Through the good and the bad, it’s by grace that we age
We’re all getting older, and fast. By the time you finish this sentence, you’ll be one moment closer to your last. But, you’ll have gained another moment, too.
You see, we think of aging in relative terms: “I’m old enough for this.” “I’m too old for that.” When we are young, we can’t wait to get older, and it seems to take forever. Once we are old, we just want to stay young. By that time, however, time passes too quickly.
But what is old anyway? To a kindergartner, a teenager is old. To a Gen Y-er, anyone over 40 is old—and not to be trusted. To me, the only time I ever feel old is when I remember that my baby brother Steven is 29. And if Steven is getting older, that means I’m getting older, which means my parents are getting older, which means my grandparents are getting older and so on. See? Relativity.
And there’s no way to avoid it. If we’re not thinking about what’s relative, someone else is. It could sound like an old Jeff Foxworthy bit: If someone gives up their seat for you on the CTA… You might be an old person. If AARP The Magazine starts showing up in your mailbox … You might be an old person. If you can’t name the members of English-Irish pop group One Direction…
Getting older is Einsteinian. It’s time passing and things changing in direct correlation to us and how we are and where we are in life. Aging isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s just hard. But it doesn’t have to be miserable. In fact, if done right, it can be rather enjoyable.
After the illness
Julie Grounds is 66 and lives in Palos Hills. Since she was a kid, she has worked with people with disabilities. Last year, Grounds retired from her position as the deputy director of Park Lawn, a nonprofit organization serving individuals with developmental disabilities. Technically, though, Grounds was forced into retirement because of her health.
Never an unhealthy woman by common standards, in May 2011, Grounds experienced a barrage of health issues that seemed to come out of nowhere and arrived like a perfect storm. It started with a colon infection. The doctors then found she had early-stage breast cancer. Within three weeks, she had a lumpectomy and lymph nodes removed. By June, she ended up getting another infection, which landed her in the hospital.
She began retaining a tremendous amount of fluid in her body as a result of the infection, so doctors pumped her with more and more medications. She says this caused her immune system to shut down. Then her heart and her kidneys quit working. The heart problems weren’t a surprise. Her mother had had heart problems and three heart attacks by the time she was 35. Grounds then developed high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation. Why her kidneys gave up, no one was sure.
She had an allergic reaction to the blood transfusion. Her body itched all over. She was placed in the ICU and went nuts clawing herself, pulling the IVs out of her arms… While her dearest friends were at her bedside hoping for her recovery, she was convinced they were trying to lock her up. Mentally, she was completely gone.
Then the storm broke. It was January 2012. And after three hospitals, three rehab programs, 70 pounds of water drained from her body and weekly visits to various specialists, Grounds is now cancer free. Her kidneys and heart are working just fine. She’s still on medication, but in three years, if her body will allow itself to stay healthy, she can say goodbye to the meds, too.
“Things are better these days,” she says. “I feel good, like I’m going to keep going.”
Getting old isn’t for the weak. And when your body gives way, you do what you can to keep things shipshape.
“I take my medicine,” says Jimmy Newmark, 88. “I take my medicine,” echos his wife Eileen, 84. “We exercise our minds,” says Jimmy. “And before my big ailment, I had a personal trainer twice a week,” Eileen adds.
The big ailment is multiple myeloma. Two Memorial Day weekends ago, Eileen was in their Lake Shore Drive apartment kitchen and reached up to the cupboard for some Tabasco sauce. She felt a crack in her back and was trounced with pain. But she had a house full of people. So she collected herself and powered through it.
The pain didn’t pass and because stretching for Tabasco isn’t a common cause of back pain, she and Jimmy investigated further. An X-ray and CT scan revealed that Eileen had a fracture of the 12th lumbar vertebra. That’s what multiple myeloma does; it affects the bones. It can also affect the immune system, the kidneys and the plasma cells.
She became ill and weak and needed constant care. So after the hospital, she moved into The Clare at Rush and Pearson for four months. When she came home, she still needed some help. Then she graduated from a wheelchair to a wheeled walker, on to a nonwheeled walker, then a cane, and now Eileen is again able to walk unaided. Carolyn, their in-home healthcare worker, is still around but only three days a week.
“And here I am,” Eileen says. “And I’m getting even stronger. I don’t play golf or tennis; not sure if I can play croquet, but I still eat spicy food.”
