Guerrilla Aging: My Kilimanjaro, And Yours

Posted on July 18, 2014

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Amanda Royce-Hale, known to her readers as Wiseacre Way, chose that name because “I’m a bit of a wiseacre, I seek wisdom, I love acreage, I’m on my way somewhere, and I just like the sound of the words.”

Amanda has been given all the stuff of a great life: a close family, long loving marriage, beloved son, great friends, loyal pets. She has also been given Parkinson’s. In her blog, Wiseacre Way, she writes about both. 

When she is not writing and working for a living, she hunts for unusual antiques, and she designs and makes jewelry under the name Royzle Designs. Both her writing and her jewelry are worth a visit.

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At 19,341 ft., Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania isn’t highest mountain in the world. But it’s gorgeous, it has a great name, and I presume it’s on every mountain climber’s bucket list. For them, it is a challenge that beckons, inspires and delights. But there are different kinds of mountain climbers, and different kinds of mountains.

mount-kilimanjaro (1024x433)

To me, Kilimanjaro has become a good metaphor for an enormous life challenge—the kind that is unexpected and unwelcome, and challenges everything you know. Your life’s going along fine, and then one day you find yourself staring up the side of a mountain you have no choice but to climb, and no clue how to start. Whether the challenge is physical, mental or spiritual, that’s your Kilimanjaro.

There are countless Kilimanjaros. If you don’t have one now, you eventually will. Mine happens to be Parkinson’s disease (PD), a condition where the brain stops producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that, among other things, makes smooth, natural body movement and muscle function possible.

It’s worth shedding a little light on Parkinson’s disease. It afflicts about a million of us in the U.S. at current count and is spreading fast. Michael J. Fox and his Foundation are doing yeoman’s duty here to raise awareness and money for treatments and research, as are a number of other great PD organizations and individuals, all of which could use our support.

For the uninitiated, Parkinson’s is hard to get your head around, and I think some background will help. In a nutshell:

  • It’s a progressive and incurable, but symptoms can be managed, to a point, with drugs.
  • They don’t know what causes it, but pesticides are suspect.
  • There’s no one test for diagnosis—you basically have to rule out everything else.
  • The disease itself and the drugs that treat it produce a whole laundry list of symptoms, of which one, some, none or all could be present at any given time.
  • It won’t kill you, but it will lend a hand.

Rule of thumb, if you’ve seen one case of PD, you’ve seen one case of PD, because the symptoms are so wide-ranging, and the progression so different between people, that it can look like a bunch of different things.

PD is becoming increasingly prevalent as the baby boomers age, but it’s not just for old people. Ten percent or more of PD patients were under age 50 at onset. (That includes me and Michael, who was diagnosed at age 37.)

I had my first inkling that something was “off” many years ago when I noticed that my sense of smell periodically disappeared. Then my left foot developed a mind of its own. It took several more years for the diagnosis to be confirmed.

At this point, my increasingly annoying physical issues come and go. Some are totally invisible to others, some not so much. My left leg and foot can twist, move or shake uncontrollably, at times hobbling me to the point where I can neither sit nor stand in comfort, and a cane comes in handy, or sometimes I just need it for that long walk to my chariot at quitting time.

I’m very fortunate. My disease progression has been slow, but steady. There are many more with Parkinson’s who are not so fortunate. That’s their Kilimanjaro.

Here’s my  larger point.

PD is just one condition in the sea of things that can and will go wrong with a human body. I keep hearing we should live a “culture of health.” This sounds great and looks really good on paper. But it stops being a good thing when we go from encouraging and supporting healthy living to ostracizing those who don’t look like they are jumping on the “let’s all be healthy” bandwagon. We aren’t all healthy, even if we might want to be, even if we might look like we are. And as important as diet and exercise are, there are some things they just can’t cure.

So, I have a simple request that springs from things I see every day—a call for thoughtful compassion.

The next time you see someone get on an elevator and only go up one floor, don’t assume they are lazy or make a big deal about it. If they are walking with seeming nonchalance amid the noise and haste, don’t assume they are disengaged or don’t have a sense of urgency about the task at hand. If you don’t like what’s in someone’s lunch box, don’t look. And if they seem to be working a bit more slowly than you’d like, give them a break.

They just might be climbing Kilimanjaro.

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If you would like to be part of the Guerrilla Aging community, send your guest blog post to Renee at lifeintheboomerlane@gmail.com.

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