OLD DOGS and CHILDREN and WATERMELON WINE: Life in the 80s…and we’re not talking about the decade of big hair & shoulder pads

Introduction from editor/daughter Maggie: I have the pleasure of hearing my mom and dad’s funny stories at least once a week when we talk on the phone. When my dad shared the week’s activities, which included plenty of visits to medical offices, I completely cracked up when he started mimicking the verbal torture he endured by well-meaning nurses and office personnel who spoke to him in a manner usually reserved for toddlers or puppies. As any good editor would do, I told him to write a blog post about it! The post that follows had me literally laughing out loud. There’s something for everyone in this latest masterpiece from my dad. Enjoy!

Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine

The above is the title to a Tom T. Hall song, which was popular a few years ago, presumably about a conversation with an old man.  Although I have never tasted watermelon wine, I strongly identify with his fondness for old dogs and children, for I am also an old man.  I cannot pass a dog on the street without feeling the urge to reach down to give him a scratch behind his ears.  Likewise, when I see a toddler in the shopping cart at the supermarket, I find myself talking to him/her and making funny faces hoping to illicit a smile.  The interaction is limited of course depending upon mother’s reaction, which may vary from the kindly old grandfather smile to the dirty old pedophile frown. Even infants draw my attention in ways they never did before.  I find myself wanting to hold them, hoping to get a positive response.  I have always been fond of kids, once even considered going into pediatrics, but fortunately got over that urge.  The only thing I can think of that may account for the recent development of more intense feelings towards kids and old dogs, is that I am now old like the character in Tom T’s song.

Old People in the Good Ole Days

As a child, I was curious as to what it was like to be old.  From the behaviors of old people I witnessed, it did not seem very promising.  When visiting my grandparents, we were required to visit my Great Grandmother who had been exiled to an upstairs room presumably because she was no longer able to navigate the stairs.  She was always ensconced in a large rocking chair surrounded by large fluffy pillows, and the image that she presented to me was of a very old wrinkled queen on her throne more akin to the wicked witch than an ancestor.  She would say little, and I would recite the script provided me and exit as soon as possible.  In retrospect, I now suspect she was demented, but at the time I found the whole experience frightening.  In those days families were expected to assume the burden of caring for their elderly members no matter the circumstances.  To do otherwise was considered shameful.

My Favorite Old Person

Not all adults were frightening and some were very interesting and downright nice to me.  I did enjoy lying on the floor listening to adult conversations when we had company.   A very popular mantra in those days was “children should be seen not heard,” and it was considered impertinent for us kids to interrupt an adult conversation.   I did find a confidant; however, to whom I could express all my opinions, thoughts, and dreams with abandon.  She was my Great Aunt Toad.  I still don’t know how she acquired the nickname, and to this day don’t know her given name as there were no unusual physical features and I found her attractive in a kindly old lady sort of way.

She was childless and when I visited her, which was at every opportunity, she plied me with baked goods of all kinds and gallons of grape juice.  There was a huge grape arbor forming a tunnel in her front yard which must have been 100 feet long.  She bottled the juice every year; although, I always suspected some of it didn’t make it into the bottles in time to prevent fermentation.  After being sufficiently stuffed with goodies we would retire to the front porch with my second or third bottle of juice, and she would encourage me to talk.  Apparently, she had not heard that seen but not heard admonition, and I am still very fond of grape juice.

Respect Your Elders…and the Dead (the mantra of my generation)

When I was a child, it was expected that people would respect their elders.  It mattered little what deeds or misdeeds the elder had done.  All that was required was to be lucky enough to have survived a lot of years.  Of course, if you were a kid, all adults were your elders and the threat of corporal punishment was sufficient to insure respect for all grown-ups.   For those not fortunate enough to live to a “ripe old age” (is that term analogous to a fruit on the verge of rot?) they may also gain respect by dying.

I have attended many funerals, but have never heard the decedent described as a jerk.  The major focus is usually a recitation of his virtues.  This seems to me to turn Mark Antony’s eulogy of Caesar on its head for it seems to me it is the evil that men do which is “oft interred with their bones,” and the good, real or imagined, which lives after them.  In most cases I am sure that if the decedent is up there in the gallery watching the ceremony a la Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, he is pleased to learn that he was such a wonderful person.  It is true that I have not always shown the respect due my elders, but it is too late to atone for that sin for I no longer have any elders.  In spite of my failures to walk the walk I find I have become a geriatric Rodney Dangerfield*.

*For those under the age of thirty (there must be one or two out there) Rodney  Dangerfield was a stand- up comedian whose punch line was “I don’t get no respect.”

Senior Citizen or Toddler? Snoddler?

In my case the lack of respect I sense probably can’t be attributed solely to my age, but has become even more noticeable since my retirement.  As a physician, at least the nurses feigned respect.

