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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Smaller and Smaller. A “Sunday musings…” Trip to Visit Mom

Smaller and smaller. That’s all I could think about as we drove from Lincoln to Boston after a weekend visit with my Mom in her new home. So small.

Everything about Mom has become ever smaller. Someone snuck up and zapped her with some kind of shrinking ray. Never a big woman despite my brother’s teasing about her caboose, Mom looks incredibly tiny now. Lighter, thinner, shorter; even the good things about her are about small (a bit healthier, you can now see her ankles). Her apartment is less than half the size of the one she left a few months ago, which was itself about 20% of the size of the family home she left behind. Her very large circle of friends and acquaintances, once at least a couple of dozen strong with whom she had weekly contact, is now precisely zero. Outside of family (my siblings and our spouses), Mom’s world is encompassed within the four walls of her senior living facility.

There’s nothing really surprising about this. Not intellectually at least. We all certainly saw this happen to my Dad, both of Beth’s folks, and our brothers and sisters in-laws’ parents. It’s really just seeing it, and in my case seeing it episodically over intervals of months rather than weeks or days. Heck, Beth and I were lucky this weekend. Mom was feeling pretty well in comparison to recent weeks, and she was fairly easy to motivate toward movement. This is hardly a given as my poor sisters and brother have experienced over the last couple of months. But it was still striking to see it up close.

Everything has gotten so very, very small.

Once upon a time I wrote about this after visiting my Dad. He wasn’t a very big guy physically, but looking at him through the eyes of a son…boy…did he seem huge. He was a quiet man, at least around the house and certainly when we were all young. My son Randy was telling his fiancĂ© about Dad sitting in his rocking chair and tipping the corner of his newspaper over just before he laid down the wood. I’m chuckling as I write as I think about the look on the faces of my sister Tracey’s dates when Dad looked over his reading glasses: “11:00 Tracey Jane.” A super-sized eye roll from Tracey and abject terror on the boy’s face. Seeing him diminished, so very small in so many ways toward the end, was simply gut-wrenching.

It’s sad. I’m sad. Despite the fact that I knew that it would be like this (again, my siblings have been terrific in both visiting and sharing updates), I’m just very sad about how very small both my Mom and her life have become. There are certainly lessons to be learned from what Beth and I saw in my Mom and the small group of women who have befriended her. For me, that is. In the process of finding places to live for both of our mothers Beth has visited quite a few senior living facilities, so what we are seeing now is what she discovered in her research. What I’m learning by seeing in real life actually reinforces and brings to life some of the things I have been researching at arms length.

Sorry, it’s a teachable moment and I’m gonna lay some, um, teachables on you.

All of the stuff that I’ve been reading about and observing about the importance of close relationships is true. Brutally true. In the book “The Good Life” by the researchers heading up the Harvard study on lifelong happiness there was an anecdote about a couple who had a lovely life. Really, quite lovely was the only way to describe it. The cornerstone of that life was their marriage, and from that the friendships that they’d forged both as a couple and as individuals. The husband had but one wish: “Please, don’t let me die second.” Man, it was just devastating to read that he did, indeed, die second, albeit only a couple of months after his beloved wife. I saw precisely two couples at my Mom’s place. Two. There were a handful of single men, but by and large the place was occupied by widows.

Maybe modern medicine will change this dynamic. Maybe there will be more men who survive long enough to be in senior living circumstances. Let’s hope so. Maybe that will make it easier for the single women who arrive without a tribe. Like my daughter Megan said so many years ago, the mean girls of high school don’t really graduate, they just move. Eventually they move to the last high school they will attend: senior living centers. Please let me live long enough to spare my darling Beth the pain of being single in “high school” again. Sorry for the rant; there is really no teachable moment to this part.

All of the teachable stuff comes straight out of the traditional CrossFit playbook, at least the physical stuff we saw. On the plane flying home I was reading Outside Magazine. The outdoors stuff really does speak to me, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why I insist on reading the fitness stuff. This is the magazine that persists on calling some skinny-fat ultra-whatever athlete the fittest person on the planet. A magazine published on a planet on which the likes of Lebron James lives, mind you, never mind Jason Kalipa and all 27 of the Thorisdottir’s. “Use It or Lose It” was the title of an article that cites researcher/trainer Alan Crouzen’s “Immortality Quotient”: the amount of aerobic fitness lost by endurance athletes due to age can be reversed by adding one hour of training time per month. I saw precisely no one at my Mom’s facility suffering from a lack of aerobic fitness.

Say what you will about Greg Glassman and the CrossFit Rx, ca. 2005-2015. Glassman and those who developed offshoot programs (e.g. Jeff Martin/Darrell White and CF Strength Bias) correctly identified the key, critical issue for aging humans: decrepitude. A broad, inclusive fitness that is NOT obsessively devoted to aerobic performance but is rather balanced in such a way that includes both strength and strength endurance is what is necessary in the real world of the aged. What Beth and I witnessed was countless individuals who were simply too weak to perform the blocking and tackling of their daily activities. We observed a cohort of men and women who struggled to stand up.

No matter how many friends you may retain as you enter the last couple of innings of your life, your world contracts if you can’t get your ass off the toilet.

This “musings…” began at Gate A2 in Boston. At the moment I am sitting at our only table at Casa Blanco, 40 minutes away from what promises to be an epic sunset and watching Beth mow the lawn while Bohdi assaults her lawn mower. At dinner I admitted that I was still sad. Sad about how small my Mom and her life had become. Sad because I was missing both of our parents when they were our age now. When their grand children were just getting started. Missing all that they were then, so unaware of the consequences to come from not planning for how they might find themselves in the decades to come. The glow of the sunset to come reflected off my darling wife as she maneuvers her lawnmower across our tiny backyard is a tiny beacon that might guide us both. Might signal that we both saw what might be before us if we don’t pay attention to what it was we were witness to this weekend.

Everything about my Mom had become so small. So very small. Some of that diminution is inevitable, of course, but the WHEN of that diminution is not. There are choices to be made, decisions over which we have control at the moment. Gravity will be victorious, but the timing of that victory may be partly in our hands. We will become smaller, too, but the speed at which we suffer that decline and the time at which that decline begins may be partly in our hands. There are many aspects of who our parents were when they were our age that Beth and I would be proud, thrilled, to possess, and we both are determined to do just that. The sun will set on us as surely as it did for our parents. No one escapes the sunset.

Unlike our parents, we need not face the sunset seated until help is at hand to help us stand.

Some very important things were learned about how we might be able to choose how we head to our own sunset. The lessons are there for the learning. Find your tribe and gather them close. Aerobic fitness may very well lead to a longer life, but it is strength that will lead to a better life. Run, walk, or bike as you will, but be sure to do what it takes to be able to get up and out of the loo on your own. We, too, shall be diminished in the end. Small is what waits for us all. It made me sad to see how small life has become for my Mom.

The lessons Beth and I are learning is that the when and the how fast our lives become small may very well depend on choices we make today while the sun is still high in our sky.

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