Getting on beneath the vaulted sky

by Chris Bertram on January 22, 2019

Early last year, I began to experience some pains in my hands. I associated them with bringing a large turkey back from the butchers. Hadn’t taken the car, because parking, but it was heavier than I appreciated and I struggled with the bird as the handles of the plastic bad tore on my fingers. I went to the doctor. Tendons, probably, he said. Most likely be better in a few months.

Then in September, back from a touring holiday in France which had involved a lot of lugging of boxes and cases up and down stairs, the pain was back, worse. I lacked the strength to open cans and bottles. Some movements were fine but turning a knob or using a key sometimes — ouch!

That’s where I am, basically. A few trips to the doctor and the physio later, osteoarthritis it seems. Injections in the thumb joint helped one hand, but less the other. Typing is ok, mostly, but my handwriting is worse. On public transport I steady myself by wrapping my arm around things, since gripping with a hand might hurt. I squeeze a rubber ball from time to time, as building up the muscles supposedly compensates a bit for the damage to the joints.

Not much fun, but could be worse. And only one of many things that comes past your mid fifties (I’m sixty now). I’ve had more blood tests in the past three years than in the previous thirty put together. Diabetes? No, thank goodness, not yet. Blood pressure is high, if not really dangerously so yet. Swallowing statins every morning, when I remember, to keep the choresterol down.

My father died in the summer of 2017. He was in good form until a week before the end though he’d had his share of health problems over the quarter-century before and a walk to the shops and back would see him needing a rest. We shared conversations to the end. He was lively, still learning German, discussing Edith Wharton. Though we all know that death is coming, a parent going is concrete. You know that will be you soon enough, so better make the best of it and concentrate on what matters.

As I’ve thought more about the loss of capacity. The aches and pains. The knowledge that there are things you could do but now can’t. When you really ought to take more exercise because it is good for your heart and lungs, but when there’s every chance that back, knee or hip won’t play nicely enough to let you.

I keep returning to an image from a TV programme about John Clare. The picture was of a man on his back with

> The grass below — above the vaulted sky.

When young the vaulting is infinitely distant, and if lucky and not disabled you can vault over obstacles yourself. But age makes the sky close in. In your forties you can see the roof even if you can’t touch it. Then, later, if you stretch, your fingers graze the surface. Time comes when you have to be careful not to bang your head. Some while after you stoop and then crouch. The tunnel gets narrower too. There is less space to move and perhaps, eventually, there will be no space at all.



Don A in Pennsyltucky 01.22.19 at 12:02 pm

Statins with dinner. Ask the pharmacist.
Hoping that the pain/stiffness in knuckles since the bicycle accident (2 months ago) continues to self-resolve with OTC anti-inflammatories


Matt 01.22.19 at 12:46 pm

I’m sorry to hear about the hand pain. It’s especially bad for people who write for a living. When I was in college, I worked part time in a hospital pharmacy. We used hundreds of bottles of normal saline solution a day. The way that billing worked, each bottle had to have a sticker on it. I’d spend my slow time taking little bottles from a box, pulling a sticker from a strip, putting it on the bottle, and returning it to the box. Within a few months, I could no longer hold a pen or a pencil in my right hand. This was before lap tops, so it was a pretty big problem for a student! I had to refuse to do that task anymore. My hands, which had been strong, still give me trouble from time to time, and get sore easily. It’s not fun. I hope yours won’t be a persistent problem.


JimV 01.22.19 at 12:52 pm

It sounds like the tennis elbow I had after a long, hard-fought tennis session in my late forties. At the end I noticed I had a death grip on the racket handle which was difficult to loosen. The next day I was trying to leave a conference room at work which had a spring-loaded door knob. I couldn’t turn the knob with my right hand, and had to awkwardly use my left hand. It lasted for several months, to the point where I didn’t think it would ever heal, but it did eventually. When I did finally dare to play tennis again, I used a compression band around my right forearm, which seemed to help a lot. I never hit the ball as well as I had that day, though.

On the aging thing, I never needed a doctor (that I knew of) until about the age of 67. It has been one darn thing after another since then. (I’ll spare the gory details.) I might make 75 but don’t expect to see 80 (which of course isn’t unusual and more than I deserve). My arm-chair philosophy about it it is that if death (by aging) didn’t exist, evolution would have had to invent it, which it did. Otherwise, how can a species adapt to changes in the environment by trying new gene tweaks and combinations, without drastic over-population? For new things to succeed you have to get rid of the old things.


Cervantes 01.22.19 at 2:36 pm

It sounds like the arthritis at the base of the thumb is the biggest problem. It was for me. I couldn’t even pick up a piece of paper with my left hand without pain, and it ached constantly. There is surgery available for that, which I got, and it worked. It was quite an ordeal, and it took a year to fully recover, but I got the use of my hand back and the pain is gone. I have arthritis in the distal joints of several fingers, but that is much less of a problem.

The surgery is kind of gross — they remove the trapezium bone and, in my case, stuff the cavity with a rolled up tendon harvested from the forearm, which eventually ossifies. You will never miss the tendons. Some surgeons use a prosthesis, either a cadaver bone or an artificial product. It’s quite painful at first and you have to wear a cast for six weeks, and then undergo rehab, but in the end, for me at least, it was a complete cure. Worth considering.


Omega Centauri 01.22.19 at 3:03 pm

I have chronic several overuse injuries that I used to be able work around athletics wise. But now I’m 67 and they seriously limit the amount of exercise I can get. You adapt and go on. And find other ways to spend your time and energy.

JimV @67. Well if evolution was kind to us we would remain healthy and vigorous then at some random time, boom its over. If the probability of boom was not age dependent, then there would be no difference in one’s prospects whether 20 or 90.


Lee A. Arnold 01.22.19 at 4:00 pm

Mild continuous exercise helps including muscle strengthening over your whole body but never overdo, just daily. I walk about 3.5 miles a day, hit a gym in the middle of the walk and work about 20 weight machines, very light weights.

“We used to talk about girls. Now we talk about doctors.”

— Mel Brooks, on gathering with his friends.


Birdie 01.22.19 at 5:07 pm

It appears that sacrificing the body is an essential to join in civilized society in any meaningful way. Nobody else thinks overwork/stress injuries/industrial accidents are a big deal, so what’s the matter with you, Bub? A serious “life of the mind” demands serious couch-potatoism. We’re all playing in the NFL these days, but it doesn’t have to be like that.


DILBERT DOGBERT 01.22.19 at 5:19 pm

Getting old is not for sissies!!!
My mental image of aging comes in two forms. One, is where you start life living in a large mansion of many rooms. Then in middle age you notice that a room is missing. As you age rooms keep disappearing. The next thing you know you are living in a one room hut.
The other is when young you see a clear horizon that seems very very distant. Then you see clouds on the horizon and it seems closer. At my age, 83, I can reach out and touch the fog.
The legs are shot and the pain in my feet is increasing. This time next year I could be in a wheelchair. Other than that life is good.
I encourage my young wife, 72, to keep on keeping on. She has taken that to heart and is riding her horse, skiing, scuba diving and renewing her pilots license. I am keeping on keeping on riding my horse and electric assist bike and living vicariously through my wife’s adventures.


otpup 01.22.19 at 7:29 pm

There are probably nutritional approaches (though your doctor will be unbelieving and vegans will be offended). But osteo-a does give indications of being both immune related and a disease of modernity. Anyway ensure adequate fat soluble vitamins (and related minerals) This may require you to eat more saturated fat than is fashionable. Also glycine, and omega 3’s. Eliminate any unnecessary PUFA’s.


peter 01.22.19 at 9:50 pm

Don A @1:

Statins with dinner + alcohol = indigestion, heart burn and vomiting.

Statins with breakfast + no alcohol = no illness and Cholesterol levels normal.


Alan White 01.22.19 at 10:56 pm

Thanks Chris–this certainly hit home. Since you’re only 60 and still working, allow me the presumption of my own data point as one of hope. I’m 65 and just finishing my first year of retirement after nearly 40 years of teaching at a 4/4 branch of the U of Wisconsin. Like you I’ve experienced some health concerns over the past 15 years including mild hypertension. Since I loved my career (down to the last day in the classroom), I didn’t know what to expect when I was gently pushed out of it with a generous buy-out and threats of commuting to teach part of my load (I’d done that for 10 years and detested it). What I discovered is that I had no idea how stressful even a career that one enjoys can be! Within months I had lost 15 pounds and my BP went down, even a bit below normal, with no medication. I’ve been active my whole life, but clearly being out of the day-to-day grind of academic prep and research made the whole difference. My hope is that when you do retire, you find these same benefits.

