Archive for the ‘Aging’ category

Fit Tip #26

September 6, 2009

If you’re interested in aging (and if you’re not, uh hello, this involves you too) check out this fall TV show, blog, and series of video clips from this PBS show hosted by one of the best sports & health writers around, Robert Lipsyte of the NY Times.

Fit Tip #22

August 7, 2009

Your body’s going to go to pot
Just ask your oldest friends
I know this isn’t real good news
Or news at all: Life ends.
So what’s the point? What can you do
‘Tween now and your last breath?
WORK OUT. Each step puts distance
‘Tween you and illness, death.
(Ok, this morning’s message
Is not one filled with cheer
It’s hopeful, though, and loving too:
I want you strong. And here.)

First, Don’t Panic: Three Views of My Brain

July 26, 2009

DRAFT: A fictional short story by Mariah Burton Nelson, copyright 2009

Comments welcome!

January 8, 2007

My disease was discovered by a German: Dr. Alzheimer. What happens is the brain cells can’t communicate with each other like they should, because they’re dying, because they get tangled up in little messes called packets or maybe plaque, like on your teeth? As a result, my brain is going downhill. When I was in medical school, it was called senility.

If I can explain that, which brain cells am I using?

But did I explain it?

The women in this institution are small and bent over, like turtles. Some of the men are really out of it. I try to be patient. We’re all elderly.

We all have daughters. That’s why we’re here. Our daughters live nearby. You don’t need to remember a man’s name, or whether he used to be a judge or dentist. You can just say, “How’s your daughter?”

My daughter has a wife. I don’t know her name. Sometimes I do. When I remember it, I’m proud of myself, isn’t that funny? Such a simple thing. Andrea. There it is. Sometimes if I talk long enough I remember a word, but usually if I talk long enough I forget the whole point. My daughter laughs and I laugh. What a relief. Good thing I’m retired.

Andrea’s family invites me to their house for turkey dinners. I’m not sure who the people are but there are kids who play musical instruments for us. Very charming, very bright. The piano, for one.

When my daughter told me she likes girls, we were on vacation. She bent paper clips while she talked, breaking them into sharp thingies in her hands. There was a girl on her sports team. She had wanted to tell us for years.

“Don’t worry, this is not a surprise,” I said. She was 24 and had never brought a boy home. Just girl basketball players with short hair and sneakers. None of the girls had boyfriends. I’m not as sharp as I used to be but I used to be pretty sharp.

I was a doctor. Urologist.

“Why urology?” Everyone asked that one question.

“Oh, I enjoy handling the genitals of strangers,” I’d say.

Actually, I enjoyed surgery – the precision, the simple solution to painful problems — especially prostate or testicular cancer. And the variety — bladder infections, infertility, incontinence. I enjoyed the patients. If you want to inspire love and gratitude, remove someone’s painful kidney stone.

People will pay a lot for that, too.

Now I suffer from incompetence. Not sure why. Enlarged prostate, pressing on the bladder? Funny, because I used to be a urologist. Can’t fix it, though.

My daughter bought me diapers. She called them something else to spare us the embarrassment. “Let me read you the package directions,” she said.

I can still read, but the words don’t make sense. Even menus confuse me.

My daughter said, “Let me just read what it says here on the package.”

“Okay,” I said.

“It says men should point the penis downward,” she read.

I was a urologist. Still, I’d prefer to keep my penis private from my daughter for as long as possible.

“Point the what?” I asked, teasing.

She looked down at the package, blushing.

“Men should point the penis downward,” she read again.

“I’ll point my penis wherever I damn well please,” I said.

Her face turned from red to white. Then she saw that I was joking.

She threw the diaper at me.

“It’s okay, Honey.” I said. “I can figure out the diaper.”

Truth is, though, I can’t. There are two kinds. One is just a strip, like women wear for their monthly period. It has two sides. One is sticky. I can’t tell which. There are also arrows. They must mean something, but what?

