Aging in Alaska isn’t that bad — even during a pandemic

I’m 75 years old and part of the high-risk group. Yet, I have not suffered paranoia during the prolonged coronavirus pandemic. I would prefer, however, to wear a space suit when leaving the shelter of my hermetically-sealed house; and through an airlock perfected at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Months of confinement have forced me, and I’m sure many others, into thinking about our advancing years, and the aging process itself.

My doctor happily plays along with my penchant for age-denial, informing me that 75 is the new 65. With sunglasses, baseball cap and dyed beard, I try for 55, but few buy it. I knew the jig was up about 15 years ago when folks started calling me “sir.”  Or, if I stopped on the side of a hiking trail for a rest, young folks passing by might ask, “Sir, are you all right?”

I no longer expect young women to look my way, and they don’t. Dogs still come up to me.

There are your run-of-the-mill age deniers who drive sporty cars, wear jeans with ripped out knees and employ text-message lingo. And then you have the real pros like me — Zen masters of self-delusion. I pass by mirrors quickly and avoid others if the light isn’t right. I neither request nor accept senior discounts at restaurants. After a recent knee surgery, I was given a cane, but I called it a “walking stick.” I routinely refer to senior citizens extraneously as “those people.” I conceal my Senior Voice magazine when walking out of the post office.

I ascribe to comedian Billy Crystal’s saying: “It’s more important to look good than to feel good.” If I knew how to use mirrors like noted illusionist David Copperfield to conceal my age, I would. If I lived in a country that reveres the elderly, such as British Samoa, I could abandon this desperate resistance to aging.

With unabashed vanity, for 15 years, I’ve been applying a topical solution, minoxidil, on my head to abate hair loss. It hasn’t done any good. The top of my head looks like a forest that’s been ravaged by a wildfire. What’s even more troublesome, that forest of hair has taken up residence in my nostrils and ears. I have a small, battery-powered device to remove that hair, but a miniature weed whacker would be more efficient.

Eyeglasses mercifully conceal the bags under my eyes and droopy eyelids. I thought about cosmetic surgery, but my vanity only goes so far. Besides, someday I might be able to help out on my granddaughter’s college expenses.

I was always proud of my memory, both long-term and short-term. But proper nouns, mostly people’s names, are as elusive as a property tax cut in the Municipality of Anchorage.

I hate using the phrase “what’s his name?” But in conversation, it crops up more than I’d like.

There is always Google.

In the U.S. Navy, my hearing in both and high and low frequencies tested “off the charts.”

At remote work locations in my younger days, I always heard the airplane coming before anyone else. Today, I have difficulty segregating different pitches. My wife accuses me of “selective hearing,” but I’m no longer adept in hearing overlapping sounds. For example, If someone speaks to me while I’m talking on the telephone, I hear neither. The same applies for TV newscasters and political debaters talking over one another. Maybe that’s a blessing.

Luckily, my eyesight hasn’t diminished much over the years. But I can’t conceal my envy of a friend who has better than 20/20 vision and spots wildlife before anyone else.

No, my nemesis has been two parts of the human anatomy upon which I think God could have improved: the lower back and the knees. But then, and here comes the brag: I was a laborer for many years, helped several people pack out their moose and other wild game, and have been obsessively hiking Alaska’s wilds for 60 years. Was the human body designed to hike thousands of miles and climb hundreds of vertical miles? Some people I know, like famed outdoor adventurer Dick Griffith, got away with it. But not that many on their way to the 80s.

So, one starts doing things differently. You have surgery if you need it. You get on a first-name basis with physical therapists. You hike with walking sticks, but make sure they look more like walking sticks than canes. You wear a lighter pack. Your hikes aren’t as steep and as far, but with the camera’s telephoto lens, you can make pictures look like you’ve traveled farther than you really have. You wear knee braces concealed under your pants. You take anti-inflammatories if your kidneys allow. Sometimes you might cheat and take a small piece of Tramadol (painkiller) before a hike. There are anti-inflammatory patches one can apply to the back and knees. You cross-train – with bicycling a good remedy for rehabbing knees. You brace when you lift things. Many people get into yoga. If stretching is an acquaintance, ice is a dear friend. When asked about your aches and pains, you lie.

All the other measures, diet, sleep, vitamins, stress reduction, alcohol moderation, are obvious. The rest is mental. I’m probably repeating myself (another symptom of age), but when I was about eight years old, I pointed to a mountain in Seward that my father had climbed and asked him how he had found the strength. He smiled and pointed to his head: “60% here.” And then he pointed to his legs: “40% here.”

For many years on the 4th of July, I climbed to the top of Mt. Marathon in Seward to watch the races. Among the hundreds of race participants, there were consistently many in their 40s, 50s, 60s and even 70s who were extremely physically fit and getting after it. I witnessed the same on the annual Lost Lake Race to raise funds for cystic fibrosis and other events. It’s no exaggeration to say Alaskans are among the toughest Americans and atypical of this country’s aging curve.

Today, I operate on the “rusty gate” theory. If I don’t move, I freeze up. I continue to “think young,” even though on many mornings, my body feels like someone dropped me from a three-story building.

Even though I probably should, I won’t admonish our youth on how to comport themselves during this pandemic. I’ll keep myself safe, even if I have to step off the trail into deep snow this winter (as I did last winter) to maintain a social distance.

I quit drinking and smoking about 30 years ago. I’ve been generally blessed with good health, but realize it’s not so easy for many others. The modus operandi, I guess, is to do what we can, when we can and where we can. Getting off the couch and into the outdoors is the best fountain of youth I’ve found. And believe me, I’ve looked everywhere. It’s certainly not in the medicine cabinet.

Also important, especially during this difficult time: We need to remember to laugh, even if it’s at ourselves.

I think that as Alaskans, we know how lucky we are. They say aging is not for the faint-hearted. But up here, despite the long and dark winters; it’s really not that bad. Alaska’s population is relatively young and the people around us are inspirational. The land is spiritually uplifting. Just look at the beautiful mountains.

And I’ll openly admit — in writing this piece, I had to refer to Google (only twice) for a memory assist.

A lifetime Alaska resident, Frank E. Baker is a free-lance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.

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