The Illness of Aging
When I fell ill during a visit to Copenhagen a few year ago, a local doctor bicycled over to my Airbnb apartment. Seeing my twelve prescription bottles lined up on a table, like small round, white-capped soldiers poised for battle, the Danish doctor asked if he could take an iPhone photo of them. I had confirmed what he had always suspected about Americans and their pill-popping ways. I’m sure his colleagues had a good laugh.
Actually, I myself had to laugh. My golden years had been exposed.
I’m 82 years old and have a compromised immune system—antiphospholipid antibody syndrome. It’s a rare disorder—fewer than 200,000 cases in the U.S. per year—in which the immune system mistakenly attacks normal proteins in the blood. It can cause blood clots, and so it’s imperative that I take a blood thinner. And wear a bracelet alerting people to my condition. And that’s just the beginning.
Right before Christmas last year I developed a persistent cough. A few days later I felt I should probably go to Urgent Care. Immediately I was diagnosed with pneumonia, and an ambulance (with an accompanying fire truck) was quickly dispatched to take me to the ER. I spent the Christmas week in the hospital on oxygen.
Although I never smoked, my lungs are scarred from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Perhaps this is attributable to my growing up in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1950s. (On the front pages of the Los Angeles Times, every morning they would have a small box indicating whether that day we would have “smog green,” “smog yellow,” or “smog red”). Quite often 3:00 p.m. P.E. class had to be cancelled; we weren’t supposed to breathe excessively.
In the spring of 2019, I made a trip up to June Lake, California, at an altitude of 7,654 feet. By the third night I found myself gasping for air so badly I had to be taken to the ER in Mammoth Lakes. My oxygenation rate was 82. They immediately put me on oxygen for the next two hours, discharging me with the laconic admonishment: “You best go back down the hill. Quickly!”
Because of my age, my health was precarious enough even before the advent of COVID-19. It quickly became clear that I’d have to stay close to home until further notice. I have no idea when it might be safe for me to go back out to public places again.
To make matters worse, the government doesn’t seem to feel that mask-wearing and other safety precautions are always necessary, since the virus has been considered to target only the expendable elderly. Last March, Texas Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested that seniors should be “willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that America loves for its children and grandchildren.”
By September, at a rally in Ohio, President Trump continued to espouse this idea, arguing, “It affects elderly people. Elderly people with heart problems and other problems. If they have other problems, that’s what it really affects.” The President went on to say, “That’s it. You know, in some states, thousands of people, nobody young. Below the age of 18, like, nobody. They have a strong immune system, who knows? You look — take your hat off to the young because they have a hell of an immune system. But it affects virtually nobody.”
And then on October 25, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows announced simply, “We are not going to control the pandemic.” So then perhaps it’s not just the oldsters among us—everyone is expendable. I think I’m going to be staying home for a long time to come.
And the fact remains that even without a pandemic, I’m at a high risk simply for existing, for being an octogenarian. Things I was once able to do routinely are now out of the question. Fortunately I live with my partner, who’s younger than I am and able to do all the things that I’m not. I’m certain that were it not for him, I’d be in an assisted-living facility.
I have to take my twelve different prescription pills on a daily basis. Most of them have two separate names on the label (generic and non-generic), so that the variations between them are often not even within shouting distance of each other. Tamsulosin HCL is also Flomax. Losartan is actually Cozaar. Furosemide is Lasix. They come in various shapes and sizes, from extremely tiny round white to a large sleek pill in a glossy two-tone orange-and-gray that evokes a vintage Oldsmobile.
In 2014, due to arrythmia and tachycardia (my heart was found to beat irregularly and too quickly), they had to implant a pacemaker-defibrillator. Before it was installed, I asked the surgeon if I would need a medical bracelet to alert people to this device. He laughed at the idea. As it turned out, anyone seeing me shirtless might assume I had swallowed a large man’s pocket watch, ready to burst forth from my chest.
Some 15 years ago I was diagnosed with sleep apnea—a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. So I now have a CPAP device (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) on my nightstand. A mask is held in a tight fit over my nose by a series of black straps. It looks totally ridiculous, like Halloween on the cheap, but I actually don’t mind the mask. Its whoosh is like white noise. It helps me to fall asleep.
