Thursday, December 27, 2012

Individuals Often Defy Patterns

Image by JoePhilipson
I like finding patterns in nature, in literature, in human behavior.  Patterns help me negotiate through the landscape of life. When I decided three years ago to pursue a degree in gerontology, I hoped to better perceive the patterns that emerge in the aging process.  Equipped with such knowledge, I might help the generation above me avoid some of the bumps in the road of advanced age. And by learning from them, I might better manage my own aging process.

Instead, I find that individuals often defy the norm and few are completely prepared for the challenges of aging.   

When I talk with clinicians, they are more aware than academics that individuals often defy the norm. A physical therapist can tell me what exercises can reduce risks of falls and recite statistics about the increase risk of falls with advanced age. But the same expert can produce several examples of people who walk briskly in their 90s and others who falter in their 50s.  People who have several chronic illnesses sometimes outlive their agemates who are mature athletes.  Aging is a crap shoot!  


Yes, an epidemiologist might tell me what 100,000 people 85+ might experience in terms of heart disease, arthritis, dementia, cancer, etc.  An economist might tell me the percentage who will be living independently or in an assisted living community or in a skilled nursing center. A professor of geriatric nursing can tell me what percent will need help with activities of daily living.  However, reading too much research tempts me to push people into categories that really don't fit.  For this reason, I spend two or three afternoons a week away from the textbooks, the academic journals, and the computer.  

I have spent 300+ hours shadowing activity directors at a continuing care retirement community (CCRC), watching them design activities for people sorted into one level of care but still expressing a huge range of abilities in cognition, mobility, energy levels, personality, values and interests.  These activity directors know that older adults often defy the norm. While leading activities, they have to stay open and flexible. They encourage me to throw out my class notes and expect the unexpected.   

In addition to my formal studies and my discussions with clinicians, I sit side-by-side with older adults--observing, asking questions, and listening.  If I hang back and let them direct the conversation, I gain a lot of insight about how they structure their own experience, how they create patterns to explain their path.  And more importantly, I observe the way each person is unique like a snowflake, a thumb print, a sea shell. 

Walt Whitman declared, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes!" I have seen such vastness in each resident of the CCRC and each friend and family member moving through the aging process.  Life is chaos. We assuage our fear of this truth by imposing structure upon it. I should have seen this coming. In my former life as an English teacher, many warned me this would be so.  Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, and Levinas and every 20th Century poet. You were right.

And even though it's scary to admit this, the more I study gerontology, the less confident I am about anticipating the challenges of aging. The individual experience often defies the patterns that I am dutifully learning from my textbooks.  But I can still act. I can serve as a witness. I can offer comfort. I can direct people to programs and services that fit their current needs.  I can ameliorate suffering in the moment. And I can unravel the patterns residing in my mind and learn to take things one day at a time.

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