Category Archives: Aging

Buddy’s Place In The Sun

Many years ago I read The Good Earth. Pearl Buck wrote this magnificent book in the early 1930s and won a Pulitzer prize in 1932 for it and received a Nobel in 1938. The story covers multiple generations of a Chinese family- a family that had to struggle against all types of external and internal challenges. Particularly vivid in my memory is the book’s ending where the old Chinese grandfather, who having run his race, retires to his comfortable chair, occupying his richly deserved place in the sun. He sits remembering and enjoying a deep sense of satisfaction from his long efforts.

I am reminded of this daily when I observe my thirteen-year-old Border collie, Buddy, and his aging behaviors. Due to infirmity he wisely retired from herding cattle over a year ago. I wrote the story, Buddy- The Slacker early on but did not get around to posting it until March 30 of 2018. In the story Buddy is only a half-grown dog but amazingly manages to break up a ferocious fight between two huge bulls. After so doing, he ran the neighbor’s bull off and then returned our bull unassisted through a forest and around rocks and streams to our ranch. This proved to be the single best herding achievement by a dog that I’ve ever witnessed. After witnessing this event, I no longer referred to the half-grown Border collie as Slacker.

One days several years later I was unaware of a Longhorn cow sneaking up on me while I fiddled with a difficult gate. Buddy saw the approaching cow and easily could have sped off. Instead he stood his ground, short canines against very long, heavy horns. The cow thumped me many times before Buddy helped to drive her back. I can think of no better example of Buddy’s loyalty.

While Buddy no longer herds, he still enjoys riding around the ranch in the back of my pickup. I must lift Buddy up and into the bed of my pickup to gain his rightful place of honor. His old gray snout becomes animated when riding in the back of the pickup and surveying his ranch. His ears perk up, his dull eyes become livelier and dart from object to object, and he stands erect and proud as if for a few moments his joints no longer pain him. He points his nose into the air and listens as intently as his old ears allow.

It’s my ranch and I still look out for it.

Because of his advanced age, Buddy has largely stopped going on walks with Bella, Little Jack, and me. He will usually await our return while waiting patiently beside my pickup that in the driveway. The effort to take a walk on his painful limbs must have simply become too great, I suppose, and he has taken this commonsense approach.

Buddy has multiple beds in the house which is only appropriate because the majority of his day is spent napping. He has a doggie bed in the study where he keeps track of me while I distractedly click away on my computer. Buddy has another bed “in his office” located in a corner behind a screen where he monitors the goings on in the living room. Buddy also has a doggie bed in our bedroom where he catches many a daytime nap.

Enjoying the warmth of the sun and a good nap

Buddy frequents all of his sleeping spots at various times during the day. These spots have something in common; each allows him to soak his aging bones in the warm sunlight streaming through nearby windows. Buddy migrates from spot to spot to capture the healing sunlight. I like to think this warmth provides pain free rest periods. These doggie beds, I believe, are Buddy’s places in the sun.

Hey, don’t forget I also like to lay in the sun.

I sometimes observe Buddy dreaming with his legs making running movements. His whiskers shake and shiver. I, of course, have no idea what he dreams about, but I hope Buddy is reliving his best herding memories and summing up his many adventures. I know that at age 13 (or 91 in dog years), Buddy won’t be around much longer. i can hardly bear to think about losing him.

Buddy was born on the ranch (actually in my bedroom closet) and has barely left the outer reaches of the ranch. He models stoicism and provides more unconditional love than we can ever hope to return.His loyalty and desire to protect his people goes beyond question.

During this wonderful holiday season, the thought occurs to me that God’s love for all his creatures is, in small part, represented by our dogs love for their humans. For this let us give thanks and offer in return unconditional love.

Dream on Buddy, my loyal companion. You’ve earned your place in the sun.

Mea Culpa: Seeing Clearly

Okay, I was wrong this time, really wrong. Big time! I’ll admit it. Hear that, my lovely wife? Mea Culpa!

