Moving On: Age, Limitations, and Expectations

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“Hey, guess what I was able to do today?”

Julie (not her real name) smiled, the corners of her eyes crinkling, newly cut blonde bob falling softly around her face. I had met Julie for the first time just over a year ago when she and her husband asked to work with me based on a recommendation from older friends. At that time, Julie did little more than sit in their home and watch TV. She hadn’t driven for some time, rarely joined her husband in outings, didn’t take many trips.

Julie has MS.

When I first met her, I wasn’t sure how much I could do. Her right side–previously her dominant side–was severely impacted by her disease and the difficulty of moving around or manipulating objects made her hesitant to try anything. But her husband, although older, worked out regularly and Julie felt she was ready to try–if not catching up, at least moving closer to him. We started with the most simple of movements: getting up off her chair, using light weights to work her wrist and forearm strength, simple biceps curls. And at every turn, she and I were excited about what she could do, things I didn’t think she could but encouraged her to try. I admit, my own expectations were low. But with every small success, her own expectations and confidence grew. Until now, she smiled at me and said:

“I was able to use the manual can opener, turned the handle with my right hand.”

As a medical exercise specialist, I see more often than most the way effort and expectation can form and transform my clients’ lives. Not because I am brilliant or special. But because they are. Some of my clients are elderly, yet can walk treadmills or ride bikes at the gym for an hour several days a week–something I wish I could get myself to do. As they work with me, I see their balance improve, their strength grow. I watch an 85 year old man do a perfect supported squat in his kitchen and think “Wow. I didn’t really imagine you could do that.” But he knew he could at least try. We all acknowledge that age has put them on a down slope but we try to make that slope as gradual as possible.

Moving on past the expected limits of age or medical disabilities takes work from them and a mindful will. Whether it’s the blind woman who can listen to me describe a ‘Dead Bug’ and execute it flawlessly, an overweight woman who came with a hatred of any exercise and now demands to do planks, or Julie, who when her husband had an illness, began driving her accessible car again, I am amazed and inspired by them.

And I listen to them express their own dismay at others who don’t try.

“I can’t believe how many of our friends just say ‘Well, we’re getting old. There’s no point in thinking we can do more. Just accept it’” the 80 year old woman who swims as much as 15 laps at the pool tells me.

No, Julie will never walk the same way she did before or go on long bike rides again, in all probability, unless medicine makes a breakthrough in her disease. But her expectation now is that she will be able to do not only what she needs to do to care for herself but what she wants to do: travel, go out to dinner. And use the can opener.

Expectations can hold us back.

Expectations can move us forward.


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