I’ll be 71 in a few weeks, and because of the heat I’ve felt every day of it too often since late May. As if feeling old, hot and tired isn’t tough enough in New England, I had to up the ante and go to Georgia where I rented a car for the week I was there.
With grandson Henri and his mega-backpack in tow, and dashing from one air-conditioned environment to another with my luggage and his, and an extra bag that included his first skateboard and an amazing number of battery-driven devices, I finally had us belted in and heading for his home in Kennesaw. It was my first time driving in Atlanta traffic for a few years and, even on Saturday, the roads were full of fast-moving vehicles. If you’ve never driven in Metro Atlanta, this joke tells you all you need to know: A comedian who lives in the Atlanta area says, “I was driving 80 mph on I-75 and four school buses flew past me!” It could happen here.
Still over-heated, I realized about ten minutes into the drive that I was doing something very uncharacteristic for me: I was driving too slowly and too tentatively. I felt old and uncertain. I’ve always liked to drive and, given my fine record, I can claim being darn good at it. Because the most important thing to me was delivering my grandson safely to his mother after his very successful first summer vacation away from her, I mentally slapped myself, turned up the AC and picked up my pace. We made the hour-long drive in fine shape.
The next day I set off on my own for a day-long jaunt that began with breakfast at the OK Cafe with my good friend, Joey, and that would include crossing Atlanta several times before I headed north again. I did it again: I eased into traffic rather than smoothly taking my place in traffic as it was my driver’s right to do. Before changing lanes I thought about it too long. This time, without chatting Henri, I gave more serious thought to what I was doing and feeling and concluded that I’d decided that, at 70, I couldn’t still be the quick, accurate and occasionally aggressive driver I’ve always been. WRONG.
Am I a different driver than when I lived in Atlanta a decade ago? Certainly. But am I still a good and efficient driver? Yes. Once I’d given myself time to think about it and not allow myself to play the age card I was just fine and had a splendid time in a city I still love. Once again I enjoyed sliding in and out of lanes, even when it meant moving in front of a fierce-looking big truck, and I got in and out of my daughter’s seriously challenging office complex with ease and –– I’d like to think –– some grace.
All this said, dealing with the heat and aging hasn’t been as clear-cut getting my driving chops back. There were a couple of days in Atlanta that the morning news warned that people like Henri and me weren’t to go out because the heat and poor air quality could pose a danger to us. Since I was caring for Henri during the day and because he has asthma, the choice to stay in and cool was clear, and on the days we did go out we did just fine.
Back home again, the heat held, and it bothered me every day. I was inefficient and cranky, and I felt I was literally hot to the touch. Then there was the morning I woke up and couldn’t walk quite straight as I went from bed to bath. I felt my left side wasn't moving forward as quickly as my right. Since I have chronically good health, I shrugged and pushed on. I had a horrid morning. I had a headache and everything took forever, and I felt my mind had gone –– as my late mother once described hers when she was in the throes of Alzheimer’s –– “all craggy and lapsy.”
By the time I got myself dressed and downstairs, I was entertaining the notion that I’d had a small, silent stroke while I slept. More curious than alarmed, I hauled myself through my morning routine of breakfast, clean-up, morning news and making plans for what I’d attack that day.
Then I noticed that my mouth was really dry. Then, as I was trying to key in my email address while Lee was standing looking over my shoulder, we both realized I was having trouble doing it right. The trouble was water.
I was dangerously dehydrated. Our bodies are 75% water, and who knows how much of mine I’d let wick away during a very hot week. I’ve never been an earnest water-drinker, but I’d not been paying attention to the changes in my body during this extended heat wave – some of which are no doubt influenced by my age. The amount of water I drank twenty years ago or ten years ago seems not enough today and in this weather.
I’m fine now and much more careful about staying hydrated. What I’ve learned here is that paying attention to the changes in our aging bodies and sensibly adapting to those changes is far more important than assuming either that we’re invulnerable to change or that we’ve suddenly –– with the approach of another birthday –– become incompetent. I believe that in the case of my driving hesitation I was guilty of self-induced ageism. In the case of my dehydration I was, well, just stupid. I, who’ve always prided myself on paying close attention to my body’s rhythms, wasn’t on the job.
I’ve learned my lesson and as I close here, I’m headed for the water.
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