by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – I discovered the links among strength, body weight, and balance during the winter of 1959-60. Working at the Lake Placid bobsled run introduced me to a whole new gang of men, most of them from “the other side of the mountain.” They ranged in age from about 24 (me) to Spencer Branch (if he wasn’t 70, he at least looked it). We ranged in skills from middle-aged dubs suited best for the most menial of jobs, like mixing ice slush, to “plasterers,” old hands who stood on staging planks and with the flat backs of their shovels smoothed the slush into the parabolic curves of ice all the way down the run.
The one guy who often caught my attention was Georgie Farrell. Short, maybe five-seven, quick as a red squirrel, and what the old-timers (many of them alumni of the extinct logging camps) called “catty,” George could run across a horizontal eight-inch spruce pole 20 feet in the air to get to the staging high up on a curve. None of the rest of us ever even tried that. The pole was too skinny and the distance too far down. But it did suggest to me that his native strength had a lot to do with his confidence and sense of balance.
I think fairly frequently of George these days as age, diminished strength, and fading balance threaten almost every step I take. My six falls so far this year have taken a toll on my bones, mobility, and – most of all – my confidence. In addition, the outlook for the future is bleak. Doctors have offered little beyond bone-strengthening drugs and modest exercises to forestall what appears to be a continuing and inevitable degradation of mobility.
There is, however, some hope for those of us increasingly faced with deterioration of ability and life style. An article by Evan Papp, associate professor at Tufts University, lays out the risks – “Balance declines with age… – and the remedy – “…exercise can help stave off some of the risk of falling.” If you were looking for a magic bullet, forget it. There isn’t any.
All of us experience age-related changes in our bodies, much as many of us try to deny them. I never was muscular myself – “stringy” would be a better word – but when I reach up each night to turn off the reading light beside my bed, I try not to see the crepey skin that once was taut with muscle. I’ve become an expert in heating stubborn jar lids to loosen them. And Herschel, my speedy four-wheeled walker, is my nearly constant companion around the house. In the absence of anybody to help me up, it’s crucial not to fall.
This combination of unavoidable declines in strength and balance, failing eyesight, loss of focus, and the side effects of some drugs for arthritis, dizziness, low blood pressure, and drowsiness is the bad news. Add to that uneven or slippery surfaces (two common Vermont rocks, green schist and verde granite, will kill you when they’re wet), poor lighting, cluttered halls, scatter rugs, poor peripheral vision – and we old folks are slow-moving targets.
The good news is vigorous exercise. The drawback to that is that it’s not something you can read about; you have to do it, no matter how boring. None of the articles I’ve read on the subject mentions age-related torpor and disinclination to get moving. We tend to put exercises off until tomorrow, even though our tomorrows grow fewer every day.
Besides the mantra which accompanies most of the things I do – Do Not Fall! – I sometimes wish I still had an old videocassette someone once sent me. In it, a naked beauty rides a bike just ahead of the camera and every so often turns her head to smile at the viewer. I never did catch her. At 88, should I manage it, it might involve an embarrassing explanation.