Aging: Fleeing From the Seven-Chamber Box

My generation has reached the age of aging parents. Nothing gets you thinking about your own impending old age more quickly, or more morosely, than watching your parents age. Even those blessed with healthy, lucky parents must witness the loss of strength, the mental crumbling; even parents in excellent physical condition through habit testify to the deterioration, however slow, of all sorts of faculties.

So we make the best of it, give care where and when we can, and face the future bravely. I have written in this space from time to time about my own parents, ages 89 (Dad) and 86. They live in a nursing home, in rooms across the hall from each other. They know that at this age, they are very fortunate to have each other. They have their share of medical problems. I will not detail them here, except to say that my Dad is in a wheelchair. He is not happy about this, but he is stoic. The combined effects of all their medical problems over the past few years made them unable to care for themselves and look after their own home — first, a house, and then, a condominium apartment. So they are in a nursing home.pillbox

They do not like it. But they never accused my brother or me of forcing them into this situation; they never begged us tearfully to get them out. They know that their cavalier attitude toward exercise and diet in their younger years may have hastened their dotage, but there’s no point talking about that. My Dad has had some bad luck with hip replacements. But his mind is good; my Mom’s too, except for some memory issues. They aren’t sick. They don’t have ominous family histories.

What they have is drugs. Medicines. Pills. Lots of them.

Based on the anecdotal evidence I have been able to gather, my parents’ case is typical. They each take a daily arsenal of pills which, if they really were weapons, would fuel a pretty formidable firefight against any invading malady. Blood pressure, stool softener, painkillers, you name it. They take it. Each has a box about six or seven inches long that is divided into seven lidded sections, M-T-W-TH-F-SA-SU. Every day, so as not to forget anything. Each “day” is packed.

I have made a concerted effort to take better care of myself in the hopes that I can stay mobile and sentient as long as possible. Already I’m doing things at 52 that my Dad had long since given up by that age. But what I fear most about aging is not the aches, pains, and deterioration. That ship has left the dock, and some time ago; arthritis is something I have to control through movement and attitude. No, what sobers me most is the idea that like so many elder Americans, I could become a human Dumpster for a daily handful of prescription drugs.

When did this particular boat tip over its keel? When did the therapeutic use of drugs to mend small but chronic problems morph into wall-to-wall Rx madness? And madness it seems, from this angle: before all these drugs, as recently as, say, 1950….how did anyone make it past age 60? And I have seen more than enough seniors moving through their remaining days in a chemical haze, a sight newly heartbreaking every time I have to look at it. Is swallowing a daily dose of medicine — So. Much. Medicine. — necessary to continue a happy, pain-free life?

It strains credulity to believe so. It’s popular to blame the prevalence of prescription drug use (one study says as many as 70 percent of all Americans take at least one; half take two or more) on the economic power of the pharmaceutical companies and their chumminess with doctors. Likely there is some truth in this. But the same companies also make products that are truly needed, that keep people alive.

Case in point: like my parents, I have mild high blood pressure. After much work to get it down naturally, I had to agree with my very conservative physician that I should take a drug to control it. I now take 10 mg per day of Benazepril, and it works. No side effects.

But it was a fight, a huge mental fight, for me to accept this. To me, it looked like the rim of a slippery slope. I once started Lipitor and got so scared that this was the beginning of a rest-of-my-life pillapalooza that I just quit, threw the pills out, started watching my diet and exercising…and the damned cholesterol came down. The blood pressure is another matter. Although it would be nice to quit the pills, I don’t have my hopes up.

But will that pill be the only one? Can I unslip the slope? That remains to be seen. Medical sense said I had to let one pill in. Overall sense still tells me to resist the next and find the natural way. If I can help it, I will not be trapped in the seven-chamber box.♦

© 2013 Adam Barr

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