The other kind you step into and pull up like big padded underpants. They have a front and a back. I get that wrong too.

Then, when I try to stick the strip inside the padded underpants, it sticks to the wrong place, and yanks on my pubic hair.

Later my daughter says, “Dad, you’re supposed to throw them away. I found them in the kitchen again.”

Penis-pointing: the least of my problems.

My ex-wife called me after I moved here. We had not spoken in a long time. She said, “When we were married I wasn’t very nice to you. I apologize.”

I said, “Oh, I don’t remember any of that.”

She laughed.

We talked about our kids when they were young: water balloons, birthday cakes with little fires. Fireflies. I used to create treasure hunts. Little clues that rhymed, each clue leading to another clue up in a tree fort or in the little graveyard where we buried all the dead goldfish and hamsters.

I said, “Our kids are successful now because you used to read to them when they were little.”

She said, “Well, you’re the one who used to buy them all the books they wanted.”

It was nice.

Our son lives in California. He has two kids (three kids?) with funny names. If he had named them ordinary things like John or Mary it would have given me a better chance of remembering them, but he gave them weird California names.

I told my ex-wife that our kids are successful because she used to read to them.

She said, “Well, you bought them all the books they wanted.”

I never really understood why my ex-wife left – except she used to call me an emotional retard. Or was that the other ex-wife?

I’m even dumber now.

At least I can still get myself shaved and dressed.

My ex-wife is old too. She seems to be doing okay – still swimming. She tells me about her doctor. That’s what old people talk about: doctors and diseases.

The other wife left me when my brain started to go downhill.

“We’re moving into a retirement home,” she said, but then she never showed up. “I’ll sell our house first,” she said. Then she sent over a skinny guy carrying divorce papers. I gave him a piece of my mind – but just a piece, unfortunately. He ran away like one of those nervous little animals with a long tail.

I didn’t like that place. It smelled like old people. My daughter got me out of there.

Now I live in an institution with trees. I’m not sure what state we’re in but it’s close to the house of the person at the very top of the whole country.

At the doctor’s, they ask you what state you live in, what day it is. It’s depressing. My daughter cries. The doctor says I had more brain cells than most people to start with. But I still flunk those tests.

One time they gave me an empty circle, and asked me to draw a clock. “Your picture looks like someone dropped the clock, Dad,” said my daughter. We laugh at everything, even when it’s not funny.

The last test is “write a sentence, any sentence.” My sentence is, “I hope to God I die of something else.”

I didn’t want to have three kids. I thought two was enough. Two kids would fit in cars. But my wife wanted an “insurance child,” so in case one died, we would still have two. Now the insurance child lives near me and takes me out to lunch. She drives.

I gave up driving. Just in time. One time I couldn’t find my house. Apparently I was looking right at it. A neighbor came out and asked me if I was having car trouble. “No, brain trouble,” I said.

My daughter makes sure the nurses are giving me the right medicines, I hope. (Are they? Ask my daughter.) (Also, am I getting chubby?)

My second wife does not call me, and I do not call her. The machine has too many buttons. When it rings I pick it up. That part works okay.

Now my lady friend is _____. We talk about the news – the new president trying to fix everything, or the weird singer who died, or the wars that go on and on. They are not like the war I was in, because no one is ever going to surrender.

Another woman (__________) eats with us; her grandchildren come visit — with her daughter. Everyone has a daughter; that’s why they’re here. You hear that a lot: Thank God for daughters.

Before I moved here _________ had another boyfriend. When he could not dress himself, he had to move down to the other floor. Then he died, I think. A lot of people die here.

I walk outside, around the building, but an alarm goes off when I leave. That’s because one time I walked down the street. Someone from the institution drove up: “Are you lost?”

“No,” I explained. “I’m wandering up and down!”

Still, I had to get in the car.

There were old people on the porch, watching me return, like a bad kid who skipped school. I bet they get lost too. We’re all in the same boat.

