who may be stuck in any one of these four stages and become subject to physical injury.
Stage 1 (Initiation and Education - birth through late adolescence) is the time when we mimic others and learn how to function in the world. Without the appropriate mentors or parents, we could be left with a constant need for validation because our own autonomy was never developed. Translating to the physical, we may be operating as a much younger person, still in the invulnerable stage of youth, despite our years, barreling forward without thinking. Resultant injuries can be dire, such as a fall from a misplaced ladder. Being stuck in Stage 1 might also create feelings of anger and resentment towards an instructor when an exercise class is perceived to be too difficult, or absentmindedness in the world when an impending danger lurks, such as a wet kitchen floor.
Stage 2 (Exploration and Self Discovery – late adolescence through mid-20’s or 30’s) is the time to test limits and feel non-stop growth. It is a time to take risks and to push the limits before discovering the true self. Being stuck in this stage could certainly encourage risky physical behaviors in the realm of exercise or sports, but also can play out in a Biden-like home calamity – “sure I can play catch, Major, while I’m barefoot and wet.” The perennial runner with painful knees would also fall into this category.
Stage 3 (Dedication and Commitment late 20’s-30’s through early fifties) is the time when one starts pruning experiences and focusing on career and family. The inherent risk to a retiree who resides in this stage is the inability to let go of ambition, power and influence, and the desire for more. This mindset counteracts the natural slowing down of life at this age. Constantly moving to an unnatural, quick-paced rhythm can certainly have its physical consequences. Being reluctant to modify the familiar in any domain because of age is an illustration. Trying to maintain challenging physical exercise routines and feeling too young for the need to be “extra careful” when doing home repairs illustrate this level of faulty thinking.
Stage 4 (Retirement and Legacy – age 50’s plus) is where we want to reside. This is the time when we realize our time is limited, and we want to create a legacy through our family, our profession or society. Our focus has shifted from the external to the controllable internal. Hopefully, knowing your place in life will make you more mindful of those unforeseen mishaps which can greet an older body.
Senescence is Encroaching
Making friends with yourself is actually the acceptance of the idea of “senescence.” Although humans feel like they are “special,” from an evolutionary perspective, humans participate in biological aging in the same way as all other plants and animals. This process involves a decrease of function both on the cellular and total organism level. The retiree is well advised to start identifying as a small blip in the universe, subject to the same rules as everyone and everything else. There can be semantic arguments over the specific chronological age which characterizes one as “old,” whether it is 60, 65, 70 or 80, but the science must be accepted.
As you progress through your retirement years, even with superb self-care, you will notice a loss of muscle mass and strength and a reduced range of motion. Your senses will gradually become less acute and your immune system will function at best in third gear. Maintaining the big three of strength, stamina and flexibility are huge mitigating factors, but they don’t turn back the clock entirely.
A recent nocturnal event will illustrate this new mindset. After a gorgeous nor’easter dumped a pre-Christmas snowfall, my husband and I decided to take a walk after dark. He strapped on a headlamp to illuminate the road in our semi-rural neighborhood. The plow had come through, eliminating the need to negotiate the snow. As we turned the first corner we noticed the road surface became somewhat slippery. The crescent moon beckoned, as well as the end of the road, our walking goal. After a brief discussion, we turned around and went home, proud that we prioritized safety over beauty.
The next day we roamed around a nearby Colonial town famous for its architecture and tasteful Christmas decorations. The town was hit by the same nor’easter, but this time the snow and ice were deposited on cobblestone sidewalks. We made the decision to walk in the middle of the street, and were able to complete our tour of the town. As we enjoyed our reward of a spiked cider and Christmas beer, we admitted that we did feel somewhat geriatric, but we were more grateful to have enjoyed a rare, crisp winter day unscathed.