In my own case the most frightening thing about becoming old is the inevitable loss of my independence.  Consequently, being patronized or infantilized is likely to produce the most anger.  Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than in medical facilities, but especially in those geriatric warehouses called nursing homes.   Someone needs to explain to these folks that old age does not guarantee idiocy.  Although they may be well intended, addressing me in terms usually reserved for toddlers such as “honey” or “sweetie” is apt to drive my already elevated blood pressure into the danger zone.  On one occasion when addressed this way in a particularly obsequious manner, I responded by saying:  “Sorry honey, but I am already married.”  I am still not convinced she got the message, and I probably received the dirty old man label.

Excretory Functions and Me

Another area which bugs me to the max is the use of childish and unprofessional language to describe excretory functions. I cringe when I am asked to pee in a cup.  It is true that when my children were small we used that word as a contraction for the word which rhymes with hiss.  In those days that word was not to be used in polite company; however, now seems to have become part of the everyday lexicon as in “pissed off.”   Consequently, I would much prefer a more adult term to describe the process of micturition (bet you didn’t even know that one).  The word “poop” or even worse “poopy” likewise strikes me as a less than adult, not to mention, an unprofessional term, and I feel disrespected when it refers to my alimentary tract.

Speaking of my alimentary tract…

I must confess that I have often been a vocal critic of old people who had become preoccupied with bowel and/or bladder function.  I have chastised people for their laxative dependence and often labeled them as neurotic.  In recent years, I have developed an empathy fueled by experience.  For example I have found that constipation is not a laughing matter.  I am convinced that a serious impaction is the closest an old man like me can ever come to experiencing the pain of childbirth.  My advice in this regard is when you get old, keep the stool softeners handy.  I am sorry to have digressed from my topic of respect, but I guess this just shows where my head is.

Respect: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Call me a snob, but I resent people who don’t know me, calling me by my first name. This refers to those telemarking con men as well as the overly solicitous salesperson who thinks I am stupid enough to be ingratiated by that approach.  I also find it demeaning to be addressed that way by a nurse whom I have never seen before as she prepares me for a colonoscopy.

This might be part of my generation’s “uptight” upbringing, but I would never have thought of addressing someone senior to me as anything other than Mr. or Dr. or Mrs. [insert last name]. Barb and I taught our children always to err on the side of formality: “Address adults as Mr. and Mrs. If they prefer you call them by their first name or something else, they will let you know.”

However, it appears those working throughout medical institutions in particular didn’t get the same instruction from their parents.  In the medical offices in which I have been seen, invariably, patients are notified they are next up by calling them from the waiting room by shouting their given name.  Some may insist they cannot use surnames because of HIPPA regulations.  If that is the case then give them a number as is done at other businesses.  If you think that is cynical, you are correct.

Benefits of Old Age?

Lest you think I am completely immersed in self pity, I am aware there are some advantages to being old, not the least of which is that I am not dead.

It is true that there is a certain freedom of expression that accompanies old age.  For example one may refer to his former boss as an asshole without concern for repercussions.  One can safely be confrontational or even nasty, for even in this day and age it is mostly considered poor taste to beat up on an old guy.  In the past I have always looked forward to those days when I could sleep in, now, I can get up whenever I please.  The only pressure I now feel is from my Daughter-cum-editor who still seems convinced that someone might be interested in reading this stuff; however, the writing does give me the opportunity to look at where I am and where I have been…lest I think too much about where I am going.

 Yet, as has been oft said, “old age ain’t for sissies.” There is the pain, which although usually tolerable, is a constant aggravation, and reminder of our physical limitations.  A few years a go there was a very funny song on You Tube that went viral titled “I don’t look good naked anymore”.   Now, I have never pretended to be an Adonis, but I must admit that watching my buttocks shrink while my abdomen protrudes, and folds of skin droop lifelessly as they succumb to gravity, has been a downer.  Yep, I sure do identify with that song.

Fashion Advice for Seniors

Unfortunately, clothes do little to remedy the problem.  Even my wife, with her inherent aestheticism and impeccable fashion sense, has been of limited help in the effort to disguise my physical deficits.  However, she has helped narrow down the clothing selection with the ban of cotton T-shirts since, due to the fact that my navel has yielded to the limited space within my abdominal cavity thus rendering it an “outie.”

I have always relied on her judgment regarding sartorial matters, but now I suspect she has all but given up.  With an expanding abdominal girth and vanishing buttocks, I have found it virtually impossible to keep my pants up to their usual position, and vanity prevents me from using suspenders unless I am wearing a jacket.  A partial solution has been the discovery that jeans are designed ride lower on the hips; therefore, they stay in place.  Barb has always considered jeans to be a bit tacky and preferred me to wear khakis for casual wear, but there has not been a whimper from her since the change in my casual wardrobe.

