Readings — From the December 2013 issue

The View from 86

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By Malcolm Cowley, from a December 20, 1984, letter to Peter Braestrup, editor of Wilson Quarterly. Best known for his literary criticism, Cowley died in 1989. The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1987, edited by Hans Bak, will be published next month by Harvard University Press.

Dear Mr. Braestrup:

Five years ago I published a little book, The View from 80, that was widely read by my coevals. Several of them said, “We’re waiting for you to write a sequel, The View from 90.” I can’t do that yet — perhaps I can never do it — but I might offer some observations from the intervening vantage point of eighty-six. How does it feel to enter the second half of one’s ninth decade?

Sometimes it feels terrible. The aged man has to learn new methods of doing everything, as if he were starting over in early childhood. How to get into bed and out again — how to stand — how to walk (yes, even to crawl) — how to sit in what chair — each of these becomes a new problem. Here are some items of advice from my recent experience.

The first item is to have a companion. A wife is best in every way and a daughter comes next, but any woman in the house is better than none, if she can cook and make beds. I am thinking here about the household of an old man. Women seem able to live indefinitely with no companions (except too often the bottle), but men are more fragile. It is a distressing trait of widowers that they die off rapidly, to the immense disappointment of lonely widows in the neighborhood.

A second item of advice is to consult a physical therapist, who will usually be a woman. She won’t make you strong again, but at least she will retard the process of muscular deterioration.

Item three is always to make a mental survey of any strange room you may occupy. Keep a light burning all night in the bathroom. That is the room where most falls occur, and falls are the greatest hazard of the aged. I have noted that shower stalls and bathtubs never have enough handgrips within easy reach, especially if the bather is bending over to wash his feet.

Here are some other items for those willing to become as children and undertake the process of relearning:

How to get into bed and out of it. If the bed is high, sit on the edge of it and swing both legs under the covers. If it is a low couch, lean on it with both arms and bring one knee forward as far as it will go; then swing the other leg over it. When both legs are parallel, collapse on the pillow. Getting out of bed is psychologically more difficult, since bed is such a comfortable spot, but be sure to place both feet firmly on the floor. Bend forward from the hips and grasp anything — a chair, a doorknob — that will help you to stand erect.

How to stand. Keep your feet apart to preserve your balance. Lean against something — the wall, the back of a chair — if you feel in danger of losing it.

How to get dressed. For a man of uncertain balance, pulling on his pants is the greatest problem. That can’t be done in the middle of a room without danger of falling. Stand next to a wall, or better still in the angle formed by a wall and a bureau, so that you can steady yourself with an elbow while standing precariously on one leg. For putting on shoes, a long-handled shoehorn is almost essential.

How to negotiate stairs. Grasp the railing firmly and take one step at a time. If there is no railing, have your bed moved downstairs.

How to sit. The problem here is choosing a seat from which it will be easy to rise. Stoutly made hard-bottomed chairs are the safest. Deep, comfortable, overstuffed chairs or sofas may become prison cells for the aged person, but still he can escape from them if they have at least one strong arm. Grasping the arm he inches forward, then pushes himself to his feet, taking a sideward step to keep his balance.

How to walk. This is the crowning achievement for a person with weak legs, besides being the best form of exercise. Have your feet wide apart, raise each of them in turn to avoid stumbling (don’t shuffle), and move forward in a sort of duck waddle; it isn’t pretty, but it is safer. Avoid sudden steps and be slow in changing direction. Always have a cane in your hand even when you aren’t using it. Pause often. If you are on a traveled road, walk on the extreme left to face approaching traffic. Wear a white scarf and let it hang down in back so that drivers can’t fail to see you.

All these are bothersome instructions and doubtless you will invent still others. There is a reward for following the instructions, which is that you will survive longer as an independent person. Each new day in this endlessly fascinating world will be a miracle granted by grace from above, but also partly achieved by your own efforts.

Malcolm Cowley

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