I used to love to read: military history, medical mysteries. Now when I turn a page it erases everything, like that red square toy the kids used to have, with the gray in the middle.

I still walk around the building, doing laps. “How can you remember how many laps you’ve walked?” a lady asked me. I can remember some things. All is not lost.

Also, “First, don’t panic.” That’s what else I learned in the military.

They bring me my medicine. (How do they know it’s mine?) The nurse (or something like a nurse) watches me. I can’t tell you what a single pill is for, isn’t that funny?

I can actually feel my brain cells dying. It reminds me of when I was a boy. I used to lie on the field at night and listen to the chirpers and watch the sky. Clouds floated in front of the stars until there were no stars, just black.

January 8, 2010

Tonight we’re having a party tonight.

Excuse me, someone’s knocking at the – –

A doctor. I was a doctor.

I can still put on my pants. I can shave. I watch the radio, to keep up with what’s happening in the world.

Are we having a party tonight? What time? Should I go downstairs?

I live on Floor 4, near the little room that goes up and down.

I keep up with what’s happening in the world by watching the radio. There are hot red thingies in California, burning thingies, near where my son lives, I think. How close is this commotion to him? What would he do if? On the radio I see houses burning down. Next time he calls I will ask.

The phone rang. There’s a party tonight, I’m not sure why. She said, “Just stay put, we’ll pick you up.”

I said, “Is it written on my, you know?”

She said, “Yes, but don’t worry about it, I’ll come get you.”

I go to parties. I think there might be a party. I’ll have to check on that. (How?)

The phone is ringing, but when I answered the door, no one was there.

Is she coming today?

I’m worried about my son because of the flames. Houses burn down – I watch them burn. What about his house?

I weigh about 1800, or 1803, I think. Too chubby?

I live on fourth floor, near that little room where you push the buttons to go up and down.

Last night I went to the show. It was about history: How things went, and then what happened. It was pretty good.

Tonight we have a party. I don’t know where to sit, but then I find a bouncy thing to put my behind on. My daughter says, “Dad, do you know how old you are?”

“Eighty and a half.” She laughs, so I laugh back.

A woman comes over and gives me a kiss. I don’t think we’ve met before. She whispers, “Pam got into Stanford, Dad!”

Is “Dad” my real name, or just sometimes?

The party moves very fast: Why so many people? A whole group-dee-do. Too much food and talking. A whole group-dee-do. They keep passing me plates. I’m not sure what to do with them.

“Which one of these things should I use to eat this thing?” I point to a bowl.

A young boy with skinny arms kneels on his seat. He laughs at me. “Poppy, you can’t eat soup with a fork!”

We wear pointy hats with string. I’ve always liked hats, even before I went bald.

My brother is there. He’s tall for his age. His pointy hat gets knocked off by the ceiling fan. We all get a kick out of that.

He leans over and says, “Dad, would you like some help with shaving?”

I don’t know what the party was for, but no one asked me. Fortunately, it was not a test.

January 8, 2013

The words: flying around in my mouth like bees or bigger things with wings and can we fly over to you, because talking is happening? But talking is not really happening, because words cannot fly around if the little engine that could. I want to sing the song, the words to the song, because they bring me pills, fortunately. I used to be married to my wife, not the other wife. Is that all there is?



Fit Tip #15

July 13, 2009

At 85, my mother still enjoys a daily swim. Her secret? Ever since her 70th, she’s been going 2 the gym.

Fit Tip #11

July 7, 2009

Older and stiffer? Older and sore? To avoid that fate: Do stretches galore. (Yoga, too: Good for U! :-))

Fit Tip #5

July 2, 2009

My path to fitness: paved w pain: Shoulders & knees, oh my. But each “ouch” teaches me something. Each “ouch” leads me to why.

Returning Home: Playing Basketball at 51

November 3, 2007

“Take a camera,” suggested a friend. But I wasn’t attending as a spectator. My goal was to PLAY.

Ever since I heard about the senior women’s basketball league in my area, I was intrigued, enticed, and drawn to return to this place — the basketball court – that had been my home as a child and young adult.