The ever diligent and loving Oma Trudy supervising  grandson Graham while he feeds a bottle calf

For sometime Trudy and I had disagreed on the color of my hair. We’ve even argued in the sort of emotionless way older couples argue. You see, I’ve always had light brown/blonde hair, but in recent years she’s claimed it had all turned gray. Nonplussed and unconvinced by her assertions, I would carefully steal into the bathroom and examine my hair in the mirror, inspecting it as if  examining the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone. I clearly saw blonde locks, perhaps mixed with a few gray hairs. Didn’t gray hair portend frailty, senility, and lack of relevancy? But I had no doubt whatsoever as to my hair colors- brown and blonde. My eyes wouldn’t deceive me.

To settle our long standing difference of opinion once for for all, I asked my hair cutter to decide this troublesome issue. Jennifer, who just happens to also cut Trudy’s hair, heard my lament and agreed to my request.

Well, Jennifer studied my hair slowly and methodically. She poked around on my head, moving aside shocks of hair as if leafy branches obscuring a bird’s nest. I beamed in anticipation, knowing I was about to hear unequivocal support for my blonde hair. I could soon boast a rare win over my always persuasive attorney wife. It was then the roof fell in. Jennifer calmly announced, “Your hair is gray.”

“Gray? You don’t see the blonde?”

“Nope.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep”

“Not even blonde streaks?”

“Well, it all looks gray to me, but you do have lots of it.” I suppose with that comment Jennifer tried to lessen the heavy blow by pointing out that at least I hadn’t gone bald. At least not yet. Some solace that.

Gray! I was at that very moment staring into the mirror in front of her barber’s chair. I could clearly see  blonde amidst some dismal, dreary gray hair. My spirits sank. How can this be?

But then like the Phoenix of legend my defenses rallied and my resistance grew (some might call it rationalization and denial). Something funny was going on here. Thoughts of an estrogen conspiracy involving Trudy and Jennifer welled up within me. Perhaps Jennifer was part of some evil plot hatched by Trudy to put me in “the home.” Aha! There’s goes your tip Jen! What gives here anyway? Are you blind women?

Resolution to my existential dilemma came not long after. You see, my vision had worsened. Also glare made nighttime driving difficult. For this I sought the attention of my excellent eye doctor, Dr. Ann Plenneke. Several weeks later I underwent extraction of cataracts and lens replacements.

Alas, overnight my hair turned gray. Gray!!! Who would’ve thought the yellow tone to my hair had resulted from my own yellowed lenses? Mea Culpa, Dear wife, I was wrong, you were right. Tonight I’ll do the dishes.

I’ll admit this aging thing can be a bit tricky and is become increasingly challenging to negotiate. How does one do it gracefully? Now if a guy can’t believe what he sees, what’s he to believe?  Can I really trust my vision seen through new, store bought lenses that were almost certainly provided by the lowest bidder? What about my hearing that isn’t all that great either? Does this mean I shouldn’t believe anything I hear either? Ah, the nagging dilemmas that accompany an aging body.

“Well dogs if you won’t loan me your keen sense sense of hearing, then how about your outstanding sense of smell?”

Is it my loss of self-confidence in my own perceptions or merely an awareness that as I age my chances of being correct lessen? This is but one of many conundrums I’ve discovered with getting older. As a result I’ve learned to admit my mistakes and apologize quicker. I’ve found apologies now come with less difficulty, perhaps because I’ve become habituated to giving them.

On a more positive note, my rich stock of lifelong, accumulated experiences helps to lesson my sensory losses. My experiences place everyday challenges into greater perspective and usually diminishes their overall negative impact. This proves an advantage for me and i provides for greater emotional equanimity. Isn’t there something about wisdom growing with age? I sure hope so.