But travel has become a problem. When I went through airplane security in Hamburg, Germany, the guards were suspicious of my small CPAP suitcase. With Teutonic briskness I was ordered into a separate building and then closed into a stark holding cell. The security officer stood back against the wall and ordered me to open the suitcase and then remove the device (along with its long breathing tube, electrical cord and heavy black current-converter box). Then I was ordered to dissemble the pieces of the CPAP itself. Finally he dusted the device with a powder. By the time he was convinced this wasn’t a plastic bomb and I was free to go, I had almost missed my flight.
Growing older, I started to feel increasingly uneasy driving. Freeways in Los Angeles can be unsettling even in the best of times. For me the most perilous maneuver was always moving over four lanes to the right of me, often trying to slide into literally bumper-to-bumper traffic. I had long since lost confidence in the right-hand side-view mirror, which bluntly warned me that objects were not what I might assume. Gradually I had to switch from freeways to “surface streets” (a strange L.A.-only name, as if to indicate that the freeways are streets that are floating up there somewhere), where I still felt in reasonable control.
In mid-2016 I had cataract surgery in both eyes. Afterwards I found that my depth perception seemed to have vanished. It had never been particularly good; even as a kid growing up, I found “keep your eye on the ball” to be a challenge. (I was always the last one chosen for teams in P.E. classes.) After the surgery I found I was unable to judge distances. The ophthalmologist presented me with a chart with ten circles to look at. If I had proper depth perception, I would see a hidden figure embedded in all ten. Beyond the first circle no pattern emerged. And so I’ve given up driving altogether.
Like both parents before me, I have a pronounced hearing loss. My pricey hearing aids make indistinct sounds louder, but often they’re quite loudly indistinct. I love the diversity of L.A. But the downside—when I was still able to run daily errands before the onset of COVID—a large number of people I came into contact with had accents. Statistics show that there are 224 identified languages spoken in L.A. county. So the speaker behind the counter who was patiently helping me might be approaching English from a default of Armenian, Dari, Gujarati, or Tagalog. I would constantly have to ask, What? I didn’t want to annoy the people at hand who might feel ill-at-ease because of their accents, so I would explain that I have a hearing loss: “It’s not you—it’s me!” They weren’t always convinced.
Sequestered at home in these days of pandemic, I find one of my joys is watching Netflix and Amazon Prime. They both offer closed-captioning, which is a godsend. It used to be that, like most people, I couldn’t always (if ever) understand the British; now I have problems understanding almost anyone.
These captions are a great help, but I find that they’re intended for people who are totally deaf. Thus I’m exposed to a clutter of non-verbal information strewn about at the bottom of the screen: (pounding on door) (keys jangle) (rain pattering) (sobbing softly) (heavy breathing) (dog barks) (birdsong) (insects churring). And always, always in a crowd there is (indistinct chatter). Lest I doubt the mood there’s (ominous music) (upbeat music) (unsettling music) (melancholic music) (soft, hopeful music) (comforting piano music). And when the going gets really tough, there’s (heartbeat thumping).
Netflix’s closed-captions are excellent. Amazon’s, on the other hand, are rather cavalier. At times they merely float around in the vicinity of the spoken dialogue. I hear (indistinctly) Hayden saying something to Jaden; then he leaves the room and slams the door behind him. Five or so seconds later, as a bewildered Jaden stands there alone on the screen, I read, “That’s it! I’m outta here.” At times I try to look above the fray, but then the next protagonist is a young woman with a high voice, whispering very softly and quickly into the telephone with her back to the camera.
I’m a leftie and write upside down, having to push my way from left to right rather than smoothly pull the pen after me. Penmanship was never my strong suit. (When I was a child, we were still taught the Palmer method of push-pull and ovals, so at least I learned the rules of the game.) Now arthritis distorts my fingers, which can make my script illegible even to me. If I take notes, I find I have to use block letters so that (if possible) I can decipher them later. At this point my partner has to write my checks and address envelopes for me. Even if I concentrate, my hand can slip out of place unexpectedly and disfigure what I’m trying to write, invalidating the check or the envelope.