“But I reach for the Tabasco,” says Jimmy.
“It’s better that this happened to me later,” she says. “It could have happened to me at 40. Now we have the better medications.”
“I expected to be dead at 72,” says Jimmy. “That’s when my father died. I developed the same cardiovascular conditions he had. But medical care has advanced so much that they were able to treat me. The only treatments they had in his time were nitroglycerin pills and bed rest.”
These modern medicines, however, are not cheap, and when you’re on a fixed income, that can make for tricky financing.
“You don’t have as much coming in as you do going out,” says Dolores Warner, a lifelong Southsider who turns 83 in August.
Warner is close with her family. She has two daughters who fill her with incredible pride. One is a guidance counselor at South Shore High School; the other is a psychiatrist and director of the Mental Health Counseling program at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. She has five grandkids and two great-granddaughters. She had a son. But having been a heavy smoker, he passed away from an upper respiratory infection in 2003. Four years before that, it was her husband Thomas. He dropped dead of a stroke just two days after returning from their second honeymoon celebrating 50 years of being together.
In 2009, Warner was diagnosed with Scleraderma, a systemic autoimmune disease that primarily affects the skin. Since her diagnosis, she prefers not to be photographed. She saw five doctors about it and they all told her the same thing: “‘When you grieve inwardly, you can tear down your immune system.’ They think that’s what I did,” she says. “What it’s done is attack my lungs. I’m on oxygen. And it attacked my heart, so I have a pacemaker.
“The medicine cost me a grand a month,” says Warner about the initial expense of her illness. A former Chicago Board of Education administrator, she does get a pension but does not collect Social Security. “Now I’m stabilized, so I’m on the generic [medication], which is much more affordable.
“Most of the time I feel pretty good. But sometimes I… I used to be very active. I used to swim, line dance… I just don’t have the energy anymore. Doctors say I can, but I just don’t have the energy.”
Still, she has enough energy to go to an hour of physical therapy three times a week at Advocate Trinity Hospital. She lunches with friends and attends plays and movies. And she makes it to church every Sunday.
“I’m learning to roll with the punches.”
Active above all else
In Highland Park, Jackie Fishman, 84, resides with her husband Russell, who is 85. They used to be big travelers, but they can’t stand the airports. They were even bigger skiers. All three of their sons learned to ski when they were 6 years old. Now their grandkids ski the slopes of tradition.
Fishman never had any health problems until her 50s. In 1985, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had her left breast removed. Five years later, tongue cancer required more removal surgery. A year after that, the cancer metastasized in her neck. More surgery. She sat through chemo and radiation for seven weeks.
Then it got worse. During her treatments, her middle son Craig died. He had been ill since he was a kid—Crohn’s disease, epilepsy… a host of physical problems, she says. He was 49. That was the worst year of her life.
But she endured. And illness let her be until 2006, when breast cancer claimed her right breast. Then she had both hips replaced—an unfortunate but common medical badge of honor for many serious downhill skiers. Travel and skiing are not to be in the cards anymore.
“I walk all the time,” Fishman says. “I play golf.” She gardens, too. And though she had two separate mastectomies, part of her tongue removed and lost her son, you wouldn’t know it by talking to her. She’s upbeat and charming and honest. “I have so much to be grateful for. I’m very lucky I’m alive. I am very lucky to have two wonderful sons and great friends. We’re fortunate to live the life we want.”
Another traveler, Tom Miner, 86, used to rack up 300,000 miles a year. He made his way as an international businessman who has filled his office walls at Michigan Avenue and Oak Street, just a short walk from his apartment on Lake Shore Drive, with framed photos of the numerous world leaders and dignitaries he’s influenced and done business with. He says he’s the only American who has hosted every president of China except the current one, Xi Jinping.
He had prostate cancer a while back, says he went through the“traditional six weeks of radiation and seeding, and was in China three months later.” One morning, however, he woke under blood-drenched covers.
“I flew home and got a [blood] transfusion,” says Miner. “I lost my bladder, my prostate… my colon is a few inches [shorter].”
Two doctors at once worked on him for six hours. He was given a 20 percent chance of survival. Always driven by his work, even the cancer and subsequent surgery couldn’t stop him. “There were times when I’d go 12 months without taking a vacation. I once went seven years without a single vacation,” he says. “I still work five days a week… sometimes six. But I’m slowing down now.”