There are multiple other changes that must occur to adjust to the ravages of father time.  For example, although I have carried my billfold in my left hip pocket for the last 70 years or so, it is now in my front pocket, and not by preference but of necessity.  A few months ago I noticed some severe low back pain radiating down the back of my left leg along the course of the sciatic nerve.  I was concerned since I previously had back surgery several years ago, and was thinking “Ut-oh…here we go again.”  Fortunately, a colleague diagnosed my problem as “billfold butt,” an affliction not described in any manual of medical diagnoses but extremely common among old farts as their buttocks recede to offer less padding.  My misery was relieved shortly after I moved my billfold to my front pocket.

Certainly, many of you are thinking that diet could solve many of these problems.  I mentioned this once to my internist.  She thought it would be a good idea for me to eat more sensibly, but followed with the statement, “If I were your age, I would eat whatever I pleased.”  Is it any wonder I love that woman, and me the guy who had denigrated female physicians in the past.  She went on to say that Barb and I were in exceptionally good health and vigorous for our ages, and that we should focus more on enjoying life while we can.  Later, I wondered if she had forgotten that I was currently being treated for cancer, and then it occurred to me that she might also be issuing the Biblical injunction to “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die.”

See no evil. Smell no evil?

Our special senses also take a beating after a few decades of use.  It is said that the most fragile of these is smell, which is usually the first of the senses to become ineffective, and may account for a higher incidence of body odor, which of course may cause some impediments to social intercourse.  One such example for which I have always felt some guilt, concerned my uncle who had always been my hero as I was growing up.  He was only a few years my senior, was an outstanding athlete, and student, and the first in the family to attend college.  The incident of my shame occurred when he attended the funeral of my cousin.  He was well into his nineties, but still quite vigorous and independent.  Unfortunately, he suffered from a very major body odor, and I could see the family distancing themselves because of it.  I presume he was unaware of our strange behavior, and can only hope that he didn’t feel shunned.

Undoubtedly cataracts are the most common cause of visual impairment in the elderly, and by the eighth or ninth decade of life, almost everyone will be afflicted; however, surgical removal has seen such advances in technique that the cure is almost always assured.  In my early days of practice such surgery which is now done on an outpatient basis required sight to ten days in the hospital.  Although inconvenient, these impairments are not nearly as disabling as hearing loss which is also all too common.

Huh? What did you say?

Barb, my wife, now seems to be feeling one up since she was fitted for hearing aids and they work very well for her, but not for me.  I apparently produce ear wax in such prodigious quantities that the darn things become occluded almost immediately.  Now she complains that the TV is turned up to loud, and that when we are engaged in conversation with a group of people I look like a fugitive from the Alzheimer’s unit. (Sidebar from daughter/blog editor Maggie: A radio commercial for hearing-aids that makes us laugh goes like this: “I would often say inappropriate things not hearing all of what was said. I wasn’t losing mind. I was losing my hearing.”)

As for me I find myself nodding a lot in agreement.  Of course that can at times cause some problems, for example I might give my affirmative nod to a question like “Do you think Sarah Palin would make a good president?” or “Do you think I was acting like jerk?”

The mind is a terrible thing to lose*

(*Trivia break: who botched the NAACP’s slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to lose? Keep reading for the answer.)

Memory problems however are the most frustrating of all, what we shrinks call “mild cognitive impairment.” It seems as if that brain has slowed to approximately the same speed as the rest of my body, which as I have previously mentioned, is pretty slow.  I have never been good with names.  Without a chart in hand, I could never recall a patient’s name; although, I could probably recite their history in detail.  This could be embarrassing when I picked up the wrong chart as I greeted the patient.  I have always depended on Barb, who never forgets anything, to whisper an approaching acquaintance’s name in my ear, but now her prowess eludes her, and I am on my own.  Now the guy writing this who was a finalist in the county spelling bee in the 6th grade has his I-pad close at hand for spell check doesn’t always work and the thesaurus has become a necessity.  I do take comfort in the fact that these names and words are not lost forever as one sees in the various dementias, but even temporary memory loss can be frustrating.  In my younger days I usually would wing it when giving a lecture, now I wouldn’t dare attempt it without notes.

*Trivia Answer: Former U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle’s tripped over the NAACP’s slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” which he recalled as “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.”

“When you get to be my age every day is a good day.”

So, there you have it.  I hope you all live long enough to suffer the vicissitudes of the aging process, for I have found life more than compensates for any discomfort.  I recall an episode from many years ago when Barb called her father as he was recovering from an illness.  When she asked him if he was having a good day, his response was, “When you get to be my age every day is a good day.”  My feelings echo that sentiment, and I now suggest the idea should be expanded to include all ages.

I realize that unsolicited advice is usually not valued and is rarely acted upon; nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer mine.  Life is wondrous, precious, and brief.  Get all you can of it and from it.