One exercise that I’ve become devoted to is the elliptical machine on my campus, which I still may use as emeritus. It does a great job putting my heart to the test without straining my knees, which feel the effects of 40 years of running.


Chip Daniels 01.23.19 at 1:38 am

It is a turning point of sorts, that moment when you can actually grasp the length of time ahead of you.

I’m 58 and remember how even into my 30s, the remaining time in my life seemed to stretch away into inconceivable distance. Then somewhere in my 40s, I realized that even if I lived to a ripe old age, I could actually grasp how long that remaining time was.

I could remember forty odd years ago, I could suddenly understand that forty odd years into the future, my memories of midlife would be as fresh and sharp as my memories of kindergarten were.


William Berry 01.23.19 at 5:02 am

On remembering to take your statin: I recommend using the seven-day pill dispensers that have the little snap-open lids for each day. Put all your daily vitamins, low-dose aspirin, and prescription meds in each compartment and take them all when you have a full meal. Use two of the dispensers so the next week will always be ready.

You should also take a Co-Q10 tab to improve the statin uptake (“they” say).

I feel for you on the arthritis thing. At sixty-seven, I have struggled with it for several years now. No trouble typing (thanks, mainly, to light-touch electronic keyboards), but playing guitar is no longer pleasurable; easy pieces on the piano are manageable.

Oh, well. Each day we begin a new life.


JimV 01.23.19 at 5:21 am

“…if evolution was kind to us…”

Not sure what you mean there, but evolution works just like engineering: all it cares about is the purpose to be accomplished, and kindness wasn’t in the job specification. It doesn’t want you to live until you die by accident. It wants you gone after you’ve had a chance to pass on your DNA, so you’re no longer tying up resources that newer and perhaps better versions need. That is to say, less pathetic-fallaciously, a species that only dies by external agency rather than planned obsolescence (so your prospects at 90 are the same as at 20) would not be as adaptable and thus probably be out-competed and driven extinct by more adaptable species. Or so it seems to me. After all, the most adaptable (and successful) form of life by far is bacteria (average life-span 12 hours). Anyway, that’s all I was trying to say. Another way of looking at it is that after you’ve had that chance to pass on your DNA there is no reason for evolution to put in any more effort to keeping you alive and healthy. So it doesn’t.


John Quiggin 01.23.19 at 5:59 am

I’m about to go back on to statins. I managed to get my levels down to the acceptable target with fairly strenuous exercise and some diet changes, but they have gone back up again. That’s annoying, but at least I’m not at the stage of taking multiple medications daily.

On the positive side, I feel as if it’s possible to keep on redefining old age for a long time. I can remember at 17 reading about a medical breakthrough that would be on the market in 5 years and thinking that by then I’d be too old to care (I later learned that all stories about medical breakthroughs have this time frame – it’s the medical version of a Friedman unit). “Never trust anyone over 30” was still a thing back then, not to mention “When I’m 64”. I’m 62 now, and while I have to work a lot harder to do things that were easy in my 20s, I don’t really feel older.

FWIW, my advice on exercise is: the more the better, but not too much of any one thing, particularly running and weight training. On the theme of the OP, always take joint pain very seriously, but treat (moderate) muscle pain as evidence that you are working hard.


bad Jim 01.23.19 at 8:35 am

At 67, tt would appear that my fatalism has served me well. I started smoking at 16, rationalizing that losing a decade of the end of my life might not be so bad. I was so fit at that age, especially after I made bicycling my main mode of transportation, that it took years for deterioration to become noticeable, and even that was mostly due to years of sedentary work. Partly as a result of the business I was in, I started working out, and it’s not out of the question that my upper body strength peaked in my 40’s.

Once I cashed in and retired, though, my program of self-improvement came to an end, and years of taking care of a feeble parent left me more debilitated than ever. (This is more excuse than explanation.) What got me to quit smoking was the dawning realization that lung cancer was not only not the likeliest outcome, but was becoming, to at least some degree and in some cases, curable. It was not the inevitable death I’d signed up for.

