The Mercy of a Slow Decline

A few months ago, I reached 65, the age at which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought Social Security benefits should kick in. In that era, almost 80 years ago, reaching 65 was a fairly hard thing to do, and the number of years past that benchmark one could reasonably expect to enjoy was limited.

These days, it’s not unreasonable to look forward to another 10, 15, or even 20 years more after turning 65. That’s one of the wonders of the 21st century, and one that I’m happy to enjoy.

But longevity is one thing, getting old is another. A few years ago, as some of the inevitable aches and pain of age started settling in on me, I told my wife, “If I had awakened at age 25 feeling the way I do now when I wake up, I would have run screaming to my doctor, ‘Something is terrible! I’m dying!”

But as an older man, I’ve avoided going screaming to my doctor for relief from what would have scared the hell out of me at 25. The reason is that one of the gifts that long life confers is a graceful slowness to the process of aging, so that its inconveniences appear gradually, almost glacially. I’ve had years to get used to the idea that body parts just aren’t going to work as well as they did four decades ago.

So when a new ache or ailment crops up, it’s no longer an unprecedented thing. I know what it is, where it comes from, and that it should get in line with my other woes.

That’s not to say that I’ve adopted a “Never mind me, I’ll just sit here in the dark” attitude toward decline. Exercise, careful diet, helpful medications, and a sense of gratitude at still being able to do most things at a fairly high level of proficiency help soften the contours of aging.

Nor have I adopted the cliché guy stance of “No doctors, no way!” I know when something is distressing enough the warrant a visit to the doctor. After having years to adjust to the changes aging brings about, I’ve learned the difference between an event and An Event.

At this point, my type 2 diabetes is the main source of my discomforts. Long-term inflammation has its effects on muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. Even under some control–my A1c is 6.5%–diabetes adds to the decline.

But, like the frog frolicking in water that increases 1 degree in temperature per day, I’ve become habituated to the discomforts of growing older. As my sainted mother used to say when I would complain about what I saw as the evils of aging, “Consider the alternative.” I did and I do. And I see that there is a certain mercy in a slow decline.

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