I knew people over 50 competed in softball, golf, and dozens of other sports in the Senior Games. Friends rave about this experience, and my own mother has competed in swimming meets there, winning medals in the 75-79 age group.

But basketball? Who knew that women between the ages of 50 and 85 can still play HOOPS?

Having turned 50 myself not long ago – and having retired from college, professional, then recreational basketball in 1981 – I was fascinated to learn that women my age, and MUCH older, are still playing.

My own retirement had been forced by chondromalacia (softening of the cartilege) in both knees – and it had not occurred to me that other hoopsters my age had escaped a similar fate. Though I successfully grieved my disability and shifted my attention to swimming — SUPERB — and golf — GREAT — basketball is simply THE BEST.

So when Helen White, coordinator of the NOVA United teams, invited me to “coach or give a pep talk or something,” I said, “What I’d really like to do is play.”

I then explained my knee situation – I cannot even go downstairs without limping; picture O.J. Simpson, of all people, as he painfully descended the staircase after his latest arrest – but somehow I just had to try.

When I pulled up to the recreation center, the first person I saw, as she unfolded her long body from her car, was a five-ten sixty-two-year-old with white hair.

“This must be the right place,” I thought. My peeps!

For the next three hours, about thirty women (up to age 72 on this particular evening) ran, rebounded, set screens, executed give-and-go’s, shot, high-fived, got knocked down, got back up, and kept moving, moving, moving.

And it WAS moving – to see the delight on their faces. I’ve met so many women over the years – easily hundreds – who have told me that they didn’t get a chance to play sports when they were young. Those women were angry about that, and sad.

No longer. Some of the women were from that three-dribble generation, when players were limited to one half of the court. Others had no athletic background at all. “Sports were not for girls,” said 71-year-old Jeannie, a children’s book author. “We were supposed to do embroidery.”

But the times, they are a changin’. “When we looked around for a gym, they didn’t know what to make of us,” reports Bonnie, a-62 year-old who plays on the 50-54 team and coaches the 60-64 team. “Rec centers are used to seniors playing bingo, but not seniors playing basketball.”

“I teach senior fitness at a local community college,” another player told me. “It used to be chair exercises. Increasingly, they want sport skills.”

The other early-arrivers welcomed me warmly and tossed me a basketball while they stretched. A standard women’s ball, it was smaller than the traditional (now men’s) ball I’d usually played with, and lighter – much easier to handle, lift, shoot.

(Karen Logan, with whom I played in the WBL, actually invented this smaller ball and we did use it in that first women’s pro league.)

For a while I was alone with the hoop. As in a dream, everything I shot went in. From the right, from the left, from the corner, from the free throw line: Swish. Swish. Swish. Swish.

Shooting a basketball through a hoop, and seeing it – no, FEELING it – swish through the net is one of the most satisfying physical activites, in my experience. Being back on the court felt so natural, so right, and so downright ecstatic, I’m sure that if someone else had brought a camera, they would have caught me BEAMING.

When it came time to scrimmage three on three, reality hit. I could not jump for a rebound, race after a loose ball, or even drive to the basket and extend upward, leaping off one leg (a basic layup). My knees are just plain too sore for such maneuvers.

Still, I could pass. I could shoot. I could play defense, in a gimpy kind of way. And since we played half-court, I was able to keep up enough to enjoy a few key assists, a few blocked shots, and a few more of those smooth swishes.

Peggy is a former history teacher who now works for the Department of Justice. Carol played college basketball at Indiana with Tara Vanderveer, Stanford University women’s coach. Sue played at the University of Pennsylvania. Gwen, a software engineer, is “just a rec league player” who recruited another player she met in her church league. Mothers and grandmothers, business owners and assistant bookkeepers and government employees, they have an easy camaraderie, joking with each other and encouraging each other: “Good shot!”

“We’re changing the face of aging, and changing the perception of aging,” said Bonnie.

