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The Concessions We Make Before We Age

A writer's concerns begin to hold her back, but she can still hook up a TV

By Jane Gross

My father was only in his late 40s when he began backing arm’s-length out of telephone booths (remember those?) to be able to see well enough to dial; my mother was about the same age when she bought an ineffective gizmo to help her thread needles and, still thwarted, began asking me to do it for her.

The most obvious signs of aging — like gray hair, wrinkles and arthritis — were still years in their future. Yet their shared presbyopia, or inability to focus on objects close at hand, was predictive, even its linguistic origins in the Greek presbys ("old man") and the Neo-Latin opia ("sightedness").

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Presbyopia, neither especially serious nor at all curable, results from the eye’s lens losing elasticity, as so many of our parts eventually will (such as upper arms which slacken beyond the aid of weight training). Fortunately, the solution is simple: Those who already wear glasses for distance get bifocals, and those blessed until middle age with excellent vision pick up over-the-counter magnifiers, which now have annual sales of $670 million, an increase of 54 percent between 2003 and 2010. Those sales are thanks largely to the aging of the baby boomers, but certainly abetted by manufacturers, most notoriously Apple, that use maddeningly small print in their products and manuals.

Reading the Manual, in Small Print

It’s so easy for pre-middle-agers like the creators of the open-source online Urban Dictionary to be snide about those of us who struggle to, as the website puts it, "RTFM," or Read the (Bleeping) Manual. As one contributor offered, “People who say 'RTFM!' might be considered rude, but the true rude ones are the annoying people who take absolutely no self-responsibility and expect to have all the answers handed to them personally.’’

That sounds like a dig at the technologically challenged, and I’m one of them. But I’m getting better. One day not long ago I pushed myself to my limits to assemble a new flat-screen TV, connect it to a new high-definition cable box and attempt (admittedly, without success) to program one remote control to work both the TV and the box rather than have two remotes lost under the bedclothes each night.

Did I RTFM? I read three of them. Several times each. And I employed an array of assistive devices including separate pairs of eyeglasses for distance and reading; three different magnifying glasses; one of those dazzlingly bright lamps made for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder; a usuriously expensive Brookstone flashlight; packages of AA and AAA batteries; Phillips and regular screwdrivers of various sizes; and three similarly graduated wrenches.

Who knows if this would have been such a production if I wasn’t a presbyopic in the midst of cataract surgeries on both eyes. My hunch is it would have been even worse. For the uninitiated, cataracts, like presbyopia, are the result of aging lenses, but rather than stiffening one's lenses, cataracts cloud them. Even simple cataracts can cause blurred vision, halos and other symptoms; left untreated, they can cause blindness. They affect 60 percent of people 65 to 74, and 90 percent of those over 75.

To fix cataracts, once your vision becomes murky and red fluorescence circles street lights at night, you take out the lenses you were born with, put in fakes and, if all goes according to plan, you’re back in business. That said, even a simple cataract replacement takes time to heal, and the second eye can’t be done until the first is finished. In between, one's vision is unbalanced, and that's where I found myself, in the dimmest corner of my bedroom, needing distance glasses to attach the TV screen to its base, reading glasses to check the manuals, then distance glasses again when I was far enough along to begin following instructions on the cable screen.


None of the glasses, however, was quite right for connecting the cable line, with its pin and ridges, into the back of the TV, or seeing the "+" and "–" indicators in the dark recesses of the remotes' battery compartments. Squashed between the TV and the wall, with all those tools, twist ties and plastic blister packs on the bed, batteries rolling on the floor, manuals out of reach and flashlight in my mouth, I wondered how someone who was arthritic, overweight or living with a bad back could ever disentangle from this cross between a crow and a lotus pose.

How We Choose Our Battles

When that job was finally completed, I allowed myself a moment of self-congratulation for being so limber and fit as I slithered out from the narrow space, but it was short-lived, because next on my list of tasks that day was the replacement of two spent bulbs in my kitchen track light and one in a high-hat recessed in the living room ceiling. This meant climbing a ladder, which is why I’d put off the chores for so long. With the brittle bones typical of women of my slight build, I’d been mulling for a while whether it was time to swear off ladders altogether. The odds were small that I’d fall and even smaller that I’d break a hip, but at age 65, I knew well the cascade of health and mobility issues that could follow any such accident.

Still, being unable to change light bulbs seemed to me such a defeat, such an old-lady thing. It was a concession to age I wasn’t ready to make. So I climbed the ladder in my kitchen, tentatively, with both hands on the step above me. At the top, I eyed the contraption that needed to be snapped out of the track and the bulb I’d left in its package atop the ladder so it wouldn’t roll off and shatter on the quarry tile. It became clear only then that this was a task requiring two hands, leaving neither on the ladder.

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I wasn’t too happy up there: Light bulb. Ceiling tracks. Floor. And me, in between, suspended in midair. With a sense of dread, I slowly climbed back down. One of these days, when the right person is visiting, I’ll ask them for a favor. Failing that, there’s always the electrician, who will welcome his hourly fee to do nothing more complicated than change some bulbs.

Winter will be upon us soon, and here in the suburbs that means shoveling snow, a task I love both for the strenuous workout and the aesthetic pleasure of leaving the driveway with what amount to tidy hospital corners. Unlike my eyes and bones, my heart is fine. I look forward to many more years starting out in a parka, gloves and hat, then peeling them all off as I break the sweat reserved for the still young.

Jane Gross, a retired correspondent for the New York Times and the founder of its blog The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012). Read More
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