On being ... senior moments

By Ingrid Sapona

The past month I’ve had quite a few senior moments. No, I’m not talking about the forgetfulness variety. I mean I’ve had the opportunity to spend a bit of time with some delightful -- and extraordinary -- folks in their eighth, ninth, and even 10th decade.

It so happens many friends of our family have October birthdays and this year many of them marked milestones, including one who turned 90 and two who turned 80. One of the 80-year-olds is my god mother, Audrey. Though she was adamant about not wanting a party, she’s a tea drinker so I had a surprise High Tea for her and some of her friends.

The average age of the ladies at the tea was well over 75 -- I know this because some mentioned their age in the course of conversation that afternoon and all but one of the others proudly told me how old she was when I asked.

They were a charming, energetic, and talkative group. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but admire their outlook and enthusiasm. As with any group of seniors, there was the inevitable talk about aches and pains, but clearly none of them have let physical struggles hold them back. My godmother, for example, was declared legally blind a few years ago as a result of macular degeneration. But, other than her seeking confirmation from me about whether her outfit looked coordinated, failing vision hasn’t slowed her down.

And then there was Mrs. Robb, our friend who had turned 90 the week before. She grew up in Bavaria but moved to the U.S. when she married a GI after World War II. She had a couple sons and was widowed pretty young. In her 70s she re-married, but was widowed again in her mid-80s. She’s fortunate because she has a son and adult grandchildren nearby, but still, it’s amazing to me that she lives on her own. And, she clearly intends to stay put: to celebrate her 90th she put an addition on her house -- a solarium.

Mrs. Kennedy was one of the few at the tea I didn’t know much about, so I made a special effort to chat with her. She was all too happy to tell me a bit about her life as a wife and mother on a dairy farm years ago. I knew she was widowed and lived with one of her sons and his family, but I was surprised to hear that at 65, he’s her baby. Then again, I didn’t realize until that afternoon that she’ll be 90 in January.

In telling me about her family, she mentioned she had one son who died at the age of two after eating poison mushrooms. She explained that back then (the early 1940s), they always ate wild mushrooms they picked. Apparently that one time everyone got sick immediately and they all recovered after they vomited, but the little boy never threw up. “We ate the mushrooms on a Sunday and by Wednesday he was dead,” she said. I simply can’t imagine the heartbreak. I asked her how you get over something like that and she said, “you just go on…”.

Nearly half the ladies were widowed, a couple had lost children to devastating illness, and still others are taking care of ailing spouses. And those are just some of the sorrows and hardships I’m aware of -- I’m sure they’ve all lived through much, much more. And yet, it was clear they were there not just to celebrate Audrey’s birthday -- but to celebrate life.

A few days after the high tea, I crossed paths with Fauja Singh, an extraordinary 100-year-old who was in Toronto to try to make history. He hoped to be the oldest person to complete a full marathon. He was born on a farm in India in 1911 and lived there well into retirement. But, after witnessing an accident in which one of his sons was killed and the death his wife shortly thereafter, he moved in with one of his sons in the U.K. in 1992.

Then, at the age of 89, he took up running to beat the boredom of sitting around. In 2003 Adidas heard of his running achievements and signed him to an endorsement deal. These days, through his running, Singh raises thousands for charities and to inspire others to lead a more active life. Singh made it into the record books when he finished the marathon in 8 hours, 25 minutes.

Because I was asked to write a short article about him, I covered the race. At the end of the race he looked tired, but energized by the cheering crowd. When asked how he felt, Singh spoke only about his emotional state, not his physical state, saying he felt absolutely overjoyed. He also said he was happy his time was faster than his goal of 9 hours. The fact he even set a target time says a lot -- my goal would just be finishing -- however long it takes!

At the post-race press conference, in talking about his accomplishments, Singh insisted he’s nothing special. He maintained that the key is to “simply carry on breathing, make the effort and do it -- and stop making excuses”. That no nonsense attitude, spirit of endurance, and desire to get the most out of life seemed the secret all the seniors I spent time with this month have figured out.