We all chatted for a while afterward, and I cautioned them to take care of their bodies, especially their knees.

“Will you be back?” asked 60+ player named Hope.

I smiled at these happy, sweaty women. They’re having the time of their lives.

“YES,” I said.

(Want to play? Contact Helen White:

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Regular Old Athletes

October 29, 2007

A 78-year-old friend of mine climbed Mt. Fuji last week. A lifelong Japan-ophile whose powder room has a Japanese sign on the door that translates, literally, “Honorable Hand-Washing Place,” she has lived in Japan, and speaks Japanese, but this was the first time she had climbed the “mythic, mystic” mountain, as she put it.

“I don’t even know why it was important to me to do it, but it was,” she said after the successful 18-hour round-trip hike. “Probably something about getting older, and seeing friends sometimes be so feeble, living in assisted living homes.

“One friend said, ‘Why in the world would you want to do something like that?’ But I do feel different now. I feel changed.”

The Japanese talk about how shy “Fuji-san” is, always skirted by clouds. The mountain appears suddenly and mysteriously, almost magically, on very clear days. “When we were living in Tokyo, we used to joke about the Japanese having the mountain on wheels, because it was always showing up in unexpected places,” says my friend, who prefers to remain anonymous.

“I enjoyed reading about routes, and buying hiking boots, and entering into whole ethos. It was fun, until I got to the base of the mountain and looked up and thought, Oh my, what have I done!”

Six hundred thousand people climb the mountain every summer – “so it can’t be that difficult,” says my friend, who ran her first 10K in her early sixties and raised five children, including a mountain climber.

“When you start out, it’s not that steep. It just takes persitance and tenacity and endurance.”

This friend is the founding member of my reading group, which has been meeting monthly for fifteen years. Last night we discussed The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald, while my friend and her husband served us a dinner on china plates called, thematically enough, “Blue Rose.”

For dessert we enjoyed a homemade Mt. Fuji ice cream sculpture made of Rocky Road ice cream, complete with tufts of whipped cream snow.

On her way up Mt. Fuji, my friend learned that last year, a 100-year-old man made the journey. So she doesn’t feel particularly remarkable.

“The last 200 meters were tough, and downhill was tough too, because my quads were like rubber,” she recalls.

But she took it all – even the falling – in stride. “Every time I fell, the guide would say, “Good time for a rest,” she relates, laughing.

What’s extraordinary about this story is that it’s not extraordinary any more. Every month, AARP: The Magazine receives story pitches about older (or downright old) athletes who have achieved things someone considers remarkable. The editors turn them down, explaining that impressive athletic accomplishments by older people simply aren’t unusual enough to make the news.

Which is not to say they’re not important – to the people themselves. “I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I do find myself telling people, ‘We just came back from Japan, and I climbed Mt. Fuji!” says my friend.

“I don’t think I’ll do it again,” she continues. “The Japanese have a saying: “Every Japanese wants to climb Mt Fuji once, but only a fool wants to climb it twice.”

No need. Sounds like once was just right.

Now, as for you, Dear Reader: What’s YOUR Mt. Fuji?

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Leg Lifts in the Hospital (Mom, Continued)

September 11, 2007

Yesterday morning Mom, last seen Sprinting Up the Staircase at 83, had to return to the hospital for more major surgery, again involving general anesthesia.

It’s not about her knee this time – that’s working fine – but nor is it the kind she wants her daughter blabbing about on the Bodies in Motion blog.

Fine. We won’t go into specifics.

We’ll go directly to the story: Mom’s surgery takes place three hours later than originally scheduled. So Mom and Bernie, her husband, have to wait. Mom’s already got her hospital gown on, and she’s supposed to be lying on the guerney like any other compliant patient, waiting.

Except Mom’s never been the sort to lie around.

Especially when she’s still post-op from the knee surgery, and concerned that too much lying around is going to make the knee stiff.