Perception, however, sadly slacks off. Everything diminishes in acuity. You name it- vision, hearing, smell, sensation. Sayanara, adios, auf wiedersehen! Why’s it wasted on my dogs who can hear a truck cross the cattle guard from half a mile away? Why’s their sense of smell denied to this human septuagenarian?

Hope my kids don’t read this. Admitting to flagging perceptual abilities could be a huge mistake. Think about it. My children, Andy and Katie, just wouldn’t get it. Think I’ll hide the car keys before their next visit.

“Bella, don’t worry. We’ll hide the truck keys before the kids come.” Note me wearing glasses before the cataract surgery, something I no longer have to do. Bella’s vision however has remained remarkably good.

 

 

 

Buddy’s Retirement- April 20, 2018

Buddy as a younger dog

It was inevitable, I suppose. Retirement is part of life isn’t it, that is if we live long enough. Buddy about whom you’ve heard much lately (Buddy- The Slacker) retired from his life’s work today. His retirement from herding came suddenly or at least it surprised me.

On request Buddy declined to jump out of the bed of the pickup to help herd the mama cow about which I recently wrote (A Sad Day On The Ranch). This job in the past would have been an easy one for Buddy, merely moving one cow through a couple of gates and into an adjoining pasture where the remainder of the herd grazed.

When I called to Buddy, he merely stared back at me. Has he suddenly gone deaf? What’s wrong with that dog!

After a few moments of reflection on the statue-like, immobile Buddy, I thought perhaps his bad back might be hurting him or else he had judged after twelve and a half years he’d accomplished his limit of herding cattle. Nevertheless, pushing one cow through a couple of gates and into another pasture has previously hardly been work for our Buddy who has lived to herd. But I know twelve and a half years makes for an old dog, especially for a Border collie.

He’s been the best herder I’ve ever had on the ranch. His exploits are legion, as I tried to indicate in the Slacker piece, his first herding experience. Nevertheless, lately he has been less invested and less enthusiastic about this effort. I maintain that in his place today he urged the younger Bella to help me. Surprisingly Bella did a fairly good job but not up to the standards set earlier by Buddy.

Buddy on left and Bella on right. Photo by Ramsey

Buddy has lately spent more time napping on one of his four beds (yes, can you believe it- four beds) that are scattered strategically around our house. He never has to take more than a few steps to find a doggie bed. If a bed is not immediately available, a low chair will do just fine.

While he still enjoys riding around in the pickup, he now seems anxious to return to the house and resume his doggie slumbers.

Perhaps his life’s arc from superb and indefatigable herding dog to his current “just don’t bother me” attitude is an expected part of normal aging thatis sure to affect us all. I’ll admit since retiring, I enjoy naps more.

Years ago when I asked my grandmother Hutton when she was quite elderly what it was like to get old, she replied, “Tom, you just slow up.” This observation must be as true for Border collies as it is for humans.

I hope Buddy reneges on his retirement for at least a brief period of time. What gives me hope is that Francisco, our ranch hand of seventy-five years old has retired at least five times. Each time after his announced retirement he came back to the ranch after having become thoroughly bored with watching TV and missing “his” ranch.

The animals, the beauty of nature, and the opportunity to make the ranch better proves for Francisco an incredibly strong draw. Might Buddy one day feel a spurt of new resolve along with a strong desire to herd- just one more cow? Time will tell.

By the way, what does one give a Border collie as a retirement gift? He has no use for a watch. Your thoughts?

Buddy, the retiree, taking one of his frequent naps

The Tragic Irony of Roger Bannister’s Death

Roger Bannister

Last month I posted a piece on the death of the great Sir Roger Bannister. I also shared some personal observations regarding how his example affected my life. His athletic accomplishments and lifelong efforts to cure chronic neurological diseases ended with the tragic irony of his own death due to one of those, Parkinson’s disease.

In his youth he broke the four minute mile- a feat previously thought impossible. Bannister had great flexibility of his arms and legs, possessed a long and graceful stride, and demonstrated amazing endurance. He also displayed profound determination. Despite these youthful gifts he ultimately died of a disease that stiffens the muscles, reduces the speed of movement, creates noxious tremor, and gives rise to balance and walking problems. Such a sad travesty to bear for a world class athlete.

The irony is doubly so when we consider how he spent his professional lifetime researching, writing, and lecturing on the nature of neurological disorders, among which was Parkinson’s disease.

Knowledge that Bannister suffered Parkinson’s disease came to me only after posting my earlier piece. This added dimension on his death required this additional retrospective.

One suspects Bannister recognized early on that he suffered Parkinson’s disease. Whether it began with the telltale slow hand tremor, lack of arm swing when walking, or some other feature of Parkinson’s disease, we may never know. Familiar as he was with the disorder, he almost certainly recognized not only what was insidiously happening to him, but also what was sure to come.

Sketch of a man with PD with the typical features

None of us can predict the future. Because of this we need live each day to its fullest, as we never know whether a serious disease or even death may overtake us and minimize or negate our previous skills.

Sir Roger we bid you a fond adieu for the way you lived your life, for your athletic prowess that showed us to never accept current accepted limitations, and for the grace with which you dealt with your terminal illness.

Depictions at the various stages of life

 

Of Buddy and Back Injuries

I don’t know if my absence from the blog has been noticed, but ‘I’ve been MIA for awhile, suffering from a slipped disc. Besides sapping any creativity, it is darned hard to write when lying on your belly in bed.

The offending item that resulted in my most recent aggravation of my back injury

My infirmity did cause me to think back 10 years when I first injured my back. For the six weeks during my recovery, my young Border collie, Buddy, stayed as if glued to my side. I knew he would have preferred to be out on the ranch herding or exploring, but stay with me he did. Because of his loyalty and devotion, his name became uncannily appropriate.

Buddy has of course, like me, aged in the last 10 years. He injured his own back years ago while jumping over a cattle guard, causing a thoracic disc to project out, contuse his spinal cord, and bring about a prolonged weakness of his hind legs. He is probably 70% recovered now and has continued to perform his ranch duties with a fierce determination.

Buddy when younger

Buddy is now an old dog. Of late when we’ve gone on a walk (always an activity he enjoyed immensely), he has tended to stay behind at the house while Bella and Little Jack walk off with me.

Seems to me Buddy is smart enough to know that the exertion will only aggravate his discomfort and we will, after all, return in short order.

Buddy sleeps more now following his injury

Since most of my time has been spent in my position of relative comfort, that is on my belly in bed, Little Jack and Bella have taken over Buddy’s prior close association. They bookend me on the bed while Buddy lays across the room on his dog bed or underneath my bed. He simply doesn’t have the oomph to jump up on the bed any longer. Instead he seems to delegate this position of responsibility.

Bella on the left and Little Jack on the right

Buddy seems able to accept  changes required by his age and back condition. This lesson is not lost on his pained human companion.

Injuries, such as mine, provide lots of time to think. My friends and family have been wonderfully supportive. This provides more solace than I ever would have imagined.

My dogs also provide wonderful companionship and are rooting for my recovery. While I await a visit with the neurosurgeon, I am closer than ever to achieving recovery from my injury. Loyalty is never sweeter than when it arrives at a time of special need- and on four paws with a wet nose.

Reflections on Getting Older

“Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first is made.”

As mentioned in an earlier post,  the meaning of Robert Browning’s famous saying for a long time of puzzled me.

Is it life satisfaction that increases with age? Or is it that our thinking processes somehow affect how we react?

Psychologists have grappled with changes in the way we think as we age. Raymond Cattell developed the concept that general intelligence consists of two types: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Its not that intelligence declines in older age (unless a dementing illness sets in), it’s that fluid intelligence declines while crystallized intelligence increases.

“Say what? What does this have to do with herding cows?”

