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    Dona's Musings

A Challenge to My Physical and Mental Health as a Senior
By Dona L. Irvin

As a child in Houston, Texas I ate the traditional meals offered in most African-American homes. My father’s income was sufficient to supply all of the food we needed, and my mother was a careful overseer of the dietary needs of her husband and her children. Each morning we had ham or bacon, grits, eggs, oat meal, toast or pancakes, with milk for the children, and coffee for the adults. Our dinners always contained beef, pork, poultry, or fish, fried or baked, with rice, potatoes, or beans, and at least one vegetable. Often the choice was collard or mustard greens seasoned with a tasty fatty meat such as ham hocks. Every dinner ended with cake, pudding, pie, or home made ice cream. As far as anyone in my family knew, these meals were in keeping with current teachings, and maintained our bodies in good condition as we went about our daily chores.

When I first became a wife and mother and took charge of the diet in my own home I offered similar menus to my family and had no reason to question the status of our health. It was many years before I began to read about more desirable dietary selections, more healthy cooking methods, and the ill effects of saturated fats, sodium, and other factors upon our bodies.

The first challenge to my health came when I was about thirty years old. It began with a sudden hemorrhage that appeared without warning, in the midst of a meeting when I was engaged in my duties as secretary of the board of directors of the Homeowners’s Association of the War Housing Project (World War II) where we lived in Vallejo, California. This was the onset of the premature birth of a still born son, and led to an uncomplicated hysterectomy. For the next fifty years or so, I lived as a healthy woman, an efficient wife and mother with employment outside of the home who enjoyed walking and hours of bicycle riding, both for exercise.

In this period I had no serious complaints about my health, mentally or physically. My marriage was filled with contentment, my social life was satisfactory, and my daughter was developing into a delightful, caring woman, with a blossoming career. Beyond that, my spiritual life offered the sort of support that allowed me to enjoy the never ending supply of blessings that filled all aspects of my existence.

A serious interruption to that euphoric period came in the spring of 1998, when at age eighty, I experienced a severe challenge to my physical health in the form of increasing fatigue,

chest discomfort, and difficulty in pursuing my usual activities. The diagnostic procedure, cardiac catheterization, showed the need for immediate heart bypass surgery. With Frank’s authorization, the surgery was done and after a while I was back on my feet.

As I returned to my usual physical strength, I took time to explore the reasons for the congestion of my cardiac artery. With research into the most recent dietary recommendations, I was appalled to learn that in spite of my rudimentary determination to avoid unhealthy foods, my choice of lunch fare every day at work before I retired must have contributed greatly to my cardiac problems. I learned that scoops of ice cream, tasty because of the heavy cream content, and bags of chips that relied on fats for the preparation, were not wise selections. I read about the effects of saturated fats, cholesterol, and elevated sodium content. With this knowledge I knew that I should diligently read the facts about nutritional values of foods that interest me before I make any purchase. I know that hereditary cholesterol standards play a part in the health of an individual, but since I can do nothing about that, I chose to concentrate on actions that are realistic. I am thankful for my convalescence after the surgery, and I give thanks for its impetus for me to take additional care with the selection and methods of cooking foods.

In both the hysterectomy and the bypass hospitalization and surgery, and into the present time, I am glad that I am covered by the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan. This has provided reliable and affordable health care for my family since 1943, starting in its first years as a trail blazer for such care for individuals and families. I appreciate this reliable facility even more as a retired person and as an elder.

The most recent challenge to my health as an older woman began in the first part of 2004, when my daughter, Nell, said to me, “Mom, you must get a walking stick. I don’t want you to fall down and break your hip.” She had noticed a difference in my carriage; that I reached out to touch a piece of furniture or a wall as I passed, and that my posture was not as erect as it was the last time she visited us.

