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Aging in Place

I tend to live in blissful ignorance most of the time.  Things other people worry about and plan for, I file away under “I’ll deal with that tomorrow”.   This is not the best strategy for facing life’s problems, but it sure reduces my daily stress level. 

I knew that one day I would get old, but it’s not something I spent any time thinking about.  But one day I noticed that my neck had disappeared.  It just vanished overnight.  One day I had a nice, defined chin that sloped into a thin neck that separated my head from my shoulders.  The next my head was sitting on a small tree trunk that had eaten my chin.  One day I could squat down, bending my knees and going all the way to the floor, and then pop right back up without a thought.  The next I noticed that going down was problematic and coming back up was downright impossible.  And don’t get me started on the arthritis in my left hip.  Arthritis!  That is serious geezer stuff there.  Yet there it is stiffening up when I sit down and causing me to limp ever so slightly until I get the juices flowing again.  In my mind I’m still 21 and looking in the mirror sometimes causes me to gasp.  That’s why I do it as infrequently as possible.

I’ve been thinking about aging a lot lately (not because I’m doing it, mind you).  We live in a village with lots of old people and it’s been fascinating to watch how they live.  Most of them have lived here their entire lives, many in the same homes they were born in.  Regardless of their domestic history, they traverse these hills like so many little white haired mountain goats.  Anghiari is challenging to get around – some streets are almost vertical and all are cobbled with uneven stones that stand ready to trip up even the most agile-footed.  Yet the elderly seem to have no problem getting around.

I wonder if it’s because they’ve been doing it their entire lives.  Their bodies are used to the challenging terrain and their muscles are strong and able from years of ups and downs.  They go slow, but they go with purpose.  I’ve seen tourists take tentative baby steps down some of the more steep slopes, arms windmilling out to the side for balance.  But the Anghiarese elderly are sure-footed, taking measured steps with their hands neatly folded behind their backs.  They make it look easy.  And it’s not.

Many of the elderly live in the historic city center, which dates back to medieval times.  These ancient townhouses rise four or five floors above the street and are the original live, work, play community design.  I always get a chuckle in Atlanta at all the new developments that are shoehorned on tiny lots touting the bold concept of live, work, play.  Businesses, shops, and restaurants on the first floor with living space above.  That’s how these ancient cities were built hundreds of years ago and they still function that way today.

The apartments are narrow and vertical with ancient stairs that are as uneven as the cobbles on the street.  “Handicapped accessible” is not a term that you hear a lot here.  It’s not that the Italians aren’t sympathetic to handicapped people and their challenges, it’s that the ancient buildings are almost impossible to retrofit.  Installing a lift or widening a hallway is an engineering challenge that can’t always be achieved.  So they live in buildings with flights of uneven stairs and use bathrooms that don’t have grab bars and cook in kitchens that they can barely turn around in.

We know several of them and they spend a lot of time out and about.  The men have their favorite spots around town to gather and exchange gossip and news.  The women do their shopping in the mornings – the butcher, the fruit and vegetable market, the bakery – and can be seen in the afternoons peering out of their widows perched high above the street.  They’re not homebodies, these elderly Italians.  They’re active and don’t miss much.  And they know everyone.  Once I saw an older gentleman that I knew scolding an unruly child that I know for certain he was not related to.  With these folks on the prowl, you can’t get away with any shenanigans.

Many people who visit here comment on the steep terrain and how hard it is to get around.  We’re used to it, although I still huff and puff when doing the more strenuous climbs.  But I look at the senior citizens here and think what an inspiration they are to us.  Italy is consistently ranked in the top 10 of countries with the longest life expectancy, somewhere around 84 for both sexes, compared to about 79 for the US.  It’s hard to tell how old these folks are – they could be 70 or 90.  It seems like at some point they stop aging.  People we’ve been seeing for years look the same as they did the first time.  How is this possible?

Despite my best efforts to ignore the aging process, it creeps in and forces me to take notice.  I hope that as time continues to pass I can absorb some of the traits that help these Italians live such vibrant and active lives.  It’s too late for any DNA changes, but I can certainly change my lifestyle.  I hope that at 80 I can still climb these hills and navigate these steep, stone stairs.  I think that when you live in a place you take on some of the characteristics of it.  Seeing the elderly trudge up and down hills becomes routine and expected, so maybe I can fool my psyche into thinking it’s normal.

Of all the things I expected from living in a small Italian village, being impressed by the seniors was not among them.  But it’s part of living here – seeing all the generations living, working, and playing together.  And I couldn’t be happier being in the mix.  If only I could find my neck.

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