Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Men, Aging and Parkinson’s Disease


Sad and silent. These men shuffled into the small meeting room, supposedly to hear me share my “story”, my experience with Parkinson’s disease. While I am a poor judge of age, I estimate that they were all in their 80s or 90s. Most of them appeared to remain ambulatory only with the use of a walker, neatly parked near the door like shopping carts at the entrance to a grocery store.

I didn’t know whether I should be encouraged by their attendance, or discouraged by their lack of engagement in any sort of dialogue. It was a tough crowd. Usually when I speak in public I try to connect with some friendly faces in the audience. In small group settings, I will ”tag” each listener in order to make some connection, searching each person’s eyes for navigational clues of approval, disbelief or uncertainty. But gleaning anything from this group proved challenging, if not impossible. Except for my host, who had been responsible for my invitation, this somber troupe of seniors seemed to have left their smiles in some secret Sphinx -like place in the past.


Defeated, discouraged and mute, they remained unresponsive, leaving me to answer my own questions, whether rhetorical or not. Like prisoners attending mandatory rehabilitation classes, I wondered if any of them would value or remember anything I said by the time they completed their shambling journey back to their chosen isolation.
“What have we done?” I asked myself.  As I looked around the room I found myself comparing two scenarios. On one side there were the interactions I recently enjoyed with students who probed, questioned and found it difficult to remain quiet for any length of time. Those engagements seemed diametrically opposed to this gathering of elders, who neither questioned nor commented, apparently preferring silence. What happened in the 60 years between the ages of 20 and 80? Immediately realizing how close I am to the latter, I found a nameless fear slowly seeping into my soul. Surely, aging is more than just surviving. Life must be more than an endurance test that we will inevitably fail. What will prevent me drowning in the “slough of despond” as I age? What will save me from the self-pity of a shrinking solitude?


We aging males, entering the “retirement” era, are left with many demanding questions, perhaps best summarized in the one posed by John C. Robinson book’s title: ”What [do] aging men really want?” We can all agree that we don’t want to feel threatened, angry, afraid, useless, embarrassed, regretful, bitter, or insecure as we age (or prematurely experience aging due to the far from gentle erosion of Parkinson’s disease).

But what do we really want? Giving up is not acceptable. Perhaps there might be one answer to be found in the final words of the poem, “Ulysses”, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

     Tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days
     Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
     One equal temper of heroic hearts,
     Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
     To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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