Daily Adaptations to “Tune-ups” and the New Normal

As a daughter and granddaughter of car dealers (Hupmobile, Pierce Arrow, Cadillac, Chevrolet) I grew up with cars — new and used (currently referred to as “previously owned”). I spent a lot of time hanging around the parts department; body shop and the show room where the shiny new models beckoned perspective owners through the oversized showroom windows.

Our family of four took long road trips where my favorite pastime was recognizing makes and models of cars as they whizzed by. My specialty was Chevys from the 1940s and ’50s and I admit that our entire family was pretty savvy when it came to recognizing “very old” cars. Most of the photos of my relatives are with them seated in cars from the 1920s, ’30s or ‘40s.
 Recently, I was in Cuba (think kid in a candy shop) as my car recognition factor was reignited. I was thrilled to see so many carefully restored classic beauties driving along the main streets. On the back streets and alleys, I saw the “unrestored” cars and wow, did they show their age! 
 This reverie about cars was inspired by Dody Chang, wonderful acupuncturist who, when “pinning” me, mentioned that just like cars, bodies need tune ups. The older the car, and the more it was driven, the more likely there will have been wear and tear. Parts need to be replaced, rust sanded down, tires updated, and of course, diagnostic and frequent tune-ups. Certainly we need to drive that car with more care, appreciating it for all of the years it has gotten us around. But even with the tune ups, and taking really good care of an old car, it likely will not perform as well as a new model. We appreciate it for all that it is…and was.
 So what’s the link to our bodies, replacement parts, and tune-ups? It is all about figuring out and coming to terms with the reality that even when we have taken really good care of ourselves, there are physiological, cognitive, emotional and spiritual changes that occur if we are blessed to live a long life. 
 I have been thinking about the spaces between the stages of our lives as we move along our life journey. Folks who study aging and wellness differentiate among three groups of older people — those who are “young old,” “old,” and “oldest old.”

The fastest growing group in the United States are the “oldest old.” Even though these are not hard and fast parameters, typically, those who are between ages 65–74 are young old; those between 75–84 are old, and those over 85 are oldest old. I see many examples of people in each age group who do amazing things. They are engaged in life; often vigorous in mind and body. Their attitudes are often positive and although they are fully aware that they are aging, their focus is on being as well and healthy as possible.

Much of this awareness occurs with the realization and appreciation of role of adaptation in our lives. We adapt to the physical and mental limits we experience. We find ways to come to terms with our own and our friends’ mortality. Recently a woman in her mid-90s spoke about her peer who had just died. She said, wistfully, “It’s no surprise.” True, it is no surprise, but it can still be sad and it certainly served as a mirror for her own aging self.
 If we have been active and healthy and fit for most of our life (maybe even taking our good health granted) it can be a shock when something happens that requires daily adaptation. This is particularly true when it involves movement or changes in cognition.

Do we just need another tune up? Apparently that is not always enough, although regular tune ups help. Sometimes, it is the tune up that uncovers some more serious issue. As I think about this I am reminded of a time, early in my career when I was helping parents adapt to the reality of having a child with a “difference.” That process was about coming to terms with what would become their “new normal.” That involved, among many responses, letting go of previously held images of what was expected or supposed to be, along with shock, denial, embarrassment, adjusting expectations, self-examination, gratitude, awareness, loss, appreciation, adaptation, acceptance. I was privileged and encouraged to guide parents as they moved towards acceptance of their child, their role, their situation, and often, themselves. My feeling was that acceptance takes a lot longer than adaptation which in most cases is what we have to do right away and then, along the path, acceptance of the situation may come.
 Was all of this just semantics? I am still not sure.
 I now see things through the lens of aging; we can experience moments of acceptance along the way and this helps to adapt to changes that are necessary to continue to live a full, contributory, purposeful life.

For nearly 30 years I have been talking publicly about aging well. “Aging with Grace and Style” was a popular series that I offered around the country. People of all ages (mostly, but not exclusively women) attended a lecture, workshop or seminar, where they shared experiences, perceptions, fears, disappointments, hopes, realizations, changes, expectations, and promises. To facilitate discussion I presented research, real life stories, popular culture’s perceptions and depictions of older people and aging in general. Yes, I was aging (we all are) but there were experiences I just had not yet had, so I deferred to and welcomed the wisdom of elders whose observations in their prose or poetry have been around for centuries, along with the real-life experiences of those who were in the groups.
 Personally, I have had a range of aging role models in my life including those who lived long lives with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual faculties firing well. And I have other models whose aging was mostly dictated by early onset, declining chronic illness of both mind and body. I have witnessed loved ones who had a surprise serious illness that was dealt with, which became in retrospect, a bump in the road and was “worn” as a badge of honor.

There are lots of way to get and to be old, whether “young old,” “old,” or “oldest old.” I think when we have significant setbacks our initial response is, “I will deal with this and get back to myself again.” In fact, that may work, but for some of us it may not be possible. More likely, we need to learn to deal with whatever it is and then accept that there will be a new normal, and that new normal may be a consistently moving target, so we will probably keep adjusting, and the adaptation to that consistent adjustment becomes the norm. The best way to deal with it is to be present for each day’s offering. We need to keep ourselves intact while adjusting to this new normal. Focusing on what can be done instead of what cannot be done takes time. Mourn for what is no longer possible while allowing for healing and acceptance. Embracing what we never expected. 
 Having said that, circumstances don’t need to dictate our outlook. Our attitude about what we are dealing with is far more important than the situation itself. When and how do we “tune up” and when and how do we let it be? Some days are easier than others. Is our goal to have an easy day, or to be able to be with whatever type of day we have? We can learn to adapt and accept as we feel compassion for ourselves and gratitude toward others.