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Adjusting to the Changes of Life
Adjusting to the Changes of Life We’re getting older, but we are still growing and adapting to life.

Preventing falls
As we age changes occur in our experience. We may fall more often, forget more things, notice changes in our senses, or find we just don’t have patience with situations we used to handle without a problem. Why do things such as these happen to us when we get older? The answers are fairly simple. The body constantly changes. Our muscle mass changes, our center of gravity changes as we gain or lose weight, we may lose height through spinal compression or osteoporosis, we may have balance issues through changes in the inner ear, and we may lack flexibility to reach as far as we used to do easily. Let’s say you stash an old hatbox on a top shelf in your closet with evening gloves in it. Who wears evening gloves? Few of us do these days, but if you’re invited to the opera, perhaps you think it might be nice to wear gloves the way you recall your mother doing. You stretch to bring down the box but can’t seem to reach it. You look around for something to stand on and see a chair, so you drag that to the closet and climb up on it. You get your hands around the box but get a little dizzy due to your progressive lenses (or bifocals) and can’t see quite as clearly as usual as you try to step back down off the chair, and you and the box go flying. Depending on how you fall and what you land on, you can become quite seriously injured. How did it happen? That hatbox, and it must be pretty old if you have one, has been up there for years, undisturbed. The last time you touched it you put it up, probably with both feet firmly on the floor, and pushed it up with your fingertips. Now you have some arthritis, or perhaps have sustained a torn rotator cuff from a fall on the ice or similar physical event, and just aren’t what you were last time. Accepting these changes so we can accommodate them is crucial. I tell clients that chairs are not stools, stools are not ladders, and ladders are for workmen and younger people, not for disabled people or older folks. I suggest getting on a step ladder only if another able-bodied person is right there when you’re on it. Anything else can lead to disaster.

Memory loss
Memory is a common challenge as we age. Have you noticed that you don’t remember names or facts quite as well as you used to? Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You think of an actor, can describe him as a tall, thin man with curly hair who acted in major motion pictures alongside stars such as Bette Davis in the 40’s and 50’s. You lived in his neighborhood, in fact, and recall trick-or-treating as a child at his house and seeing him in a silk dressing gown, looking self-assured and sophisticated. You tell your companion these things but cannot recall this man’s name. Being internet-savvy, you Google “actors” and your old neighborhood in southern California, and up pops a Wikipedia article with a list of the famous folk living there, past and present, but you don’t find a familiar name. Knowing yourself and your aging brain, you feel certain the actor’s name will pop up suddenly when you’re doing something else, and it does. Later that day you walk into your bank and suddenly say, “Joseph Cotten!” under your breath. What a relief! You fill out your deposit slip as you try to find a way to retrieve this data more easily next time. You think of the dressing gown and tell yourself you can associate “cotten” with “cotton dressing gown.” You rejoin your companion in the car but have forgotten the subject altogether as you head for a restaurant. Then over dinner, you blurt out, “Joseph Cotten” and have successfully gone from picturing the elegant man in a cotton robe to retrieving his name. Success! An association of this type is called a mnemonic device, and this is how some memory experts recall vast loads of information. The orators of Ancient Rome memorized entire speeches by associating different phrases and passages with different locations of the lecture hall and gazed about from one side to the other retrieving cues and clues and speaking the associated words. No need for us to do this, but little memory tricks can help us get that tidbit of knowledge out of our brain with less distress than wracking it relentlessly. Under duress, it gives up its treasures only when it will.

Fear can trigger memory lapse
Why can’t we remember things when we’re older that we used to know so well? The issue may be an emotional one as well as sensory because by now we’ve heard all about dementia and may fear that our little “forgets,” our “senior moments,” are signs of it. This certainly may explain memory loss in some older people, but until our mid to late 80’s, there is a more mundane explanation in the vast majority of cases. Memory researchers posit different explanations, but the one I like best is the notion that as we live longer, we learn more facts and scraps of information, and these all get tucked away in our minds for future reference. The more information we store, the more complex the process of retrieving a particular piece of information. If only we could purge our cache of useless material, as we can do with a computer! Sadly, and perhaps fortunately, we can’t really do that. Head trauma can knock information out of reach for good in some cases, but most of the time we must dredge adjacent material to get to the gem we seek. If our strongest memory of Joseph Cotton is seeing him in his elegant dressing gown, thinking “cotton” and “Cotten” may just do the trick.

Other changes can trouble our serenity as we age: hearing loss, changes in taste and smell, “fumble fingers,” and visual changes from cataracts to macular degeneration. Because our subjective sense is that we remain the same as time passes, we usually don’t perceive a change until it has progressed considerably. Denial can be a major obstacle to accepting a change sufficiently to compensate for it. Many of us don’t want to appear “old” in a youth-oriented society. “Old” may connote “weak,” “irrelevant,” “useless,” “old -fashioned,”“undesirable,” or any number of other pejoratives. As I said in an earlier column, accepting the aging process with grace and dignity may mean embracing our graying heads rather than hiding the gray with coloring. Excusing our slower pace when walking with a younger person can be a statement of reality and not an apology for not being as good as the other.

Skip Multitasking
Multitasking is not the older person’s friend. Because we are apt to have more ideas in our heads because we’ve lived more, done more, read more, and understood more over the years, and because of our inevitable sensory declines, regardless of how slow and subtle these may be, we cannot afford to be distracted. Talking on the cell phone while driving, even on a hands free device, can lead to a missed turn or worse. In fact in many states it’s now illegal to speak on a handheld cell phone while driving. Carrying too many things to put away in the house may lead us to put the bottle of vitamins in the laundry room and the new socks in the bathroom as we divest ourselves of an armload of stuff. Finding them later will be more difficult as a result! If you have a second floor, perhaps you set things on the stairs to take up later to avoid too many trips up and down. Carrying a lot of things to put away upstairs may lead us to miss a step, and how can we hold the railing with a stack of laundry and drugstore items in our arms? And then there’s the problem of tripping over a pile of things waiting to be transported upstairs. Some people find that an attractive basket (some are even made for stairs) is the answer, so that one hand is free for the railing while the other holds the basket by its handle. I solve this problem by putting new purchases meant for upstairs into the bag from the store and carrying that.

Dignity comes when we accept that we are changing as we age and act accordingly.

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"Adjusting to the Changes of Life"
   authored by:
Dr. Shusta-Hochberg is a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City who specializes in helping seniors with these issues, as well as treating other areas of professional focus including trauma and its aftermath and anxiety problems in people o...

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