Aging at Different Speeds
Challenges accrue when partners can no longer move at the same tempo
On the eve of my departure for Austria with a friend, my husband and I sit side by side on the living room couch, sharing a bottle of wine.
"Are you excited?" he asks.
It's a simple question. Yet the answer is complicated.
Since my early 20s, I've routinely traveled abroad at least once a year, sometimes for work, more often for pleasure. Always, I've eagerly anticipated those trips, looking forward to the change in my daily get-it-done pace. The exotic sights, tastes and smells. The brush with unfamiliar cultures and people. The reminder that the way we Americans spend our days and interact with family, friends and strangers is far from the only option.
Three back surgeries later, Bob now walks at a pace that hurts my back. As a result, we literally can't walk together without one or the other of us risking injury.
Then came the pandemic. Lockdown. Sealed borders. Now, finally, I'm once again heading abroad. Yay.
But am I excited? Certainly, I'm pleased to be notching another victory in my battle against the sense of incompetence and lack of confidence that set in during the years of COVID confinement
New Variables at Play
Now, however, there are variables at play that weren't part of the mix when I last crossed an international border in 2018. Back then, my husband and I could travel together with ease. Granted, the difference in our strides (his short, mine long) sometimes required that we separate and go our own ways, then reconnect a few hours later. But basically, we could each have the vacation we wanted — together.
Three back surgeries later, Bob now walks at a pace that hurts my back. As a result, we literally can't walk together without one or the other of us risking injury. "Meet you at the deli counter," I'll tell him as we pull into a grocery store parking lot. Then, while he makes his way from the car to the deli section, I'll sweep through the aisles, grabbing most of the items on our list.
The difference in our tempos may be a bit extreme, but the fact of an unforeseen divergence in how our bodies are aging is not. More and more often, I hear from friends about a spouse's illness, need for hip or knee replacement or general slowing down. More and more, I hear about the frustrations and strains that aging at different paces places on a relationship.
More and more, I hear about the frustrations and strains that aging at different paces places on a relationship.
It's frustrating. It's disappointing. It's unexpected — though it probably shouldn't be. One of us was bound to feel the ravages of aging more quickly than the other. Most disheartening, at this point in our lives, the divergences promise only to deepen.
Over the last five years, Bob and I have tried — with mixed success — to continue doing many of the shared activities we used to take for granted. Yes, we can still go hear live music if the venue is small and the parking lot is close by. But excursions to urban arenas involving blocks and blocks of walking? Off the list. A walk around a suburban park? Sure. But only if we part ways at the entrance and meet back up at a designated time.
Vacations? After we had to cancel three international trips in the span of two years, each dismantled by Bob's back problems, I've grown both weary and wary of making plans together.
Bob, to his credit, has encouraged me to find other people with whom to travel. His is a far more generous attitude than some spouses I've heard about who, incredulous that their partner could possibly want to go away without them, carry on like pouty toddlers.
So, yes, I'm going to Austria with a friend, and, fortunately, with Bob's blessing — although, interesting to note, these last few days as I've been monitoring Austria's weather and packing and checking in for my flight, Bob's interest in planning an international trip has surged.
Small wonder. For years, we set money aside for travel, anticipating that exploring the globe would be a mainstay of our retirement years. For the last five years, those travel funds have sat idle. And now? I'm heading off — without him.
I Want to Believe We Can Travel Together Again
Yesterday, after much internet scrolling, we identified a short cruise to Costa Rica that offers passengers daily menus of activities, with options ranging from "easy" to "advanced." Presumably, this is a cruise tailored for couples who, like us, recognize that they can no longer do everything together, but want to meet back up at day's end.
When I voice my concern about the possibility of another cancellation, he — understandably — gets annoyed. "You act like I wanted to cancel those trips," he says.
I've suggested to Bob that he book the cruise while I'm away. I'm hoping this will take the edge off the fact that I'm heading out for the sort of walking-intensive adventure he can no longer handle. I want him — I want us — to believe that we can still explore the world together.
In truth, though, I'm skeptical. While Bob's back problems have quieted, his arthritis has not. There is no predicating when a round of intense inflammation will leave him hobbled and in pain. When I voice my concern about the possibility of another cancellation, he — understandably — gets annoyed. "You act like I wanted to cancel those trips," he says.
Of course, he didn't. But if we book this trip, it's a distinct possibility. One that has to be factored into any planning that we do, along with expensive travel insurance — and the potential for further disappointment.
Maybe that's why I'm not feeling excited about my imminent departure for Austria. With each upended trip, my inclination to look forward to the departure date with confidence and anticipation withered a bit more — and my vision of what we would be able to do once we got to wherever offered a bit less.
None of that is an issue with the friend who will be my traveling companion in Austria. We're walking buddies. Traffic controller shortages, weather contingencies and flight cancellations apart, nothing stands in the way of our striking out in any direction to take in all that our schedule permits. I'm sure we'll have a memorable adventure.
But am I excited? No, Bob. I'm leaving you behind. And while this trip feels like a prudent choice both to satisfy my travel itch and to help self-guard against resentment as we age at different speeds, it also feels sad. I'll miss you.