Both types of intelligence increase throughout childhood and adolescence. Fluid intelligence, the ability to develop new problem solving strategies, peaks by age 40 whereas crystallized intelligence that comes from prior learning and experience doesn’t peak until the 60s or 70s.

Both types are important to overall intelligence. There is also some evidence that brain training games may benefit fluid intelligence.

The direct approach to understanding intelligence

Perhaps it is a greater reliance on crystallized intelligence that allows older people to better determine the veracity of an event/statement based on his/her longer experience. While this doesn’t always comport with what youngsters may believe or have experienced, it at least holds as a general rule.

“You better hope that your fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence will outweigh your lack of smell and hearing.”
Photos by Ramsey

When considering aging in humans and dogs, one thing of which I am certain is that dogs can model positive aspects of aging. For example Buddy (pictured above) awakens in the morning stiff and sore. He and I both take awhile to get going. Nevertheless when Buddy heads for the truck and his ranch duties he pulls himself together and goes after life with an incredible zest. He’s not one to give into his infirmities.

Within reason this is a life characteristic that I and other humans should emulate. While our physical and mental capabilities may not be what they once were, we should continue to use what we have to the maximum.

Thanks Buddy for your example and we shall grow old together as the best is yet to come.

May The Force Be With You

The well known statement from “Star Wars” that serves as the title for this piece has of late developed special meaning for me. Perhaps I am still under the emotional overhang of my father’s recent passing, but the ease by which he passed has meaning for me. Dad died at the age of 96-years peacefully and in his sleep. His force to live diminished in his final months to a point where he was no longer walking, then no longer chewing, and then even refusing to swallow liquid supplements. His life force slowly ebbed away.

Dad (John Howard Hutton) when his life force was strong

In juxtaposition with Dad’s dying process has been my observation of an unfortunate, recently born calf on our ranch. Now I am in no way equating the value of the two lives, only making a comparison of their life forces.

Newest bottle calf being fed by Trudy with his good-for-nothing, calf-stomping mother looking on

The calf was refused milk by his mother for reasons unknown. Not only that but she kicked the calf nearly to unconsciousness when he tried to nurse. Later the mother calf became spooked and backed up, stomping her calf. Frankly I thought she had killed it.

Nevertheless, the following morning the previous “calf carcass” took a full bottle of milk. What a surprise! He’s not developed normally but is still making slow progress. He has a left front leg injury, one of the several spots where his mother stepped on him. Our newest bottle calf refused to die and continues to gain weight and hobbles about to a limited degree. I sometimes have to provide extra lift for the calf for him to get onto his four wobbly legs. As he grows, this may become a serious problem.

Given his miraculous survival, we refer to him as Phoenix. He rose off the pasture where he was near death and now greets Trudy and me with his long eyelashes for which Madonna would be envious, lovely dark eyes, and enthusiastic sucking at the milk bottle that sustains his life.

Mythological Phoenix

He still is not guaranteed survival. It seems his legs are too weak at times to get him up or possibly too painful. His walking is unsteady and wobbly and Phoenix tends to fall on uneven ground.

Nevertheless, Phoenix possesses a strong life force. I suppose this has to do with his young age and strong survival instincts. Regarding my Father, I cannot help but believe that after 96-years and having lived a full life that his life force had diminished down to nothing.

Grandson Graham earlier today feeding a somewhat older Phoenix

I recall the answer my grandmother gave when I asked her as a child what it was like to get old. She said, “Tommy, you just get tired.” I think she was right. Increasing fatigue accompanies age and illness. In my experience as a physician, folks just kind of give up at some point and are ready to die. Age seems to have a lot to do with it.

In my recently published book, Carrying The Black Bag: A Neurologist’s Bedside Tales I tell the story of a little girl with Reye’s Syndrome who by all accounts should have died. Despite an absolutely horrible prognosis she lived and thrived. I believe her young age had much to do with her survival. The force was with her.

To my readers, “May the force be with you,” by which I imply continued strong life forces and may you enjoy vital life in the years ahead.