In the far reaches of my mind I knew that her statement was motivated by love for me, but it had wounded my ego, leaving an unpleasant impression of myself. It automatically shoved me into an advanced elder status dominated by an unnatural appendage usually reserved for people in far worst physical condition I thought I was in. That realization made me into a greatly aged woman, no longer able to move around as I wished, confined to one chair of one room, wrapped in a shawl or blanket from head to feet, with eyes dully fixed on an uninteresting television show. I recalled the walking sticks in Frank’s artistic collection, mostly from Africa, richly carved out of beautiful wood, but designed in a way that to me, fit only into a masculine presentation. The other sticks I remembered were made of plain wood without any added designs or colorings. I wanted no part of either of these two.

My response to Nell was not warm or loving, “No! No! No! I don’t need a walking stick! I don’t need a walking stick! If I need help walking, there is always someone around, a younger and more steady male or female to help me. If not, I can hold onto something nearby.”

Nell said no more about her concern then, but later in the day she went to my computer and called me into the room to see the display on the screen of beautifully carved sticks and offered to purchase one for me. Once more I told her that I didn’t need any help, again in not very kind tones or appreciative words.

A few weeks later when I saw my primary care doctor for a quarterly check up he agreed with my daughter and sent me to the physical therapy department for an appraisal. The prescribed series of exercises helped my balance a bit, but more importantly, it led me to begin to soften my reactions to the whole idea.

Right after that, in a meeting of “Black Women Stirring The Waters,” a group of women, all beyond middle age, each member was asked to speak briefly about her impressions of the just ending year and the new just beginning. When my turn came, I spotted a fellow member holding a beautiful cloisonne stick that she obviously felt comfortable with. I asked her if I could borrow it to use as a prop while I spoke about my successes in the past year and the challenges I was presently facing about a walking stick. I grasped the cloissone piece of art in my hand and was immediately attracted to the enamel, decorated with brightly colored areas of small metal bands that formed beautiful patterns. It felt good to let its artistry ease the negative thoughts that had been controlling my approach to the entire subject of help with my walking. When I spoke my friends applauded, and shouted their encouragement as I pranced about the room using it as it was intended. It was a wonderful feeling. I filed that euphoria away in a comfortable section of my mind for the intensified focus it deserved.

The idea of a walking stick and its role in my physical and mental health continued to play a dominant role in my thoughts, but with a new approach. No longer would I try to solve my dilemma alone. That made no sense when there was a wealth of support all around me. The next step was to concentrate on the advice of my spiritual advisors, the minister and practitioners of my church. From those dedicated people I learned that it would be my choice to decide how I would handle this problem. If I wished, I could continue the negative approach and let it fester into a dominant factor, thereby downgrading the quality of the whole of my life. The more preferable route was to not attempt to deny its existence, just face it squarely with the intent of adjusting to it. It was a consolation to know that I could choose to not fight it and concentrate on the positives all around me, starting with a wealth of love and support from my husband and my daughter, strengthened by counseling sessions with representatives from my spiritual community. With this help I learned to treat my walking sticks as I do any of my accessories, my ear rings, necklaces and scarfs, giving the same thought in their selection and the same delight in using them.

Within a few weeks I had gone onto the web site of the Smithsonian Institute Catalog that Nell had tried to interest me in before I had reached the required state of understanding and acceptance. I found the same attractive walking stick she had offered me, placed my order and waited for the delivery of the colorful item with enthusiasm. Not long afterwards I had bought four other sticks in a variety of colors, materials, and designs, and I still keep my eyes open for other selections that will coordinate well with an outfit in my clothes closet. I now enjoy a welcomed freedom, knowing that I can walk with confidence, without the unnecessary fear of any unwanted labels of added years. This victory has been a definite plus to the quality of my physical and mental health, freeing me from the possibility of a fall that might cause damage to my body, and at the same time avoiding the waste of energy trying to combat the threatened damage to my ego.With the walking stick I choose for any specific occasion in hand, I now feel free to go about as I please, without thought about the effects of its appearance upon my presentation. I think of that as a definite plus in the quality of my physical and mental health.

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