Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Learning about Aging from Patients and their Children

Last month I wrote about how 13 years after the death of Emily Lublin, a patient with whom I'd had a very warm and constructive relationship, I had contact with her daughter, Langley Danowitz. (I'm using names with Langley's permission.) Emily was more than two decades older than I. I believe she benefited from my attention as a psychiatrist, but I know that I benefited from the insights she offered about aging with spirit and energy.

When Langley and I spoke on the phone she spoke so interestingly about her experience in her 60s (and now, at 70), that I invited her to share her thoughts with others in the blogosphere. A few days ago she sent me this further posting. It's been well documented that physical activity has multiple benefits for the over 65 crowd. Langley brings the research findings down to earth with this personal story:

Fitness and How It Helped Me

To be honest, I am actually 70, as of January. This seems odd, as I feel pretty much the same as when I was 50 and 60, give or take a little stiffness when I get up. I am reminded of the Tin Woodsman’s plea for an oilcan. I hope one day to be able to just spray myself in bed and voila - all the kinks are gone. Is anyone working on this?

Aside from my oilcan hope, I know there is no miraculous fitness method. I started going to the gym late in life – I was 59 and had seen a picture of myself. (My exercise routine for years had been to read the NY Times while doing 15 minutes of leg lifts.) Once I stopped crying, I signed up with a personal trainer for a trial session. I wore my favorite exercise outfit – black ballet tights and a large tie-dyed tee-shirt. My husband photographed me as I descended to the gym in the basement of our building. The trainer was encouraging – she called me “Honey” as in “Honey, just 50 more”, “Honey, what did you eat yesterday?” and “Honey, keep going”. I hated and loved her. She got me started on the Fitness Path and I have never looked back (except when someone’s trying to pass me).

In the 10 years since I discovered fitness, I have tried a variety of exercise, from boxing to Zumba. I started with a personal trainer once a week – now I exercise EVERY DAY. Being a Party Animal, I have found happiness in the socialness of groups. Picture a class – 40 women of varying shapes and 2 guys who either are lost or got dragged in by their girlfriends. It’s like a weight loss meeting – the men are rare and ignored. Before you think I’m a martyr - I should admit that I LIKE exercise. I do it because it’s fun for me and I get to wear cute outfits. Moving my body to commands from an amazing physical specimen just warms my heart – call me strange big time. Many of my newest friends are trainers – I keep showing up for their classes and I guess they appreciate it.

I hope I am inspiring you to give exercise a chance. After all, that is why I’m writing this. If you are just starting, here are Langley’s Five Most Important Tips:

1. Be not afraid to try it.

2. Ask your doctor if you need any restrictions.

3. Join a local gym for a month.

4. Make an appointment with a personal trainer.

5. Try several different classes at your gym to see what you like.

Exercise has totally changed my life – I think clearer, I feel better and I am easier to get along with. Give it a shot and let me know how YOU like it.  All best, Langley
Here's a photo of Langley with her trainer:

In my psychiatry residency, when we overly intellectual twenty somethings asked our training director what we should read to become wise psychiatrists, he said "Listen to your patients...they will be your best teachers!" And when I was dealing with a not very communicative "elderly" man (probably 10-15 years younger than I am now) who became depressed after losing his job at a beer factory, my supervisor advised me to "have him tell you all about what it's like to work in a beer factory all your adult life..." Throughout my entire clinical career I tried to follow their precepts. In retrospect it seems clear that the domains in which I learned most about  life, human nature, and myself, have been family and clinical practice.

But there's always something new to learn. Emily "taught me" about aging before she died 13 years ago. Now her daughter Langley is continuing "conversation" I had with her mother.

What a privilege it is to be allowed to enter human lives as a health professional!