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  • Writer's pictureRichard Portugal

Aging: A Self Fulfilling Prophecy?

There are two types of aging, chronological and psychological. Chronologically, we are finite beings of which time is the great arbitrator. We know not how much time we are allotted, but we know the march of time is inevitable. That is a chronological fact with which we all live and die. Barring disease or accident, we have approximately eight decades to smell a summer’s flower, make a snow angel or climb the highest peak in the Himalaya Mountains. We breath, we play, we work and we age; it is the time for us to make the most of the time!

Psychological aging presents a very different dynamic. During the 1930’s, a traumatic period for our nation, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that we have nothing to fear, but fear itself! It is a declaration that neatly defines psychological aging.

My clients are seniors ranging from the late fifties to the early nineties, from healthy to disease afflicted, from active to the inactive. Yet, they are not defined by their chronological ages, but by their self-concept. Some approach aging as simply another of life’s challenges-- a Parkinson’s client exercises to develop her capacity, rather than accept her limitations; a client with no knee cartilage struggles into the proper position to exercise his upper body; an eighty-nine year old stroke victim works tirelessly to regain the use of his impacted side; a client with a severe shoulder separation accepts the hard work necessary to regain almost total range of motion; a ninety year old assiduously performs her balance exercises and, as a result, dances unimpeded to the big band sound of her youth.

There exists another group of seniors who have accepted age limitations. They have their disabilities, from painful knees and shoulders to heart pacers and fused spines. They are not necessarily old in years, but have made themselves old in life. They are confined by fears. They are afraid of falling, of losing their strength, of losing their balance; they protect themselves by shuffling rather than walking with a normal stride, by looking down rather than ahead, by groping for a wall rather than swinging their arms in a normal gait. They are defined by a fear of incapacity and therefore make themselves incapable. Yes, they are on medications which can cause dizziness; yes, their knees are painful; yes they have a variety of cardiac or pulmonary problems; yes, they suffer from diabetes; yes, they can stumble; yes, they can fall. But their fears go beyond their very real medical and physical issues to the realm of self-paralysis. They are no longer limited by their limitations, but by their fears; they have become old beyond their chronological age and old beyond their physical limitations.

Each of my clients inevitably has photographs recording their lives which I view

with much interest and enthusiasm. From a little girl practicing ballet to a boy on

his sled, to a honeymoon picture or a first vacation, to their child’s first communion or their grandson’s bar mitzvah—these pictures display a person in their prime, strong, vital, living life with color in their cheeks and a full head of hair. These pictures display people who have a will to carve their lives from time’s block of wood; to sculpture, create and vibrate with life. There is an inevitable progression of course: their skin gets paler, their hair thinner, their posture slightly slouched-- but they are still vibrant people. They need to simply re engage with their photographs; to get beyond their fears, to reignite their passion to succeed, to rekindle their belief in their own bodies.

Nothing can defeat fear like building the confidence to overcome that fear. This seems to state the obvious, but the obvious takes work. To regain the strength of their youth, or at least to reverse the frailty of age, muscles must be stressed and muscle memory reinvigorated. Exercise for seniors is such an easy way to overcome their fears. By physically strengthening their bodies, they reverse the slide into weakness: hand grips become stronger, arm muscles grow and chest, back and legs more readily accept the challenges of age and gravity. Strength imparts a wonderful transformation—there is a newfound confidence that your body can support your activities of daily living. Rising and sitting in a chair, walking, turning and maintaining balance all are accomplished with a greater confidence. Increased strength is a great enabler of increased health and a great inhibitor to fear and fragility. To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, we have nothing to fear, but a loss of confidence. Gain strength and gain confidence!

All of my clients are seniors, but they can all be younger. Their muscles yearn to remember the thrill of bounding off a curb and springing away on powerful legs; climbing a tree and swinging effortlessly from its limb; swimming with long arm strokes and splashing feet; a bicycle skidding to a stop with two strong legs firmly planted on the ground; walking in the city and lithely stepping off and onto a sidewalk; climbing stairs without a thought of an elevator; running for a bus and hailing a taxi; going to a ballgame and climbing to your seat while still having sufficient breath to cheer (or boo) your team; standing in the kitchen and successfully reaching for a heavy platter on the top shelf; throwing a ball with your granddaughter; getting down on the floor and rising by yourself.

All of my clients are seniors, but they can all benefit from the dignity and independence that muscular strength bestows. All it takes is but a glance at some old photographs and the determination to reawaken the strength within us all!

Copyright © 2018 Richard J. Portugal All rights reserved.

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