November 13, 2008
Last April I checked out a book from the Hoboken Public Library called The Art of Aging. It must have been a breakthrough moment because I remember about 20 years ago reading a book called Stop Aging Now! and I thought I had it nailed. The right vitamins, a regimen of exercise, a handful of blueberries every day and the occasional glass of red wine, a happy attitude--and age would never catch up to me.
Then little things began falling off my body. Gradually my hair went from an attractive streak job to a rather unflattering grey (which I found cosmetic ways to defeat), I ached in places I'd never ached before. The inevitable leaves of the calendar rapidly fell away, as in an old movie, and the changes caught my attention. Aging was indeed beginning to happen, and I'd better make the most of it.
I relocated from my hometown, which was aging me more than I wanted to admit by being flooded with people who in the name of "improvement" only sought to tear down the old and replace it with the tacky. Like so many, I fought against the tide of development as long as I could. Unlike many, my choice was to ameliorate my agony by relocating to a place in which I had no history, but one which had a history of its own I could latch onto and enjoy.
In the quaint and not incidentally historic building that houses Hoboken's library, I found the book The Art of Aging by Sherwin B. Nuland, M.D. I read it with relish, and posted on the blog a recommendation to my readers on May 7. Even today I find myself thinking about what I learned from this eminently readable little book.
One of the points Dr. Nuland makes is that as you age, you have to become your own primary care physician in a way. I don't know if he put it that way, but his theme was that only you really know when little things are going wrong, and it behooves you to address these little things before they become big things.
In other words, you have to become sensitive to your inner doctor. The longer you tell yourself, "Oh, that's nothing, everybody has that," the less likely you are to get a symptom cured or to find a larger cause of it. You can't, on the other hand, bother your doctor with every question or complaint, but if you make up your mind that you're the main doctor, you'll have a better idea when it's time to call in a pro.
I have found the Internet to be a tremendous help in my medical education. For example, I attended a movie in Manhattan in a nice cineplex I knew from the old days, and at some time during the film I noticed painful bug bites on my elbow and arm. Mosquitoes? The itch felt like mosquito bites, but much more powerful, and there was a line of them up my arm! I could hardly concentrate on the movie, I was so distracted by the thought of getting to a drugstore and getting some relief.
When I got home I put my handy search engine to work, and discovered that there is an epidemic of bedbugs all over Manhattan. I had noted upholstered chairs in the theater, and had no doubt that somebody had brought an infestation from home. I read up on bedbugs and trembled in my boots that I may have brought some home in my pocketbook, but I endured the itches and eventually they went away. None of the insects remained in my clothing or my bag. Unfortunately I found there really is no cure for the itch, but alcohol and an over-the-counter cream helped a little.
I had a similar experience with hoarseness. It was at the time I was in the play. I had to clear my throat all the time; my voice was getting weak, and I feared throat cancer or at least nodules on the larynx which might prevent my ever speaking onstage again, or worse. I looked it up phlegm in the throat on the Internet and found that it can be caused by post-nasal drip, which can be cured or at least controlled by using a little "neti-pot" of a saline solution in the nose. I tried it first thing in the morning and last thing at night for about a week, and it cleared up the laryngitis and the sinusitis that had caused it.
I called upon my inner doctor and didn't have to go to an outer one. These were minor symptoms, but very worrying and if the home remedies hadn't worked, of course I would have gone to my doctor. But the art of aging requires a little wisdom and resourcefulness (both of which are supposed to come with age) as well as the patience to endure, which may or may not ever come. If you're going to have to age anyway, you might as well learn the art of it.