My father Gene turns 94 this Sunday. Born on January 26, 1926, he has now lived in eleven decades, born in the twenties, child of the Great Depression, serving from 17 to 22 in the Navy during WWII and now living in the tech world of commuters and cell phones. He is presently near the end, at his Novato home, in hospice, sleeping 22 hours a day. Luckily, he is having no pain and has his happy disposition. The last two years have been difficult with him being in denial of losing his independence. I have spent much time helping him through this final life transition.
Many of us must deal with the difficulties of aging parents and/or loved ones. My heart goes out to both young and old, both caregivers and the needy. Fourteen years ago, I wrote Aging Gracefully. In honor of my father, it is revisited today.
Aging Gracefully follows.
My father Gene turned 80 this January. He is a wonderful positive human being. He always says, “What a beautiful day! Isn’t it great to be alive?” My father is an active man who enjoys the challenge of doing home projects. Since he turned 70, every few years he has an accident, doing the same physical activities that he was able to do a few years prior. Until recently, he climbed his large oak trees and trimmed the branches with a chainsaw. He finally stopped after the third time he fell out a tree with the chainsaw chasing him. Luckily he has only been lightly grazed. Time has taught him that this is not the safest activity for him anymore.
The biggest problem with getting older is not being able to do what you did when you were younger. The hard part is to know when that time has come. It is important to keep moving and stay young at heart, but also important to know when your heart is older and needs a rest. We have so many wonderful choices in our abundant society. The trick is to change those choices to an age appropriate activity. Sometimes it takes a painful experience or two to realize it is time to move on to a new stage. Sports are the clearest examples - baseball, football, skiing, basketball, dance, soccer, tennis and even golf. All have their time when they must be given up or changed to a mellower form. The aging of our bodies and mind demand the change.
My dad has a trailer that is stored hanging over a 15-foot cliff at his home. In his mid 70s, he power-washed and painted the trailer on his homemade scaffolding, a combination of his liking to do projects and that Depression era mentality of saving money. While power washing he walked near the end of the plank. The plank tipped on the sawhorse support like a teeter-totter, sending him down the hill. While in the air, he had time to ponder a flip rather than land on his head. He almost made a complete turn and landed on his butt. Though rather sore, he was ok. After recovering, he wisely moved the sawhorse to the end of the plank so it couldn’t flip again. However, he was so enthralled with his painting that he walked off the end of the plank. On his second flip down the hill, he made a complete turn onto his feet. Not so luckily though, he broke his foot. He has diabetes so healing was poor. Now after numerous surgeries, he has reduced balance and must wear special shoes. The shoes are a size 20 plus. We call them the Frankenstein boots.
Last summer, at the young age of 79, he decided to take up motorcycle riding. He took the motorcycle course from the highway patrol to obtain his license. It was an eye opener for him. Even though he finished the course, he realized that he did not have the balance or the reaction time to be safe. His Frankenstein boots did not help. On top of that, he is hard of hearing from noise pollution during his Navy ship days in WWII working in the diesel engine room.
Last Saturday, I picked him up from the hospital from the most recent incident. A ping-pong table had attacked him, or so he told the nurses to their great amusement. The Sunday night before Memorial Day (we were scheduled to play golf on Memorial Day), he was helping my brother Larry move a ping-pong table onto the back of a pick- up truck. You may remember that evening was extremely windy. They were caught inside the folded table while lifting it onto the truck. A large gust of wind came up and blew them both over while they were caught inside. My father’s bottom landed on my brother’s head and his right side of his chest landed on the bar of the table. It was a freak accident; you have to use your imagination. He lay in pain, unable to move for 15 minutes and then got up and finished loading the infamous table. “I will be a ok, don’t count me out for golf tomorrow,” were his parting words to my brother. After two days of laying at home in denial and unable to move, he took an ambulance to the hospital. The nurses saw his shoes sticking out of the gurney. “Oh my! Those are the biggest feet I have ever seen.” It would be a funnier story if my dad hadn’t broken six ribs and spent five days in the hospital. So now, my father has to eliminate moving ping-pong tables or any awkward lifting that could cause him to lose his balance.
I have been writing about my dad in his 70s, but it is true at any age. Even my 22-year-old son Don cannot be as adventuresome as he was a few years ago. As a teenager, he would jump off high trees – called tree jumping by Don and his crazy friends. To me, tree jumping looked like an extreme sport, dangerous and painful. They would hike to a redwood grove in West County, then climb a tall Redwood and jump between trees at an extreme height. On descent, they would jump onto the trunk and slide down the length of the tree. After a near miss and landing hard, Don’s knees are not the same. Luckily, Don gave up this sport before he was hurt worse and has wisely outgrown tree jumping.
Could there be an adventure gene or maybe anti-smart gene in my family? My father has slowed down and finally accepts letting others do work for him. I told my wife Mary Alice to remind me about my father when she sees me doing something questionable for my age and ability. I am hoping to age gracefully myself.
How do you determine what is safe to do at any age? It is difficult. You want to keep doing activities that you enjoy until those activities are no longer safe. How do you determine that it is time for a change? You can try using trial and error, carefully. Your body will tell you if you pay close attention, hopefully before you hurt yourself too badly. You can try determining your own limits. Mostly I hope you stay lucky!
An added note: A few years ago, I took my father and my two sons on a trip to Normandy for D-Day celebration; my father had been there for the WII invasion. While in Germany, we visited Darmstadt where my Great, Great Grandfather Christian Malkemus was born. Darmstadt happens to be the location of Frankenstein’s Castle that Mary Shelly visited on vacation and that gave her the inspiration for her famous novel Frankenstein. We joked about my father in his Frankenstein boots at the castle. Might help explain the origin of that adventure gene.
In closing, I love my father and hope we can all age gracefully!
Enjoy Life and Keep Smiling!
George Malkemus has a Family and Cosmetic Dental Practice in Rohnert Park at 2 Padre Parkway, Suite 200. Call 585-8595, or email info@ malkemusdds.com. Visit Dr. Malkemus’ Web site at http://www.malkemusdds.com