Senior Power: “Old age is not a disease”

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Sunday May 30, 2010 - 03:03:00 PM

“Old age is not a disease -- it is strength and survivorship, triumph over all kinds of vicissitudes and disappointments, trials and illnesses.” Margaret Eliza Kuhn (1905-1995) 

What follows is a statement of some of the facts of life as they relate to elders’ health in terms of longevity, awareness, and self-help. My premise is that we – like Maggie Kuhn -- are responsible senior citizens. She identified 6 myths about old age... That it’s a disease, a disaster. That we are mindless, sexless, useless, powerless. And that we are all alike.  

Longevity refers to “great duration of life, length or duration of life.” According to IBM, by 2030, 20% of the United States population will be 65 years of age or older.Human longevity runs in families. For unexplained reasons, the Caspian Republic of Georgia holds the record for the longevity of its population. Wikipedia records that the oldest person in history whose age has been verified by modern documentation was Jeanne Calment (1875–1997, 122 years and 164 days). 

Some animals do not age, although non-aging animals tend to be more primitive species.For animals that do age, the likelihood of death increases each year after progeny are raised to independence. 

Women as a group live longer than men. 

Awareness:“The patient's autonomy always, always should be respected, even if … the decision is contrary to best medical advice and what the physician wants.” [Murad "Jack" Kevorkian, M.D. (1928- ), ] With only 1 in 4 people having an advance directive in place, critical decision-making will be left to others at the end of life. While it is important to have an “advance health care directive”, you should be aware that it does not ensure that you will receive the treatment you want, or not receive treatment that you do not want. Suppose you are a senior citizen with no family and that you live alone, which is not that unusual. Is there anything else you can do in your own behalf?  

The HIPAA Privacy Rule is supposed to protect the privacy of individually identifiable health information and the confidentiality provisions of the Patient Safety Rule and to improve patient safety. Despite HIPAA, many physicians’ offices and clinics use patient sign-in sheets or call out the names of their patients in their waiting rooms

The ultimate barrier between patient and physician/hospital is the P.O.L.S.T. – Physician Order(s) for Life Sustaining Treatment, placed in one’s chart by the physician. At best, the advance directive merely guides him/her. A “POLST” form states what kind of medical treatment a patient wants toward the end of life. Signed by both doctor and patient, it helps provide seriously ill patients with a bit more control over their end-of-life care.  

Self-Help:Mary Ann Wilson, a registered nurse in the field of geriatrics, and no spring chicken herself, is founder and host of Sit and Be Fit, an award-winning exercise show broadcast on PBS television channels, currently on KCSM and KTEH. She demonstrates a variety of exercises for the elderly and people with limited mobility. They can be done with little effort while sitting in or using a chair. She also demonstrates occasional standing exercises. Three of Wilson’s DVDs are in the Berkeley Public Library Collection: Sit and be fit. All American workout”, “Sit and be fit: Balance & fall prevention workout”, and “Sit and be fit: Osteoporosis workout II.” 

Completion of the 8-hour Mature Driver Program (e.g. AARP’s driver safety education program offered at some senior centers) for drivers age 55+ may result in lowered automobile insurance. The completion certificate is valid for 3 years and can be renewed by completing a 4-hour course. The DMV has published a senior driver’s handbook, “Senior guide for safe driving,” available online or phone (800)777-0133. 

Medicare does not fund hearing aids. We must work on this! In the meantime, the Hearing & Speech Center of Northern California is a non-profit agency located in San Francisco.Its mission is toprovideprofessional services to support people with hearing or communication challenges in achieving their goals.There are no solid, consistent data on the numbers of people with hearing loss. Taken together, studies suggest that: 

  • 30% of all people over the age of 65 have hearing loss
  • 65% of all people over the age of 85 have hearing loss
  • 50% of people with hearing loss are of working age (18 – 64)
Many senior centers provide hearing loss support groups. A “Coping with hearing loss” class is offered at the North Berkeley Senior Center on Wednesdays at 1:15 P.M. 

Long Term Care and Aging constitutes a portion of the California Commission on the Status of Women’s current budget and legislative concerns; Violence and Women veterans are other agenda concernsimpinging on older women. Nationwide, 59% - 75% of long-term caregivers are women; California leads with an estimated 3.4 million caregivers. The aging population has far more women than men, twice as many women as men over the age of 85. The Governor has issued his revised budget proposal containing drastic cuts. In June, the Commission will begin public hearings throughout the state to provide a forum for Californians to voice their opinions. 


Maggie Kuhn would have cheered “Two old women; an Alaska legend of betrayal, courage and survival”, Velma Wallis’ recounting of a legend based on Athapascan and Gwich’in Indians folklore. (Fairbanks, AK: Epicenter Press, 1993.) Wallis is an Athabascan Indian and a bestselling novelist whose work has been translated into 17 languages. Here, extracted from her book, is the legend of the two elders:

“These nomads were The People of the arctic region of Alaska, always on the move in search of food. During this unusually bitter chill, the cold hovered menacingly. The hunters were fed first, as it was their skills on which The People depended. Many of the women and children suffered from malnutrition, and some would die of starvation. 

In this particular band were two old women cared for by The People for many years. The older woman's name was Ch'idzigyaak, for she reminded her parents of a chickadee when she was born. The other woman's name was Sa', meaning "star," because at the time of her birth her mother had been looking at the fall night sky, concentrating on the distant stars during her labor.  

"The council and I have arrived at a decision." The chief paused as if to find the strength to voice his next words. "We are going to have to leave the old ones behind." 

The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death--to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength.” 


The tale continues as, abandoned but united, Ch'idzigyaak and Sa' venture forth to establish their camp, jointly manage their survival, and courageously make it through the oppressive winter. When the weather improves, The People return. They discover the old women’s achievements. Now they need their knowledge. Sa’ and Ch'idzigyaak do share with those who abandoned them but they also require a promise: 

“The People kept their promise. They never again abandoned any elder. They had learned a lesson taught by two whom they came to love and care for until each died a truly happy old woman. They shared because they too had learned: ‘Then I [we] realized the importance of being with a large group. The body needs food, but the mind needs people.’ ” 


Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at 

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