Uneven aging: Cussedness

Steve has a problem with his balance, and sometimes one hand doesn't grip objects. Can't sleep well, and last month was in a fender-bender that should not have happened. Carole thinks he should see his doctor; he won't: "Nothing is wrong with me".

"Ornery", "stubborn", "in denial": these are words that hover around uneven aging. Steve doesn't want to hear them, but even more, he dreads hearing his doctor say, "I am referring you to a specialist, immediately."

Denial can tip into belligerence, a chasm widens. He resents being told what to do, she is furious that he's ignoring clear signals. He retreats into silence. If the past years have been marked by a partner's stoic self-reliance, the couple now face an enormous change in the way they relate.

A good counsellor can help these two, and it is not just a matter of getting them talking. The underlying themes are deep: a recognition of the fragility of life, and the requirement to surrender control—at least the part that lands one in a doctor's office or a lab. Trust, responsibility, the depth of commitment: all the topics that may have been avoided, now on table.

A good friend takes Carole out for the day, listens, and provides relief, because the healthier partner needs attention too; if she is capsized by his intractability, her frustration can lead to a breakup. In fact, this is a more vulnerable stage than actually caring for an ill partner.

For the afflicted partner, hiding from diagnosis serves certain ends. What looks like sheer cussedness can in fact be a calculated assessment of risk.

Claire and Jennifer are real estate investors who renovate and sell vacation properties; they are one of the lucky couples for whom mudding drywall is play. Last year, Claire started to have digestive problems that she put down to a touchy gall bladder—but she knew what Jennifer did not, that colon cancer ran in her family. She had been told she was high risk, a piece of information she preferred to forget about.

She knew that if she were diagnosed with even early-stage cancer, Jennifer would back out of two major deals that took every penny they had to invest. To close, Claire postponed tests for nearly four months. The result was relatively good news: she has colitis. But during the months when Claire was doubled over in pain, Jennifer was furious; she thought that the deals mattered more than she did. They separated for a time; though now reconciled, the accord they once had has taken a hit.

When someone says no to a request, she is saying yes to something else: there is another paramount need. Claire's "no" to addressing her condition was a "yes" to ensuring their financial security and, in the largest sense, to Claire's self-image as a contributing partner.

This need, to be somebody, drives many a partner's denial. As long as you don't hear otherwise, you're still in the game. You can gut through a bad day with an arthritic knee, but when the only-got-one organs are involved, that strategy is shortsighted—and human.

Steve has made progress, too. He now admits that his denial affected their relationship. He is addressing not only the symptoms, but the way he and Carole talk about the physical and emotional drain, the uncertainty, the possible implications for his work.

Just when an afflicted person needs someone most, he often displays behaviour that drives her away. Nurses know this; they say, "Mr. Wilson is having a bad day", which is the pro's code for "Watch out, nasty coot today."  If you are a loved one doing the day-to-day, get some resources if the person becomes intractable and ornery, because you are going to be tried to your breaking point, even if you have a vast reservoir of love.  


Wendelah said…
I'm glad he's starting to come around because Steve's problems are putting others at risk. The next fender bender might not be so minor.
LauraH said…
The Uneven Aging series of posts has been so thoughtful and well written. It's a topic that doesn't get much attention, that I'm aware of, and would make a great article in the Globe or similar outlet. Something to think about?
Susan said…
This is such an important post. You always say things so well
Laura Jantek said…
Susan and Laura H— I agree these are excellent and often so timely
A very complex issue... thanks for insights on some of the many aspects.

Wonder what Liz is saying to Phil... was a bit more than a fender-bender, and he is 97, after all.
royleen said…
Beautifully written, and an important topic. Your 'uneven aging' posts are thought-provoking and timely for those of us of a certain age.
Abigail said…
Because my mom had always been very sensible and practical, I thought she would realize when she was beginning to have difficulty driving. However, the dementia that was robbing Mom of her driving ability also robbed her of the judgement to recognize the problem. I feel for any child, partner, or family member who must stop another from driving, as well as for the person who must give up driving.
Janet Higgs said…
Thank you for this series. My husband and I are 17 years apart in age (he is older), and I find this series very reassuring.

emma said…
This really hit home. I agree, you should write one of those long essays that the Globe publishes on Saturdays.
I'm in the same boat as Abigail - helping my mother, who's always been independent, and super organized. Now, at 90, not so much. Persuading her to accept more intervention/assistance to stay in her home is a delicate dance. Balancing a lifetime of deference and respect for her opinions with the recognition that I need to become the care taker...