Mercifully I have a PC with a wonderful soft-touch keyboard. When I was at Stanford in the 1950s, I owned a boxy Olympic “portable,” which was the size of a small suitcase. For capital letters, as well as for the apostrophe, question mark, and quotation marks, you had to press down on the shift key, raising the heavy platen up into the air. Now when I type, my fingers virtually float over the keys; it’s almost as if my thoughts automatically appear on the page. One expansion for me in a shrinking world.
Even when young, I’ve never had much grace of movement. As a Stanford freshman I took ROTC, the Reserve Officers’ Training Course. (Don’t ask why. Like the putative waters in Casablanca, I had been misinformed.) For one hour a week, we soldiers-to-be were assigned to march up and down a field in perfect, crisp unison. I was never quite able to manage this. It came to the point where two officers took me across the field by myself and marched me in drill, flanking me tightly on either side. “Hup! Hup! Hup!” But I still couldn’t pass muster. These military men were convinced I was trying to mock them and they were not amused. (By mutual agreement, I dropped the course after the first term.)
I couldn’t march properly back then; now I find I can’t really walk properly. Like my father before me, I have balance issues. I don’t use a walker, and trying to master the rhythm of a cane only throws me off balance. I’m all right when I’m at home, but when I take walks in my Santa Monica neighborhood, it becomes more difficult. Long ago the city unwisely opted for lining many sidewalks with shady, easy-to-grow Ficus trees. But now the greedy roots of these trees have taken over. They uproot patches of the sidewalk at will, jutting it up irregularly, up and down and over at odd angles, like some devious fun-zone path.
When I walk with my partner, I’ve found I can hold on to his right forearm and keep myself upright. Stairs are another matter. In the U.S. there are usually elevators, even for a trajectory that ends at the second floor. But in big cities, both here and abroad, there are stairs. Many stairs. New York subways can entail three badly lit flights of stairs up to a platform. I have to stay over to the side, clinging onto the railing with both hands in a rush-hour crowd. In office buildings, on my way up, I constantly have to cede to toddlers, who go zipping past me in glee. My Airbnb apartment in Copenhagen was on the sixth floor, and there were no elevators. For a few of the flights there were no handrails. I could negotiate the stairs slowly, but not carry anything with me while my hands were on the rails.
Lawn parties are now out of the question, since an expanse of grass has a mind of its own. Each step is a different adventure: now the turf is stable, now it’s spongy, now it’s bumpy, now it’s off-kilter. I am no longer able to walk across a lawn without assistance; it might just as well be the floor of a birthday-party bouncy house. And how can women in high heels possibly navigate an expanse of lawn? (Worse than dancing with Fred Astaire, backwards and in heels?)
In addition to my balance issues, I’ve now been diagnosed as having spinal stenosis compounded by spondylolisthesis of the lumbar region and lumbar disc herniation. (I’m reading this off the doctor’s report.) When viewing an art exhibit at a museum, often my maximum walking endurance is curtailed to about an hour before my lower back locks up. For a comprehensive Manet exhibit at the Getty Center, I had to go back a second time in order to see the rest of the exhibit.
In contrast, after graduating from college, I had a EurailPass, which allowed me to spend two months traveling on first-class trains throughout Western Europe for a low, set price. Youth hostels chased you out early, and I would spend the entire day walking through whatever city I was in. In Paris, right after breakfast, I would stroll from Trocadero all the way down to the American Express Office on the Rue Scribe to see if I had any letters from home. At times I would spend the entire day walking.
Today when I read newspaper articles about a person in the public eye who’s in his 80s, my first thought is always, “Is he still alive? He must be decrepit!” In my mind’s eye I’m still 21. I’m in a London theater. The cheapest seats—in 1960 maybe costing only three shilling and sixpence, easily affordable for a student—are behind the last rows of the last balcony. You have to stand the whole time, but I can stand there forever. The stage is far away, but, as the British say, I’m up “in the gods.”
Eric Wilson’s fiction and personal essays have been published in New England Review, Carve, Literary Hub, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Massachusetts Review, Chelsea Station, Carolina Quarterly, German Quarterly, Scoundrel Time, Foglifter, and Epoch, as well as in the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies. An essay of his was listed among the Notables in Best American Travel Writing 2018.
After a Fulbright year of study in Berlin, he earned a doctorate in German literature at Stanford University. He taught German at UCLA and Pomona College and fiction writing at UCLA Extension.