So, even though she’s already got an IV dripping into her arm, Mom wraps the hospital gown around her, hops off the guerney and starts doing some exercises – wheeling the IV bottle and its metal cart behind her. “Nothing fancy, just some leg lifts, toe raises, flexion and extension, that sort of thing,” she explains to me later, when we talk about it.

I bet the nurses are still talking about it too. As they walked by, they were overheard exclaiming,

“What is she doing?”

“Is that the patient?”

“Why is she kicking her leg like that?”

“She looks like a New York City Rockette.”

“I think she’s EXERCISING.”

“Isn’t she, like, 83 or something?”

“She can’t be.”

“Have you ever seen such a thing?”

“No, but I’ll bet you one thing: She’s going to recover in record speed.”

And she did.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Sprinting Up the Staircase at 83

August 22, 2007

Talked with Sarah on the phone tonight. She had her knee replaced two months ago. The first doctor had said, ‘When does it hurt?” “When I’m flying from Arizona to New Zealand,” she replied. “Then don’t fly to New Zealand,” said the doctor.

She had to go to three more doctors before finding one willing to do the surgery. But now the knee is getting stiff and problematic, Sarah says. She can only bend it 125 degrees, she says, which is bothersome.

“What does it prevent you from doing?” I ask, unable to picture exactly how 125 degrees of flexion differs from 135 degrees, which she had attained shortly after surgery.

“When I’m in the pool, I can’t bend it enough to put my fin on,” she says.

Sarah’s a swimmer. She’s my best friend, and also my mother. She’s 83 years old. I laugh.

“Mom, does this flexion problem prevent you from doing anything anyone ELSE would consider a necessary daily activity?” I ask. “Oh no,” she says. “I can climb up and down stairs, and hop up and down from chairs and toilet seats. It’s just the fin thing. But it’s so annoying!”

You might wonder why a swimmer NEEDS to wear fins.

Answer: To keep up with the 40-year-olds in her lane. You might also wonder whether Sarah will read this. She stars in many of my articles and books (with a character like this, SOMEONE in the family HAD to become a writer.)

But Sarah may never get around to reading this. It’s not that she lacks computer literacy. It’s just that, when not swimming or traveling or showing off her newfound ability to sprint up and down staircases (“Watch this! Watch this!”), she’s busy uploading photos to her website. True story. Go Mom!

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Women Over Fifty Just Wanna Have Fun

August 6, 2007

I spent the weekend in Orange, Virginia, with my friend Ellen Wessel, who co-founded Moving Comfort women’s sports clothing company back in 1977, sold it to Russell Corporation, and now works at Montpelier, the home of James Madison.

The other co-founder of Moving Comfort, Elizabeth Goeke, also lives in Orange. With her partner Jay Billie, Elizabeth bought a 1910 farmhouse on 15 bucolic acres with a barn, paddocks, gardens, and woods, and they’re converting the place to a bed and breakfast, so I visit Elizabeth and Jay too, to admire their remodeling project. The Inn at Westwood Farm is opening in early September 2007, and all of us are excited about it.

Here’s what else Ellen and I are excited about: our own strength, balance, flexibility, and aerobic capacity. Maybe that sounds selfish or vain. But our bodies are not an obsession. We don’t hate our bodies, or starve them, or cover them in shame.

In fact, we celebrate them – through movement.

This morning, Ellen and I walked three miles among farms filled with scenic green roofs and serious black cows. We chatted about James Madison and retirement plans and good books we’ve read recently (March and Quarantine.) We stopped to pick up trash (Ellen’s one-woman community service project) and listen to cicadas and admire a tree frog and laugh at two “teenage” cows as they playfully trotted down a gentle hillside.

“Want to do a yoga tape?” asked Ellen when we got home.

An hour later, she asked, “Wanna do a Pilates tape?”

An hour later, after we’d contorted and stretched and lunged until we could contort and stretch and lunge no more, we rested on our purple and red “sticky mats.”