Jim Kinney, however, has no intention of slowing down. He is 63 years old and figures he’ll easily work another seven years at the least. He’s the vice president of luxury home sales with Baird & Warner as well as the treasurer of the Illinois Association of Realtors. Next year he’ll be president-elect, and in 2015, he’ll be the president. Like those who can afford the cost and the time, this Gold Coast resident has traveled.
“I had an exciting childhood growing up overseas and traveling around the world,” he says. “I did a lot of adventure traveling—The Virunga volcanoes, bear watching in Alaska, canoeing through the Admiralty Islands… I wanted to do a lot of the stuff people save for retirement when I was young and able to do it. It didn’t make sense to me to wait until [my] body was more compromised.”
Kinney says he’s done his A-list and his B-list of things he wanted to do. “Now I’m working on my C-list. Refining stuff… redoing things, or staying closer to home like going to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown.”
He used to be a big hiker and skier, but gave up the black runs in his 50s. Most of his vacations now are social. Every spring, he and his partner Brian head down to Boca Grande, which he calls a “great place to get recharged.” Even when he’s home, Kinney is casting off. He regularly sails his 43-foot Beneteau on Lake Michigan.
It’s a loose version of what Jimmy and Eileen used to do. They also traveled. “And thank God,” Eileen says.
“Experiencing Russia in the 1980s…”
“We thought Russia would implode,” says Jimmy. “We were cognizant of the future. We did the difficult trips when we were younger and easy trips later.” Jimmy grins at his wife and says jokingly, “Now they’re all difficult.”
The Newmarks were both bred from families of jewelers. Jimmy worked for, and subsequently managed, both families’ jewelry stores before retiring in 1996. They moved from Hyde Park to the south suburbs where they raised their family, then to their apartment on LSD in the early ’90s. It has breathtaking views of the lake.
“We sailed all the time,” says Eileen. “We sailed the Mediterranean, Spain, the Caribbean and here on the lake with friends who had boats. But we’re not going to do that anymore. Getting on the boat would be too difficult. Being on the boat would be too difficult.”
There was a time when she would look out and see a sailboat in the water and say, “Ah, yes, I remember.” But not anymore. They both miss it. But they’re OK with that.
“It does no good to lament,” says Jimmy.
All the lack of sailing did was make room for new things to do, or more time to do the things they always did. Jimmy volunteers at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. When the weather is nice, they go for walks along the lake. They go to the movies. They’re season-ticket holders at Goodman Theatre and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Another problem, Jimmy says, is that some of the people he and Eileen would do things with aren’t around any more. “We used to have a big group. There were eight of us. Now, it’s down to four, maybe five.” He has longtime friends who have died, are showing signs of dementia or require 24-hour care. For some, the body begins to deteriorate sooner than others.
Getting to choose
Dorothy Dinkel is 97 years old and lives at the Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Willowbrook. While she keeps busy working on crafts and volunteering in the home’s store five to seven days a week, she has trouble standing and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. And in pain. Back in 2004, Dinkle had surgery to correct extreme discomfort in her knee. It didn’t pan out well. Nine years later, she says she is still in agony.
She moved into Chateau almost three years ago because she ran out of money. Living on your own isn’t cheap. She has two sons who both live in the area. There are seven grandkids and 12 great-grandkids. She sees them at birthdays and on holidays. She could stand to see them more, but when? Lives get busy, responsibilities make demands, and money is tight.
For Dinkle, moving into a nursing and rehabilitation center was the best option, even if it wasn’t the preferred one. Talking with her, you get to sense that she feels a little stuck—prohibited from so much by her age. When asked about it, she plainly reminds me, as if I should already know, that she’s often in a lot of pain.
Conversely, when local actress Charlotte Davis gave up her apartment on Michigan Avenue after 29 years to live in the Admiral at the Lake last fall, she did so to avoid a potential confrontation down the line.
“I thought it would be good for my kids if I moved myself in,” she says. “Because if they had to move me, they might have put me some place I wouldn’t want to go.”
I wanted to do a lot of the stuff people save for retirement when I was young and able to do it. It didn’t make sense to me to wait until [my] body [old].”
