Mental Health Monday: The War on Aging and the Worried Well

Mom Me Sept 5

Note: Read through to the last line to get a last-minute update that brought (happy) tears to my eyes!

If you read my post this past Friday, you know that my 86-year-old mother was in the hospital in Jackson. By the time I got down there to be with her, they were about to discharge her back to the nursing home. They had treated her for the bowel impaction, started antibiotics for the infections around her PEG tube site, and prescribed steroids for her (life-long) asthma, which had gotten worse. She was less alert than she is when I visit her in the nursing home (familiar surroundings since 2009) and her situation saddened me greatly. I could only get her to smile by singing, “You are my sunshine.” I almost didn’t include this photo in today’s post, but the expression on her face reflects the emptiness inside, and it’s an important part of her story at this point.

About 24 hours after I returned to Memphis, my cousin (a pulmonary physician who is treating Mom when she’s in the hospital) called with the news that the culture they did around her PEG site turned out to be a resistant strain of staph. She was readmitted to the hospital last night for a two-week course of IV antibiotics. Jimmy (my cousin) and I discussed her options. He is aware of her DNR status and advanced Alzheimer’s and her wish for no heroic measures, and how spending two weeks in the hospital increases her confusion and agitation. One option would be to give her an initial dose of the antibiotics IV and then send her back to take the remaining doses orally. But that might not be good enough to prevent the staph from attacking her retinas and she could end up losing much of her eyesight. From a quality of life point of view, having Alzheimer’s would be worsened by not being able to see. I agreed that the compassionate choice was the IV antibiotics in the hospital, although I’m sad that Mom has to go through this. I always try to put myself in her place when making these decisions, and I would not want to be blind once I had already lost so much mental capacity.

No one should have to be in the hospital without a caregiver and advocate there with them, if possible. But I’m having some medical issues myself and am waiting to hear from my own physician about possible tests I may need to have done, so I’m not up to driving back down and being with her right now. I have to trust her care to the medical professionals at the hospital—being so thankful for my cousin who will see his Aunt Effie daily and report back to me. This is a blessing I don’t take for granted.

 

All of this has me so anxious I’m having trouble sleeping. I’m worried that I have cancer, although my symptoms could be lots of other things. I’m worried that Mom will suffer unnecessarily. I’m worried that she will die when I’m incapacitated and can’t be there to take care of the arrangements. And I’m disappointed that I might have to cancel my week-long trip to Denver to be with my children and grandchildren next week, whom I haven’t seen since May. Of course that can be rescheduled, but it’s there, in with the multi-generational mix.

What am I doing to “handle” my physical and emotional reactions to all of this? Last night I went to Vespers at my church. Today is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos—the Mother of God. It’s Mary’s birthday. I knew I couldn’t go to the service this morning because I would be here waiting to hear back from my GI doctor’s office (I left a message over 2 hours ago and am still waiting.) So I went to the Vespers for the feast last night. At times like this the love of the Mother of God can help. After the service, our pastor made a few announcements about members who are in the hospital or sick at home, and then he announced about my mother. Several parishioners came up to me and gave me a hug afterwards and I had a chance to talk with them about my struggles. The human element is often the way I feel God’s arms around me, and I’m thankful for those hugs.

 

flowers and frogThis morning as I was waiting for the doctor’s office to return my call, I sat on my front porch and enjoyed the amazing “fall is coming” breeze and the beautiful flowers around me while continuing to read Sally Thomason’s wonderful book, The Living Spirit of the Crone: Turning Aging Inside Out. I can see Sally’s house from my porch and imagine her inside, having coffee and working on her next creative project. Or maybe she’s gone to Yoga this morning. Sally turned 80 this year, but her mind and body both seem much younger than mine. I’m learning why as I read about the work she did on aging when she was my age.

Chapter Four: The Scientific Paradigm, addresses changes in the medical world and how they are affecting our view of aging. In 1904 the term gerontology was coined, followed by geriatrics in 1909. As Thomas says:

Aging became, and still is, one of many pathologies that science would conquer. The official slogan of the American Academy of Antiaging Medicine, a new medical sub-specialty a group of physicians and scientists founded in 1993, reads as follows: “Aging is not inevitable! The war on aging has begun!”

Lord have mercy! Aging has been seen as a disease, leading many elderly folks to relinquish the care of their health to medical professionals, losing their independence and often getting sicker as a result. A study by Dartmouth Medical School researchers shows that during the 1990s, many more Americans were classified as having hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes or obesity because the definitions of those diseases were changed. As a result, not only were thousands of people put on medications earlier than many needed them, their minds were reset to consider themselves ill. As Thomason quoted in her book:

The medical profession’s term for these people is “the worried well.”

The worried well. That’s how I feel much of the time. Since allopathic medicine defines aging as a pathology, it’s hard not to feel that way! As Thomason says,

Scientific authority not only altered private beliefs and behavior, it shaped public policy.

So, how can I change my outlook? Thomason continues:

Aging is not a pathology—a compounding of chronic disease. Aging is a living process that must be understood from both inside (the body/mind/spirit) and outside (within a cultural context), with the realization that there is no clear dividing line between the two. The interworkings are ongoing and extraordinarily complex.