Suddenly I started laughing. It struck me as funny that, at 56 and 51, this is what Ellen and I choose to do for fun: exercise all morning. Combined, we’ve lived as athletes for about a hundred years so far, and we’ve worked for about 60 combined years in the fitness industry, so of course we know that exercise is good for us – and for other women, men, and children. Obviously.

We know that, as Moving Comfort says so brilliantly, “A fit woman is a powerful woman.”

And we dig being healthy and powerful.

But we also exercise for fun. We exercise because we feel like it. Because Ellen has a glorious neighborhood and two DVDs she wants to share. Because walking outside and doing power yoga and Pilates feel good to us – right then and also later, like now, when I’m sitting at my computer and still feeling strong and healthy and happy.

This is what Ellen and I know that many of my friends and colleagues don’t know. It’s like a secret I try to tell them but they can’t hear me, because I’m speaking another language, the language of the body. They know the “exercise is good for you” part of the message. The media (and I) have been clear about that.

It’s the “exercise is fun” part that’s so hard to convey to people who did not grow up climbing trees, who were limited to cheerleader roles in high school, who forget (though I’m certain they did know once, when they were very young) the intrinsic pleasures of effort and extension and movement through space.

When I say, “It’s fun,” they look at me with a blank stare.

The joy of movement is not something that can be communicated in words.

It’s a physical message that can only be communicated physically, as when one person takes another by the hand and says, “Let’s ______.”

“Let’s go. Let’s swim. Let’s put on our sneakers and take a long hike along a rambling country road.”

If you know what I’m talking about, know deep in your gut and your muscles and your bones that exercise is fun, then do us all a favor and spread that message to someone who does not know.

Or spread that message to someone who has forgotten – especially if that person is you.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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Not-Overwhelming Disability

July 20, 2007

At my Aunt Mary’s recent memorial service, my mother, describing her sister’s “severe, paraplegic stroke,” said that “the stroke was overwhelming, but Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

For 16 years, between the ages of 63 and 79, Mary could not use her left arm, could only limp on her left leg, and could not speak – at least, not the way most of us do.

She could say only five words: “Yes,” “No,” “And,” and “Oh Boy.”

But oh boy, did she communicate. With intonation, inflection, facial expression, and sheer willpower, Aunt Mary asked myriad questions and expressed surprise, doubt, alarm, fear, humor, amazement, pride, compassion, excitement, gratitude, and every other conceivable message.

It didn’t happen automatically, or fast. To communicate with Mary required incredible, almost saint-like patience on the part of her husband, Peter, and other family members and friends. Every conversation started with 20 questions, and expanded from there. “Are you asking about something in this room? Something that happened today? Are you hungry? Is the person you’re talking about in our family?”

In Mary’s case, the problem was not just aphasia – the inability to speak – but apraxia: the inability to indicate what one wants. So she couldn’t point to a water glass, or move her good hand the way one might if one wanted to mime drinking. She could only say her five words. And we could only guess.

Did we all get frustrated? Sure. We also gave up sometimes. When all the “yes no and oh boy’s” in the world failed to tell us what she wanted to say, we shrugged and smiled together. Mary was a good sport about that, laughing rather than crying after her sincere and focused efforts to tell us something, or ask us something, proved fruitless.

My friend Madelyn Jennings tells me that, incredibly, her brother-in-law, also a stroke survivor, has the exact same vocabulary as my aunt did. Maybe those are the core essential communications: that’s all any of us really need:

1) Yes: affirmation

2) No: Negation

3) And: Let’s continue the conversation, and

4) “Oh Boy”: The whole range of emotion.

Many people become depressed in response to such a stroke; Mary did not. Although “the stroke was overwhelming, Mary was not overwhelmed by it.”

And therein lies Mary’s legacy. She amazed us all with her positive spirit in the face of devastating loss.

All of us face the prospect of losses, changes, and disabilities, in ourselves and our loved ones, over time.

May we all rise to the occasion, as Mary did, with humor, persistence, and grace.

Yes. Yes. Oh boy.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

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