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Change perception of cane use to ‘can do’

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: I am a 76-year-old woman who recently had back surgery. Before my back problems I was active and physically fit. Although I am grateful I can walk, I am unhappy using a cane. It makes me feel old and I wonder if others now see me as an old woman. Being 76 doesn’t make it any easier. How do I get over this?
– W.J.

Dear W.J.:

The good news is that you were fit before the surgery. That’s a big benefit to your recovery.

Kathy Gantner, a physical therapist with Torrance Memorial Medical Center, agrees and shares some of her views.

Gantner strongly urges her patients to continue using a cane to walk distances, to keep pain at a minimum or to walk without limping. She adds, “People look younger walking with a cane than walking without one. Without some assistive device, they may walk bent over, drag their feet or walk more slowly.”

The latter could be a serious problem, particularly in a cross street with a stoplight.

“You might not get across in time,” she added. And if one is hardly moving, “The balance system is not provoked and that’s important to stay healthy.”

Among older adults, there is always the concern about maintaining balance. We know that more than 90 percent of hip fractures are caused by falling. These serious injuries often result in long-term impairment in functioning, nursing home admissions and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Gantner reminds us that a cane serves

an important function; often it is a temporary one.That takes us to the subject of feeling “old,” often defined by the number of years we have lived.

A study by the Pew Research Center titled “Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality” explored markers of old age. