Aging with RA

Old. Over the hill. Out of date. Starting to rot... Call it what you will but, as my grandfather said, getting old isn’t for the faint of heart. The thing is, he was a relatively healthy guy for most of his life and he still talked about the perils of aging.

Now if you add rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and chronic illness into the mix, you end up with a situation where it's more multiply than add. In other words, getting older with RA in the mix makes things an order of magnitude worse.

Thoughts on aging based on my JRA journey

Back in olden times, when cell phones weighed five pounds and computers were glorified calculators, I didn’t think I’d ever get old. Or, more accurately, I didn’t think getting old would be an issue because I already felt like my body was old.

I already felt like my body was old

RA had already caused my hips to be replaced by the time I was seventeen, and I had been in and out of hospitals since I was little. Basically, I figured that I’d already survived just about all that life could throw at me (when you are eighteen, you know everything, as I’m sure you remember).

In the back of my mind, like a safety net for an acrobat, I had the thought that getting old would be a piece of cake if it even ever happened to me. If I’m being honest, I half thought I’d be surfing the waves (proverbially) and hanging out at the same weekend parties (not proverbially, and as it turns out, creepily).

My health changed drastically

Crazily enough, everything pretty much went exactly as I thought. Yeah, up until about 35, I thought I had nailed it. “Pfft, I dunno why people talk about this getting old thing; it’s easy!” - I said to myself as I ate my supersized double-spicy beef and cheese burrito and ran seven laps around the block. At the same time. “If this is as bad as it gets, I’m golden!” What’s that they say about not tempting fate?

It was around that time that I ended up going through one of the worst times in my life. I had a heart attack the night after a shoulder replacement surgery and, afterward, the new heart meds were causing side effects galore. My feet swelled up so much that if I had painted them red I could have danced for nickels at the circus. I couldn’t find relief no matter how much I tried and I’m still dealing with the repercussions years later. But all of that was nothing in comparison to the Mack truck of reality that came screaming down life’s highway.

I underestimated the impact of aging

Maybe it was the heart attack, maybe it was the meds, or maybe it was just time for the switch to flip. But over the period of six months, I went from “Age ain’t nothin’ but a number,” to “Father time is a real son of a...” -well, you get the idea. You see, I had underestimated that crafty old man and his ability to wait in the wings until the precise time to prove me most wrong, and God, did he hit the motherlode.

The physical effects of aging

When you start really feeling the effects of aging, it’s not what you think it will be. The way I see it, there are two main parts to getting older and they aren’t what you think.

Getting older doesn’t stop you from doing things necessarily, but what it does do is make recovering from those things much more difficult and take much longer than when you were young. In other words, you can still ride that mountain bike nine miles to the top and go flying off Lucifer’s Leap, but you won’t be doing much else for the next month.

Secondly, getting older means things tend to, err, go out of service faster than they used to. Running around the basketball court with the same buddies you’ve been playing with for years suddenly isn’t as fun when your knee gives out halfway through the first quarter.

Getting older with a chronic condition

So, why am I telling you about all the wonderful and amazing benefits of aging that you have to look forward to? Because when you have a chronic illness such as RA, the effects of aging end up synergizing with the effects of autoimmune disease and you end up exponentially worse than you would have been if you just suffered one or the other. Yeah, isn’t math amazing?

I always thought that I’d be prepared for getting older because, as far as I was concerned, my body was already elderly when I was just eighteen. I would be able to scoff at all those complainers who always griped about the aches and pains of aging because, by that time, I’d figured I’d have been dealing with it myself for so long that I’d be immune.

Unfortunately, aging just makes the rheumatoid arthritis and chronic illness that much more difficult to deal with, it takes longer to recover from flares, and the general feeling of fatigue is much more acute. Triple threat!

We are tough and resourceful

As I don’t want this post to be all doom and gloom, I will end with the fact that getting older doesn’t make everything worse. It’s much easier to deal with the mental side – it’s like someone greased the floor of my brain and things tend to slide off my plate easier than it was when I was young and everything was the end of the world.

So you see, it’s not all bad...ish. The one thing I do know is that those of us who suffer from RA and chronic illness are some of the toughest and most resourceful people I know, and that’ll help when you have to figure out a way to put on your socks using a shoehorn, a back scratcher, and a wire hanger. Talk soon.

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