My husband, who's retired (I'm not), would rather endure than go to the doctor...I know I'll be rereading these uneven aging posts in the years to come.
Adele said…
This hit home for me in a different way. My husband is far more likely to schedule appointments, etc. than I would be in similar circumstances, and he gives a lot more way to experts' opinions. I'm more of the "buck up and carry on" type. Sometimes it makes him feel that I don't take his concerns seriously -- and we're talking about cranky knees, aches and pains, etc., not symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath -- so I've learned to back off and let him schedule away. I've come to accept that his peace of mind and a few extra copays or coinsurance for an MRI aren't worth causing a rift.
Duchesse said…
LauraH and emma: I am complimented by your suggestion. At the same time, on this blog I am able to say precisely what I wish, without being edited. Though I don't make a cent here, if I am going to write for free, I at least have autonomy :) And the comments some readers leave on the Globe site and so much less interesting than yours!

Abagail: My mother lived till 99 and we spent years in dread of an accident caused by her. She had a lead foot. We were so relieved when she could no longer pass Florida's vision test for drivers over 80, but she was furious. But many other changes can happen (you can pass a vision test even if you have horrible reflexes.) I think there is a good case for requiring a full exam at 90 and older (because of diminished reaction time, among other factors)no matter how long a person has held a license. We restrict driving at the other end of life because of age, so why not set an upper limit, with perhaps exemptions for extenuating circumstances?

lagatta: Yes; just because he was on his estate does not mean he won't hurt anyone. I read somewhere that the Queen Mother drove at 100!

Adele: Thank you for pointing out another genre of unevenness. Some persons are what doctors call "the worried well" no matter what the age, others ignore symptoms unless immobilized; most of the population is in the middle of the normal distribution.
Phil did hurt someone; the other driver he ran into sustained a fractured risk. Of course it could have been much worse. He did apologise; dunno if he's still driving.

In Montréal, people ruled to be disabled are entitled to take designated taxis for the same price as a bus\métro ticket, thus at reduced fare for anyone over 65. However not all persons who fail a vision or other aspects of a fit-for-driving test would qualify as disabled. Though I know that for many drivers there is also a strong toll in terms of self-image; that was my mother's case. She lived to 98 - however my dad died at about the same age as I am now, from inveterate chain-smoking (addiction, but also cussedness).

Adele, those examinations are covered here, though there can be a waiting list.
Mardel said…
My late husband was older than I, so there would have been difficulties anyway. But he also avoided things that might have made life easier. It was a calculated decision on his part, he knew the symptoms and the risk and knew what he could tolerate. The problem was that the decision was unilateral.

I see friends going through similar things though, even when they are close in age. I suppose talking about it would help, but it also takes a significant amount of empathy and restraint to take that conversation into neutral territory.

Adele said…
Mardel, one of the side benefits of cultivation the empathy and restraint to take a conversation into neutral territory, is that these are skills that serve us well in ALL arenas of conversation and relationships.

I count myself fortunate indeed to have a close friend whose experience with her spouse mirrors my own. So we can email, call, text, and share the proverbial eye-roll emojis in a supportive, tension reducing and laughter inducing way -- it's our safe space!
Lynn L said…
I'm actually younger than my husband, but I'm the one with health issues. So far it's an auto immune disease that affects our lives due to a restricted diet and multiple, expensive medicines and migraines, but now I'm being tested for other issues. I often feel like a burden even though my husband does not agree, but he also finds it hard to empathize since he is so healthy.
Madame Là-bas said…
I can really relate to these posts. My mother is becoming more and more cantankerous. It seems that she has had undiagnosed heart problems and will soon have a pacemaker. I suspect a bit of vascular dementia. She is having difficulty accepting old age, widowhood and her own mortality. She refuses to use a walker and drives everywhere. It seems to me that the accommodation to a pedestrian/transit lifestyle has to be made well in advance of the revocation of the driver's license. Although we can't anticipate all of the issues of older life, we should consider how we will deal with some of them.
Kamchick said…
The view from my perch at 78....husband is 76. I am (so far...and we know that change can be a breath away!) hale and hearty. My husband has a mobility problem which affects his feet and makes walking painful and difficult and sometimes risky. If the basis of this is neurological (still awaiting diagnosis) then it is likely progressive. What this means for me is the taking on of many more tasks that require good mobility. Eventually driving may become out of the question..the future is somewhat unpredictable. And yes, he is often in denial, chooses to not work against his symptoms, makes unilateral decisions when collaboration between us might be more effective...and, yes, can be downright cussed. I have a deep reservoir of love, but do hope that he doesn't draw it down too quickly..there has to be lots left for the final chapter! Thank you, as always, for your great insights into the uneveness that we face.
By the way, Phil has voluntarily surrendered his driving licence. I suspect that his wife had a lot of say in the matter....

Duchesse said…
Kamchick: Your comment reminds me of the Beatle''s lyrics in "The End": "And in the end, the love you take isequal to the love you make."

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