Living Bone on Bone

The Lioness in Winter

“Without the virtual equivalent of bubble wrap or cotton batting, we are on our own. Facing the elements of old age with only our memories, our personalities, our will to carry on. But–and here’s the strange thing–the loss of padding has good effects as well.” — Ann Burack-Weiss

The following is a guest-post by Ann Burack-Weiss, author of The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life.

Living Bone on Bone
By Ann Burack-Weiss

An old lady falls and can’t get up. An x-ray shows that the cartilage in her right hip has worn away. An orthopedic surgeon explains the situation in layman terms. “You are walking bone on bone.”

I am the old lady who–even in extremis–knows a good metaphor when she hears one. Living “bone on bone” is what entering the kingdom of the oldest old is all about.

The happy novelty of the senior citizen discount is long past; and, for many of us, the need for total care is still ahead. Are we well? Not really. There may be that bad hip or trick knee, the dimming sight, the sounds we can’t quite catch, the need to rest more often, a list of chronic conditions that accumulate over the years.

But we aren’t seriously ill either. Our doctors find nothing that is cause for immediate alarm. We may live on for years, perhaps a decade, more. Diminished selves–going, going, but not soon gone.

Much has been made of the “donut hole” of the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan. One period of coverage ends and patients must fend for themselves until the next one begins. An analogy can be found in the professional literature and mainstream media on old age. I search it in vain for mention of myself and many of my peers.

The Palliative Care experts solemnly drape the Death with Dignity banner over the coffin that awaits us. Get your affairs in order! Have that family conference! Sign those Advance Directives! We comply and here we sit: all papered up and no place to go. At least not yet.

We listen to the Wellness advocates. Cheerleaders of Successful Aging, they are filled with statistics and inspiring personal stories. Learn a new language! Start a second or third career! Civic engagement! We’ve been there. We’ve done that. And still do. When we’re feeling up to it.

What no one talks about is the experience of living in the middle stage, the “bone on bone” stage that occurs somewhere between jazzercise and hospice care. What I want to see is recognition of what it takes to hold our own without the insulating padding that once buffered us from assaults of the outside world.

Our physical appearance–one of vitality and competence–has eroded. Our intimate partners and close friends have died. Our children, if we have them, are involved in their own lives. Jobs and volunteer activities have fallen off. And for many of us, the fixed incomes of old age allow for few sustaining comforts.

Without the virtual equivalent of bubble wrap or cotton batting, we are on our own. Facing the elements of old age with only our memories, our personalities, our will to carry on.

But–and here’s the strange thing–the loss of padding has good effects as well. We feel things more. The bad things may stab more deeply but so do the good. Not being needed by others gives us more time to look after ourselves. Judgments wear away as does the need to have them. There is, at last, time to smell those proverbial roses. And the knowledge that this might be the last spring to do so enhances the aroma

For there is still much we still can do. Much to enjoy in our lives. I will start with the sights of my everyday life in New York. As children unerringly gravitate to age mates at the playground, as adults in youth and mid-life take special notice of their age peers in any multi-generational setting, so we–the ones who are well past a certain age but not dead yet–give each other the once-over.

We notice the woman in the wheelchair, holding the leash of the small dog who has matched his step to her pace. We see that the man with the walker has hooked an interesting bag to the handlebars; a contraption with various pockets fitted to include essentials of every dimension and wonder where he got it. We see a variety of canes, from standard to ornate. We take in lined faces and limpy walks. We see our images on the park benches, on the bus, alone in the diner, at the movies on weekday afternoon. And see before us profiles in courage. Well past our expiration dates, no longer all we were but still doing the best we can with what we have. Let the light of renewed interest in the aging process shine on us. Let us shine it on ourselves.

10 Responses

  1. Thoughts on aging oh so true and, yes, much still to enjoy. I do, however, take issue with one point. We old crones continue to be needed in many ways, large and small. There are times when just the smile of an old person in a wheelchair makes my day. You are needed, Ann, your words and wisdom are and will continue to be a contribution to many, young and old. Thanks.

  2. Thank you Ann! I love the ‘bone on bone’ metaphor. Though I’ve written books on ageing,I never realized, till I saw my 80th birthday draw near, that there’s quite a wide borderland between energetic elderhood and eventual decrepitude and yes, it really does feel like a donut hole. Blessings, Marian.

  3. I loved this post. It nailed it. I know many of us either in or nearly in this category. I agree fully that there are losses, and that they are too often ignored, but there are also great gifts in having less to think about, and more time to open our hearts and plant seeds for others to benefit from. Our smiles, our attitudes, our love (we are now free to use that word) can affect all those we come in contact with.

    My small business, Heartwork, offers the film, Speaking of Dying, and end of life planning workshops, and retreats for aging women. I find that people of all ages are hungry for more meaning, more depth,more love in their lives. http://www.tjheartwork.com, http://www.speakingofdying.com

  4. Ah, if only I could frequent the sidewalks of New York or the parks of Paris now that I’ve learned foreign languages, worked part-time, and helped raise a grandson. I’m in the twilight zone of reading copiously and watching TV (sadly, also copiously). The only place that I encounter other old people is in doctors’ offices, the visits to which constitute almost my sole social outlet.

  5. I’m so lucky that any complaints should send me laughed out of town. At almost 86 I look and feel at least ten years younger. I still play doubles tennis; i’m a writer, currently attempting to market my memoir about the years in New York spent writing ad copy during the Mad Men era. So what’s the beef? With a life that includes many interests and hobbies and many acquaintances, I nonetheless spend 75% of my time alone.At times the loneliness seeps into my very soul and I’m plunged into near despair
    I keep thinking I’ll find a way to beat this but
    haven’t. Yet. But I’m an optimist. And that’s what keeps me going. And growing.

  6. At age 72 I fell out of my shower and broke my right humorous. …not funny😠so my bone on bone saga is in play,along with tooth decay taking them away. So physically and financially my husband and I married 53 years are members of the great ossification society.

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