Health & Wellness

October 22, 2012

The Concessions We Make Before We Age: A writer’s concerns begin to hold her back, but she can still hook up a TV


My father was only in his late 40s when he began backing arm’s-length out of telephone booths (remember those?) to be able to see well enough to dial; my mother was about the same age when she bought an ineffective gizmo to help her thread needles and, still thwarted, began asking me to do it for her.

The most obvious signs of aging — like gray hair, wrinkles and arthritis — were still years in their future. Yet their shared presbyopia, or inability to focus on objects close at hand, was predictive, even in its linguistic origins in the Greek presbys (“old man”) and the Neo-Latin opia (“sightedness”).

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Presbyopia, neither especially serious nor at all curable, results from the eye’s lens losing elasticity, as so many of our parts eventually will (such as upper arms which slacken beyond the aid of weight training). Fortunately, the solution is simple: Those who already wear glasses for distance get bifocals, and those blessed until middle age with excellent vision pick up over-the-counter magnifiers, which now have annual sales of $670 million, an increase of 54 percent between 2003 and 2010. Those sales are thanks largely to the aging of the baby boomers, but certainly abetted by manufacturers, most notoriously Apple, that use maddeningly small print in their products and manuals.

Reading the Manual, in Small Print

It’s so easy for pre-middle-agers like the creators of the open-source online Urban Dictionary, to be snide about those of us who struggle to, as the website puts it, “RTFM,” or Read the (Bleeping) Manual. As one contributor offered, “People who say ‘RTFM!’ might be considered rude, but the true rude ones are the annoying people who take absolutely no self-responsibility and expect to have all the answers handed to them personally.’’

That sounds like a dig at the technologically challenged, and I’m one of them. But I’m getting better. One day not long ago I pushed myself to my limits to assemble a new flat-screen TV, connect it to a new high-definition cable box and attempt (admittedly, without success) to program one remote control to work both the TV and the box rather than have two remotes lost under the bedclothes each night.

Did I RTFM? I read three of them. Several times each. And I employed an array of assistive devices including separate pairs of eyeglasses for distance and reading; three different magnifying glasses; one of those dazzlingly bright lamps made for people with Seasonal Affective Disorder; a usuriously expensive Brookstone flashlight; packages of AA and AAA batteries; Phillips and regular screwdrivers of various sizes; and three similarly graduated wrenches.

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posted by Jane Gross, October 19, 2012 More by this author

Blurred image of a book and glassesJane Gross, a retired correspondent for the New York Times and the founder of its blog, The New Old Age, is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring For Our Aging Parents – and Ourselves (Knopf 2011, Vintage 2012).