Crone postcards address erasedI won’t try to share more in this blog post, but as I continue reading, I’ll be back. If I’m not in a doctor’s office tomorrow morning, Sally and I will be having coffee together and discussing this. And I can’t wait to have her lead a gathering of women to discuss these topics in a “salon” setting in our home next month.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to try to withdraw from the war on aging and remove myself from the ranks of the worried well. I know this will take prayer, patience, and self-discipline to retrain my mind and my emotions to embrace a healthier view of aging, but that’s my goal today. I’d love to hear from any of my readers who are traveling this path.

NEWS FLASH: Just as I was about to publish this post, I got a text from another hospitalist (and also one from cousin Jimmy) saying that Mom’s infection isn’t what they initially thought. It’s a “skin containment,” not a “super bug,” and she’s being released back to the nursing home today! I am so thankful! And… the hospitalist who texted me is the same one who treated Mom when she was in the hospital for two weeks in January of 2013… a lovely woman who actually taught aerobics with me at my parents’ store, Phidippides Sports, in Jackson back in the 1980s! Mom is not alone there, and I’m weeping tears of relief and thankfulness right now. 

 

12 comments


  • Jason Cushman

    Love you mom. I shared your post and will call you soon. Hope you get some rest! Jason

    September 8, 2014
    • Thanks so much, Jason. Love you, too.

      September 8, 2014
  • So glad to hear your mom’s condition isn’t as bad as first thought. :)
    I do have to say I am torn by this statement: “Aging has been seen as a disease, leading many elderly folks to relinquish the care of their health to medical professionals, losing their independence and often getting sicker as a result.”
    As the only daughter of an octogenarian mother,and the single parent myself of two special needs children, I find myself struggling between their needs, often attempting to keep my own sanity in the midst of everything else. I rely heavily on the medical profession and have recently had to put my mother into a retirement home though she was questionably able to care for herself – the key word being questionably. As I stated before, I was torn. Having to drive her everywhere she needed to go AND look after my 18 year old Autistic son and my 13 year old who is Deaf, has multiple cardiac issues, and is G-tube fed and both of them have behavioural problems…
    I wish I could do more, but sometimes the “system” is all we have to fall back on.
    I wonder, at the age of 50, where I am headed. I have moments when I think it’s all under control but then I backslide. I’m not a big believer in God – I’m a philosophical Taoist, and thus I do believe that anything is possible. Rather than pray I strive to simply live in the moment, to remember to breathe, and to count my blessings – mostly that my children are alive.
    I did gain much comfort from your post, and I thank you. I also thank Jason for guiding me here. He’s a good friend.
    You’re not alone. And now neither am I. :)

    September 8, 2014
    • Linda, I am amazed by your resilience in all that you are doing. There is no map for finding our way in these complicated journeys, and certainly not just “one way” to go! Thanks so much for reading and sharing part of your journey with us.

      September 9, 2014
  • Wishing you and yours well and sending out prayers for your intentions.

    I wish I could attend your salon. I’m sure it will be fascinating.

    September 9, 2014
  • This is such a hard spot to be in. I’m so sorry for you. But even more, I am so angry with the medical/pharmaceutical profession for turning normal processes into illnesses via diagnoses that usually require the purchase of drugs.

    At the same time, I’m grateful for their ability to treat “real” illness.

    I’m happy for your mother that she has you as an advocate, and others giving you support in the struggle.

    Wishing you well in your own diagnosis.

    September 9, 2014
    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Mona. I finally heard back from my GI doc’s nurse and she’s reassured me my situation isn’t critical. I’ve got an appointment in a few weeks to check everything out. Am much more at peace now!

      September 9, 2014
      • I’m so glad you received peace-promoting news. And clearly, based on a response I just read, you have blessed at least one other person in sharing this. I’m wishing very hard that your news will continue to get better.

        September 9, 2014
  • Its something watching our parents changing. I am sure that is all it is? A change – expecting people to keep up and be the same as they grow up is silly, as is expecting people to stay the same as they grow a little down..just silly. I wonder how on earth we ever imagined we were supposed to stop these changes?! It IS strange watching it happen – and it is weird FEELING it happen! In our household we have an vast age range from 5 through 12, 17, 40, 57, 75. Quite interesting looking at all the different stages of life like that.
    (we WONT get into all the dynamics and personalities of each – shewee!)
    You know – my dad lives with us now and it is so hard to keep the balance between ‘taking care of’ and respecting independence. Its a bit like watching from the wings sometimes? BUT – when something goes wrong…it is just – well…horrid. He got septicemia in a very short time from a mild bladder thing and that night I heard a noise upstairs and found him trapped under his chin behind the toilet seat lid. Trying to lift him I realized JUST how top heavy the man is! It got me worrying about ‘what if’ what IF it had happened when my husband was at work? What IF I just could NOT lift him on my own? He surely would have choked before the paramedics arrived. REALLY hard knowing what we CAN deal with on our own and what WE need help with – either for ourselves or even for the safety of our dear ones.
    Thank you for sharing this Ma’am, – got me thinking a fair deal! Quite a bit like your dearest son does! – ALWAYS gets me thinking that one :D
    Take care of you and may your mom remain stable and keep improving, by Gods Will.

    September 9, 2014
    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Belinda. Life is messy… especially life with several generations of family involved, I’m sure!

      September 10, 2014
      • Belinda

        You are most welcome!
        Never a dull moment to be fair ;)

        September 11, 2014

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