A positive mindset is key to growing old gracefully in Alaska

Because I received a fair amount of positive feedback on my recent op-ed about “aging in Alaska,” I figured I’d try a follow up to dispel other misconceptions about senior citizens.

Most of those comments came from people over 60 who like me, refer to other people their age as “old,” and not themselves. I’m certainly not an expert on aging, but as actor Robert de Niro has been known to say, “I know some things.”

As I mentioned before, dogs don’t know I’m old and still come up to me with wagging tails. And kids still seem to like me.

For one, some people might think the elderly are perpetually mad because they often wear a scowl, or grimace, on their face. Granted, they might be upset about other people not wearing masks, or all the reverse-mortgage ads on TV. But for the most part, it isn’t anger. It’s pain. On any given day, they are undoubtedly suffering a debilitating physical pain, and in multiple locations.

Most people have a natural aversion to physical pain, but I seriously abhor it. It’s the reason I didn’t play football or soccer in high school. My dentist says I require about twice the amount of painkillers as the average patient. My wife unapologetically calls me a “wimp.”

One summer, when returning from a hike, I became aware of four “pain centers” occurring simultaneously: neck, back, wrist and knee. I was so ticked off I finally succumbed to laughter. It’s not all bad having pain originating from more than one location on the body if one severe pain cancels out the other. But four at once!? I stopped and dug into my pack for the portable pharmacy I carry on all my hikes.

Some misconceptions arise from the way seniors drive cars. Older folks back up slowly because they can’t turn their head sharply and must rely on rearview mirrors. Age decreases neck elasticity and there’s no getting around it. Good peripheral vision helps. On one occasion, I turned my head too sharply and ended up at a spinal clinic receiving neck injections — to use the fancy medical terminology, a treatment called radio-frequency ablation.

Older folks cause younger drivers consternation by not going 10 miles per hour over the speed limit on slippery roads. The fact seniors have lived a long time and have low Insurance rates might say something favorable about their driving behaviors.

Night driving is an issue for oldsters. As we age, our pupils decrease in size and don’t dilate as dramatically in darker conditions, making it more difficult to see at night. By about age 60, I’ve read, the human eye requires about three times more light to see than at age 20.

Eye cataracts also make night vision more difficult, especially with the bright headlights of oncoming vehicles. Even with an anti-glare windshield and anti- glare eye glasses, I’m completely blinded by these new Xenon 10,000-lumen lights that rival Hollywood’s 60-inch carbon-arc searchlights.

On Eagle River Road, for example, I once flashed my headlights to high beam to warn an approaching motorist he or she was on high beams. The driver immediately unleashed a burst of luminescence that instantly transformed the valley from night to day. I saw features in the mountains that I’d never seen before. I think some birds thought it was spring.

I no longer flash drivers who I suspect are on high beams. I slow down, divert my eyes to the side of the road, pray, and wait for the photon proliferation to pass.

Recently, the elderly have been chastised by some because of what’s deemed an “overreaction” to the coronavirus pandemic. People become offended if seniors back away from them to keep a reasonable distance. And then they might hear those inimical, fatalistic words: “we’re all going to get it anyway” and “we’re all going to die sometime.” Such illuminating insights. That “sometime” has come for more than 260,000 Americans, and counting.

With reluctance, I’ll admit to being a member of the seniors group I’ve been writing about. But I haven’t taken my age-denial so far as to receive hair implants, Botox injections, or have my cheek skin stretched up over my forehead like some of the movie stars. Some of their cheeks look so tight they could be used as drums. If they fell on the ground and hit their head, I’m sure it would bounce like a ball.

The coronavirus has made it difficult to see a doctor in the flesh. Instead, we receive links to “portals” for teleconferencing with medical staff, and for accessing test results. Medicine certainly wasn’t that good back in the 1800s, but at least in the fictional Dodge City, all you needed to do to reach “Doc” Adams was climb that long flight of stairs.

One of the advantages of living long, if the memory endures, is developing a real historical perspective — a life experience that provides continuity with the past. But one of the downsides, I’ve learned, is that if we live long enough we often witness history repeating itself. Some events become predictable, and that can be disconcerting. Wars and civil unrest are prime examples. Others include budget wars in the Alaska Legislature and Anchorage property tax increases.

One of the most important things for older folks, my mom used to say, is for them to remember what they were like when they were young. That way they won’t be so judgmental about some of the actions of younger generations. That’s really true. I’ve never told my kids about some of the stuff I did, and for good reason. I quit smoking, for example, when I was 10. Resumed the nasty habit at 20 and quit for good at 45. It’s why I’m still alive.

But for me, one of the best things about reaching this advanced age is seeing younger Alaskans growing and learning how to deal with life’s many challenges. They give me a lot of hope for the future. I’ll do what I can to stay around to see humankind go to Mars, cure diseases, confront climate change and just maybe, move our world closer toward peace.

We might feel like we’re at a low point in our history, but I believe we’ve already started to take on the challenges of our time. Perhaps by this time next year, we won’t have face masks hanging from our cars’ rear view mirrors.

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

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