As an actress, Davis doesn’t reveal her actual age, but says she can play 75 to 88. She has two sons. One lives in Tucson, Arizona, the other a few hours south in Champaign. She has four grandkids, one of whom married an Englishman across the pond in April. And in May, her grandson made Davis a great-grandmother. Her husband passed away two years ago after a long, expensive fight with emphysema. She hasn’t taken on any roles recently because she’s been busy settling into her new digs.
“I’m meeting lots of people from California, Hawaii, New York… I miss driving, but I still get out on my own.”
She gave her car away a few years ago to the Fourth Presbyterian Church, where she is a deacon and volunteer. Now all of that time she saves not sitting in traffic lets her do lots of things. Like head to a bar for sliders before a jazz show.
“I exercise and swim two, three days a week,” she says. I take a lot of vitamins. I do everything. I just signed up for a singing group [at the Admiral]. We haven’t even gotten together yet. I haven’t sung in years, but we’ll see what happens. I’d really like to join a jazz group and play my Cuban maracas, which I used to play years ago.”
Active for sure, though she sometimes uses a cane to help with faulty balance resulting in part from knee surgery she had a couple years back. “I might have another [surgery] before the new healthcare [takes effect],” she says. “And they’ll eventually have rehab here at the Admiral.”
The thing that concerns her most is money. Along with the occasional acting gig, she’s living on her husband’s pension and Social Security. “You hope that you have enough to last. I’d like to have enough for my grandchildren.”
Into the mirror
“I don’t see myself as old,” says Eileen. “I know I am, but I don’t feel myself growing old.”
“I just feel sort of static,” says Jimmy. “I would imagine, among any population you interview, that you’ll find that everyone does not feel their age; that every person has a similar response.”
“Inside you feel the same,” says Kinney. “But as they say, I sit here and watch the upholstery fall apart around me,” he jokes. “One time I went down to Amtrak, I get my ticket and [right away], the lady behind the counter told me that there was early seating for seniors.
“I’ve always mentally projected myself into the future,” he continues. “So getting through difficult things, I’d just say, ‘In five years, this will all be a distant memory.’ Then, last summer, I got in a bit of a funk, and I realized that I’m out of time to project. My dad died at 74, my grandfathers, both in their 40s. I’ve passed my grandfathers, and I’m only 11 years from [the age] when my dad died.”
“I don’t have my mother and father,” says Eileen. “I think of my mother more today than I did yesterday. When I walk into the bedroom and see the lamp next to my bed—her lamp—I think of my mother… She died 25 years ago. And then my grandson Simon was born.”
If there’s one thing that can remind the mind and body of all the time that has passed, it’s the passing of family and friends. There’s a strangeness that comes with seeing mortality up close and personal, and realizing that, at some point, it’s coming for you.
“As you get older, you’re faced with that certain amount of time, and it’s not infinite. It puts a different spin on how you look at life. It makes you more tolerant,” Kinney says. “You want to be helping the people who are staying behind, and you want to eliminate as much bad as you can.”
Turning years into gold
We slow down. We hurt. But the good thing about spending more time banging around with these bodies is that you get to learn more. “You learn things you never knew; you see cultures you never knew existed; you read more; you get wiser,” Fishman says. Though worry sometimes tags along with knowledge.
And Fishman has hers. “I worry about Iran and about the United States. I was worried about my grandson getting a job. He’s a writer. Thankfully he did just find one with an advertising agency.”
Grounds worries about her adopted son James, 49. He was born with intellectual disabilities. He’s deaf, asthmatic and has no ability to speak. He requires constant supervision because he simply isn’t aware of the dangers of the world.
“I worry that someone else won’t take the time with James. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the time when he’s living in a group home. But that’s how it is with family. Because he’s mine, and I’m emotionally attached. And I’ve sat on the other side of the table. I understand what families go through.”
But worry remains relative, too. “I keep so busy and so active in things that I haven’t much time to worry,” says Miner.
He married when he was 52. He has two boys; one just finished college last year; the other has one more year to go. He’s not sure what either of them wants to do with their lives, but that doesn’t faze him. His concern is focused on the tensions between the United States and China.
No one can be sure what’s going to happen there—or with anything, really. Jimmy Newmark is right. It does no good to lament. It only gets in the way of what we’re all trying to do, and that’s to live the best and longest life we can while enjoying most of it most of the time—relatively speaking, that is.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.