I don’t get sick as often as some people; I don’t think I’ve ever had the flu. Perhaps the appendicitis and peritonitis I survived at age two super-charged my immune system. Never having married or having kids probably helps too. It’s probably just luck. My brother and sister-in-law continue their athletic pursuits and discuss the excruciating results over dinner on Sunday night; they’re dealing with quite a bit of chronic pain. Sister and youngest brother also have had some nasty issues.

I don’t have a doctor. I do have a dermatologist; I find I enjoy being spritzed with liquid nitrogen. I also have an optometrist, and there’s something wonderful about having a pretty woman gaze deeply into your eyes and say, “Your retinas look good.”


bad Jim 01.23.19 at 9:33 am

Some context: my grandmother and both her daughters wound up with Alzheimer’s, and I (alone, fortunately, among my siblings) carry the APOe4 allele which makes that outcome more likely. Not a certainty; it’s riskier for women than men. Nevertheless, having spent years dealing with it, I’d prefer nescience to spending my twilight years in The Twilight Zone.


Phil 01.23.19 at 10:53 am

Mild OA in the hands here – some aches and cramps, occasional weakness, really bad handwriting. I keep it at bay (touch wood) by playing the concertina & by using a mouse as little as possible; also, OTC glucosamine. Lately I’ve been most annoyed by muscles jumping & twitching – as far as I can work out, this is one of
a) incipient Parkinson’s
b) a mineral deficiency
c) nothing in particular (and may have been happening for years before I noticed). Otherwise it’s as much as I can do to distinguish actual symptoms from side-effects of my blood pressure medication. The ‘muscle cramp’ and ‘dry cough’ side-effects are particularly annoying. Actually, being on BP meds at all is annoying – I’m annoyed to have the problem at all (I always had low BP in my younger days, as do my kids) and, perversely, annoyed to have had it spotted (I went to the doctor to talk about muscle cramps – she had nothing for that…).

I’m 58 & still hoping (as I have for at least the last 20 years) to be fitter/healthier/thinner than I am, some day. Maybe when I retire…!


Tom Hurka 01.23.19 at 3:29 pm

Sorry to hear about your troubles, Chris. I read your post just as I was concluding that the aches around the base of my left thumb probably aren’t a muscle thing that will go away but, given that I have osteoarthritis everywhere else — hips (both replaced), feet, knees, shoulders, elbows — it’s probably that here too. Oh well. The slight consolation is that you get used to things. Remember those studies where paraplegics don’t report much less life-satisfaction a year after their injury than they did before (and lottery winners don’t report more life-satisfaction.)

Along with all the advice you’ve been given above (which you may just ignore): I’ve been doing an exercise that I’ve twice read is one of the two or three most useful, especially for older people: just take heavy weights (35 lbs. for me now) in your hands and walk as far as you can. It strengthens wrists and forearms — but maybe your hands are too far gone for that.

Anyway, if I can’t wish you a speedy recovery maybe I can wish you a speedy getting-used-to.


Doug K 01.23.19 at 9:01 pm

as I recall, John L. Parker in one of his running novels, used the metaphor of mountain guides. As boys in the mountain village they could see the peaks all around, and knew one day they’d be able to climb them. As old men they see the peaks all around, and know they will never climb them again..

This summer I tore cartilage in the left knee, performing a stupid canoe trick. Over forty years of running and the knees survived, one ill-judged minute and the run is over. No doubt BP, cholesterol, etc will all start to climb now I can no longer run to stay healthy. Ha.


Stephen 01.25.19 at 7:23 pm

Chris: serious, deeply-felt commiserations to you on your pains, and the eventual loss of your father. I’ve known both.
But two things not relevant to you, but to some of the CT commentators:
First, why are they surprised? Non sum qualis eram (Horace. about two millennia ago). And as old Johnson said, “Yet hope not life from grief or danger free, Nor think the doom of man reversed for thee.”
Second, if all the statins, Co-Q10 etc that are recommended are valuable, and I’m not saying they aren’t, how far would they still be generally available in the green, agricultural, post-industrial future sometimes advocated?

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