Rx for aging #1: Get outside and walk

I call my Dad a miracle man for good reason.  Besides surviving Iwo Jima and personal tragedies, he has come back time and time again from serious medical conditions.  After his third heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery at the age of 82, his cardiovascular surgeon told the family that he likely would only have five years before his arteries became clogged and life-threatening.  I thought of it like shelf life.  Dad’s “expiration date” was therefore 2004.

Since then, he’s had two small strokes and one big one.  In 2004, the physicians and stroke rehab specialists told us he would probably never be able to walk independently or without dragging his weakened left leg.  When he was assessed following his small stroke last month, the various physicians who checked his strength said that they couldn’t detect any difference in his left side strength.

So what keeps Dad keepin’ on, besides the discipline of being a retired Marine?  I think the number one thing that contributes to Dad’s physical and mental well-being is walking. We’re a funny sight in my neighborhood or on the levee beside the American River: me pushing Dad’s walker, while he holds on with his left hand and steadies himself on the other side with a cane.  Our double-wide approach to walking overcame what he didn’t like about walking with the walker — freedom of stride — while providing stabilization on both sides.

I realize that Dad is unusual — and lucky — for having someone who will take the time to walk with him, almost daily.  But what if walking buddies were a part of senior care programs, or a popular volunteer program?  If we can have dog-walkers, why not “Dad walkers”?

On the “about” description for this blog, I explained my vision: …a celebration of (my Dad’s) indomitable personality and wisdom, a rant about the injustice of the challenges of aging, a plea for better models of healthcare and support services for older people, a prayer for forgiveness — especially my own — when my patience runs low.  This post falls into the category of pleading for better models of healthcare and support services for older people.

Lots of clinical evidence attests to the health benefits of walking (strength, balance, release of endorphins), but I see several benefits that make me think there are more benefits than just getting out there and exercising your heart and leg muscles:

  • The outdoor connection – Getting outside provides a connection with nature that you lose if you’re confined inside your home or senior community
  • Personal validation – A “good day” provides hope and inspiration that helps to counterbalance fears that one is declining and deteriorating toward the final finish
  • Touch and community  – Walking with someone can provide a gentle moment of communion and love that feeds and sustains.

The outdoor connection:  My Dad has always been an outdoorsman — an avid game hunter, skeet shooter and fly fisherman.  I never liked to hunt, but I loved crunching through frozen wheat fields in the cold pre-dawn hours in Eastern Washington as my Dad hunted pheasant, dove, Hungarian partridge, quail or chukkar.  One of his fondest memories was hiking the Sand Ridge Trail with high school classmates near Rimrock Lake in Eastern Washington.  But for anyone, it seems unnatural and disorienting to spend your days indoors.  You miss the details that Dad always notices: new buds, bird calls, beautiful cloud formations.  When nature is removed from our world, we suffer.

Personal validation:  My Dad doesn’t have troops to order anymore, so he orders himself.  So many of our walks begin with him saying, “I think I’m gettin’ old.”  But then he regroups and starts saying things like, “C’mon, Henry.  You can do better than that.”  And when he starts to loosen up, he comments on that, too:  “That’s better.”  Not every day is a good day, or a good walk.  But when things go well, it helps him feel more confident that he is not beginning “the big slide” toward the end.  Yesterday’s walk ended with, “I’m encouraged.”

Touch and community:  A friend who did massage on the side once told a story about an elderly widow who cried after her massage.  “No one ever touched her anymore,” my friend said.  My Mom and Dad were big on hand-holding and patting one another.  Now there is no one who pats him as a part of his daily routine.  So when we walk, and Dad rests, I make it a point to put my arm around his shoulders, and give him a pat-pat-pat.  “We’re three-pat people,” he always said.

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