Youth is typically a time of thinking we’re invincible. We believe we can pretty much do anything to our health without risking serious consequences. We skip meals and sleep, drink, and work too much and only sporadically get medical check-ups.
My experience of youth and health has been different. When I was 18 years old, I had a spinal stroke. Within one hour, I suddenly became a paraplegic. I’ve used a manual wheelchair full-time ever since. Then in 2021, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My treatments at our local Cowell Cancer Center and the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center have included lots of testing, daily oral chemo, surgery, and soon, radiation. Some say I’ve experienced a “double whammy” with regard to my health.
The day after my breast cancer surgery, I decided to create a daily blog on the Caring Bridge online site. Every day, I’ve made two posts that have to do with what I’ve learned during my breast cancer journey. Along with physical therapy, art therapy, guided imagery, and massage, I’ve found my daily blog writing practice helpful to my recovery.
Throughout my entire life, I’ve always been a glass half-full kind of gal. My flexibility and adaptability have helped me live a very big life: I’ve been married for 40 years, traveled the world and taught overseas, had my writing published, twice been awarded a prestigious doctoral fellowship, and even been the first wheelchair camper on South Manitou Island. The skills I learned to be able to cope with my paraplegia have helped me deal with my breast cancer. For example, not getting hung-up on “if only” or “why me?” thoughts.
I’ve been very fortunate to have many helpful people in my life. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked to others to learn how they’ve dealt with healthy aging. Unlike in my grandparents’ generation, when people lived shorter lives, the lines between middle age and older age blur, and how people live and define those periods in their lives has dramatically changed. The current motto at the Traverse City Senior Center is “Making longer lives, better lives.”
Most of what I know about healthy aging, I learned from one of my best friends, Mrs. Prindl. She lived to be 107.5 and was active up until the last week of her life. My friend taught me so many important life skills. Her daily living was balanced and moderate: She controlled her weight, drank beer, and moved her body, even if it meant doing deep knee bends while talking on the phone and holding the handle of her stove’s door. To keep her mind alert she read a lot, played Scrabble, and wrote her family’s history. She had friends of all ages and was curious about other people and the world.
At one point in our friendship, I helped her enroll in the New England Centenarian Study. Everything Mrs. Prindl had been doing to stay healthy was confirmed by the researcher’s findings. One day she told me, “Life gets really good after 80, Susan.” In her case, that meant, amongst other things, traveling the world by herself on the QE II and helping create the ship’s library.
Our friendship was a two-way street. She was very interested in learning from me how to deal with her changing mobility needs. I needed to learn from her how to age healthily. During one of our afternoons together, she asked me for details on traveling using a wheelchair. She knew to get through larger airports, she was going to need a wheelchair escort.
If Mrs. Prindl were looking through recent issues of Northern Express, she’d find information on a variety of physical activities such as bird watching, the Turkey Trot community run, biking, dog walking, yoga, hiking, dancing, leaf peeping, and gardening. She’d be the first to say that all these activities can be enjoyed by people of any age.
In my statewide spinal cord injury group and our local stroke club, participants talk about the sports and outdoor activities they are active in. Regardless of the health challenge, there’s always a way to do things. It may be a different way, but it’s not inferior. Just this month, Dr. Oluwaferanmi Okanlami at the University of Michigan was awarded $1 million by the Neilsen Foundation for his adaptive sports programs. I don’t consider myself an athlete, but I have raced in a 5k run, downhill skied, and swam…all since my stroke.
Living a healthy, joyful life is both a privilege and responsibility. And that’s true at any age.
Susan Odgers has lived in Traverse City since 1987 and has taught at Northwestern Michigan College since 1989. A 2010 recipient of the Sara Hardy Humanitarian of the Year award, Susan serves on the boards of Traverse Area District Library, MI Writers, the Traverse City Human Rights Commission, and Ragdale Artists’ Community. This year, she’s a Green Party candidate for the Wayne State University Board of Governors.