I’ve never liked the traditional meaning of the expression “senior moments”. So, I propose we re-purpose it as a shorthand way of reminding ourselves to treasure the moments we spend with seniors. Indeed, the more time I spend with them, the more I appreciate the depth and strength of the human spirit. After all, getting old isn’t for the feint hearted.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a gut reaction

By Ingrid Sapona

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty tired of reading news stories about medical guidelines because it’s just getting too damned confusing. It seems that every day there’s another headline about some medical recommendation that seems to contradict other medical advice that they told us about last year.

The thing is, no matter how confusing the news is, I’m drawn to such stories. How can you not be? Of course, I can quickly rule out about half the stories because they’re about a group that I’m not part of (for example, stories about people taking specific medications) or about a condition that isn’t an issue for me (like prostate cancer). But there are lots of topics that clearly are potentially directly relevant (like mammogram screening guidelines) so I can’t simply tune out.

This week was a banner week for confusing and seemingly contradictory medical advice. First there was the news that men who don’t have prostate cancer symptoms should not get PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood tests. Until now, the test was pretty standard for men over 50. Apparently the experts are now of the opinion that not only is the test not particularly good at detecting prostate cancer, the test has caused harm.

Next there was news about dangers to “older women” who take vitamin supplements. Though I’m not quite in the age group they were talking about, I paid attention to this story because I take vitamins. Some reports made it sound like the danger comes from mega-doses, but others make it sound like there’s danger from even “normal” doses. Does this mean I should give up my multi-vitamin? I have no idea.

Ironically, a medical headline with an intentional contradiction actually made perfect sense to me. The headline read: “If you know CPR, do it. If you don’t, do it anyway”. The article was reporting on a warning made this week by Canadian emergency physicians who believe too many Canadians are dying from cardiac arrest because bystanders refuse to help.

According to the story in Friday’s Toronto Star, doctors are campaigning to teach more people how to perform CPR. I know, seems like old medical news, right? Well, the new twist is that doctors are now saying that even if you have no CPR training, if you see someone in cardiac arrest you should do chest compressions on them. As Dr. Christian Vaillancourt, an Ottawa doctor quoted in the article, put it: “You cannot harm a cardiac arrest victim. … You cannot do CPR wrong. Doing something helps.”

The article also quoted Peter Macintyre, a spokesperson for Toronto Emergency Medical Services, who put it even more plainly: “It’s a scary thing. But one thing to remember is the person is dead. They have no pulse, they’re not breathing. They’re dead. Nothing you’re going to do to them is going to make them any worse. Do CPR and they’ve got a chance.”

Many years ago I took CPR. We all practiced on the dummy torso and we were taught how many compressions you do in a row between delivering breaths. Some years later I even took a refresher course. By then they had revised the training and we were told to do compressions to the beat of the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever. The message I took away from both courses is that CPR is a serious thing and doing it right is important. Unfortunately, I quickly forgot the exact number of compressions and so I figured I’d never actually do it on anyone.

Then, one day in 1998 I happened to be at my parents’ house when my father collapsed in the kitchen. About six months before that he had had a heart attack and while in the hospital his heart had stopped and they had to use a defibrillator to get it started again. So, when he fell in the kitchen, I rushed to him and started compressions. I remembered thinking that I really didn’t know what I was doing, but that I had to do something. Meanwhile my mother phoned 911.

Thankfully, Dad came around before the ambulance arrived. As they took him to the hospital, I hoped I hadn’t made him worse by doing what I did, given that I knew I didn’t do it exactly as I had been taught. To help ease my guilt, I reasoned that chances are the jolt he got hitting the floor is probably what got his heart going again, not my attempt at CPR. In the weeks that followed that incident he had by-pass surgery and eventually they implanted a defibrillator.

So, reading that article this week about doing CPR even if you’re not sure how to do it put to rest any lingering doubt I had. More importantly, it reaffirmed my belief that when it comes to any kind of medical news, the best you can do is try to make sense of it in the context of your own life and the particular situation. And then, after weighing the alternatives, go with your gut and hope for the best.

© 2011 Ingrid Sapona