As a nurse and a soon-to-be primary care provider, I am very much aware of many of the challenges faced by our nation’s youth. Witness the touching testimony of one young lady, who weaves a poignant narrative of how hard it is to dance at clubs and keep your cool around celebs unless the Jay-Z song is on. This particular tale ends happily, with our heroine overcoming her harrowing developmental milestone by moving her hips like yeah. But I can’t help but wonder she’s going to continue to overcome developmental challenges and attain optimal health as she ages. Will she receive appropriate education and support concerning sex, childbearing, safety, and personal responsibility and security? Will she choose intimacy over isolation? Will her faculties for empathy and social consciousness be nurtured? Will she have educational and occupational opportunities? Will she have access to preventative health screenings, prenatal care, and social and economic safety nets? Will she avoid substance abuse, will she exercise and eat right and maintain herself in order to achieve generativity over stagnation? Will she receive annual mammograms after 40 and colonoscopies after 50? Medicare benefits after 65, and sensitive, age-appropriate care in her twilight years? Does our society promote integrity over despair in our senior citizens? Or do we continue to worship at the altar of youth, borrow against our futures, and funnel money into war instead of the education and health of our children and society?
I know, I know, moralizing on one’s personal blog is cliché and tiresome. And there are already countless reflections on the fragility of youth, the challenges of aging, the pervasive devaluing of the aged in our society, and the hilarities of Miley Cyrus out there. So I’m not really contributing anything new to the collective conscience with this post. But I’ve been thinking along age-related lines ever since, well, since the TV and the magazines at the gym taught me to. And now, as a nurse practitioner student, I find myself in the predictable position of providing care primarily for the baby boomer generation. And since women utilize the majority of health care, it’s no surprise that most of my patients are middle-aged to elderly women. And so the question I get most often, as women squint at my face while I listen to their hearts or stare at my nose while I shine a light in their eyes is not “are you finding anything abnormal?” or “can I get a prescription for such and such,” but rather, “how old are you anyways?”
And when I tell them, they invariably get that tender, misty-eyed look as they remember themselves at my age and mutter, “oh, what I wouldn’t give to be your age again!”
The uniformity of this response… well, terrifies me. I am acutely aware of the fact that I won’t be this age forever, and that a future of menopause, bone loss, indigestion, and jowls awaits me. I know my days of special treatment are numbered, that one day patients won’t look at me with misty-eyed tenderness, that I will eventually have to seriously worry about whether or not my outfits are appropriate for a “lady of my age.”
And so, in my terror, I ask my patients what it is they miss about being my age, or if they want to discuss some of the changes they have experienced. And usually blink once or twice. The misty eyes snap back into focus, and a hearty laugh escapes. “Oh honey, I’d never want to be your age again! That was a tough time. I just wish my body behaved like it was young again.”
And so we discuss exercise, diet and nutrition, bone health, sun protection, sleep habits, stress and coping, and the importance of joy, of family and friends and all that good stuff. And by the time they leave the office, they’re winking and chuckling and encouraging me to just hang in there, telling me that it gets easier, that it just keeps getting better. And so I choose to believe them, and I take good care of myself so I will be alive and well for the rest of the journey.
Caring for people across the lifespan has taught me to try to see a person in her entirety, as a child and a teen and a young adult and a middle-aged adult and an older person all at once, in order to understand the person in front of me, address unmet needs or unfulfilled development tasks and anticipate future needs. I find my ability to care for people is deepened when I acknowledge the frustrated young person behind the weathered face, or the lost elder emerging from the careless twentysomething. And I when I see people like Miley Cyrus, I anticipate the challenges they’ll face as the Jay-Z songs fade into obscurity, and I think wistfully of the Blue Girls and their future selves with “terrible tongues” and “blear eyes”. And I worry that mine will be a generation of thistle-prodders, of old women who look back and feel nothing but the ache of loss rather than the pleasures of a life well lived. Rather than standing tall to face the challenges that come with progressing through life, we pop in the earphones, turn the volume up and party in the U.S.A. Yeah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.
By the by, this was all a very roundabout way of me telling you to take your antioxidant multivitamin in order to help prevent age- related macular degeneration.