Mr. Chatterbox: Why Baby Boomers are Obsessed With Their Health

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This month: People come to Sarasota for the beaches. But they stay for the hospitals.


Sarasota health care

One of the things I love best about Sarasota is that it’s so health oriented. Not health in the “carrot juice and yoga” sense. I mean health in the “lack of it” sense. So many people here need health care, and we’ve got so many doctors and rehab centers and X-ray labs and medical complexes that it’s like a Disney World of health procedures. People come for the beaches. But they stay for the hospitals.

On any given afternoon there is a little army of retired people moving about, sailing along in their air-conditioned Toyota Avalons and Buick LaCrosses, headed from the cardiologist to the oncologist to the MRI lab. And it all runs like clockwork. The offices are easy to get to, there’s no problem with parking, the nurses pamper you, the doctors are really smart, and it doesn’t seem to cost anything, if you have Medicare and supplemental insurance, which everybody does. They even have free candy at the checkout desk. People say there’s a health crisis in America—well, I just don’t see it. I’m perfectly happy.

And if you do end up in the hospital, even better. There’s valet parking, a great gift shop, nice views from the rooms on the upper floors, and the guys who bring you your food wear tuxedos—well, black bow ties, anyway. I haven’t as yet had any personal experiences with our hospices, but I hear they’re great, too. You can bring your dog.

Now, I know we aging people aren’t supposed to talk about our health. True, it’s the only thing that is keeping us alive. But the stereotype of the old geezer who constantly complains about his aches and pains is something that must be avoided at all costs. So to the outside world I put on a show. I play the stoic, uncomplaining martyr. I never let the pain get the better of me, except for brief flashes at unexpected moments, to remind people how bad it is. I’ve become a master of the agonized wince and the muffled scream. I always tell people I’m feeling “great,” hopefully with a subtle inflection that indicates I’m feeling anything but.

But like everybody else, I need somebody to be honest with. Somebody in whose presence I can whimper and feel sorry for myself, and obsess about the twinges and night sweats and throbbing pains that are now becoming all too common. This is why God invented marriage. Your spouse has to listen. It’s part of the deal. They even put it in the wedding vows— “in sickness and in health.”

For us unmarried boomers, though, this puts us at a disadvantage. Who’s going to listen to us? We have to find “symptom buddies,” close friends we’ve known a long time whom we can let down our hair with and tell how we’re really feeling. I use my friend Clara. She’s a doctor’s daughter and knows the lingo. She has figured out how to track down stuff on the Internet so she can access all the latest experimental treatments and can even figure out life expectancy in months and years. She joins online support groups for diseases she doesn’t even have, just to keep current. She goes to the doctor with me—and takes notes. She calls me from Europe to discuss her heart palpitations.

Whoever has the most pressing symptoms usually starts our conversations, while the other listens carefully to the descriptions of each ache and pain and asks the appropriate questions—”When did it start? How long did it last? What did you take?” Then we both try and come up with diseases and degenerative conditions that might fit the bill. Then, when one finishes, we switch roles and discuss the symptom buddy’s symptoms. It’s all very quid pro quo, but still, very bonding.

Finding a good symptom buddy isn’t easy. I’m amazed that some people, even my closest friends, just don’t “get” the drama of health. They prefer to live in a world of family, friends, current events, literature and art—even if they’re in an iron lung. Well, not me.

I shudder to think what it says about my life at the moment, but the most exciting thing I have going on is my arthritic hip. True, the pain can be excruciating and unbearable, but it always goes away, with just a little constipation left over from the pain pills. It’s not going to kill me, like my heat attack tried to do (unless, of course, it turns out to be cancer of the hip joint, a point Clara and I discuss endlessly). And though I complain about not being able to bend over at Publix, I actually feel kind of special when the young people help me. For a moment, I’m the star in the canned meat aisle.

And I may get to have a steroid shot! Boy, this is providing fodder for debate. It might help—but it might not. It might destroy my health. It might make my face look fat. Or it might totally solve my problems. And if that doesn’t work there’s a hip replacement. Just think—the hospital, the sympathy, the get-well cards. All my friends will be talking about it. In fact, when the doctor said I was a long way from a hip replacement, I felt a little disappointed. There’s a part of me that wants to prove him wrong.

But against all odds, I manage to live pleasantly enough with my health problems. The good Sarasota doctors keep everything under control, and they are full of stories about their other patients, much worse off than I, who still manage to work full time, visit China, and run the Boston Marathon. This encouragement is one of their greatest skills, and I guess it works—in the Sarasota of today, a lifespan well into your 90s is becoming the norm.

Of course, sooner or later something will happen, and an illness will come along that’s not quite as much fun as an arthritic hip or an irregular heartbeat. I’m only hoping that the doctors and my symptom buddy will be up to the challenge, though I have a feeling I may be adding a new member to my health team—spiritual adviser.

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This article appears in the June 2014 issue of Sarasota Magazine. Like what you read? Click here to subscribe. >>

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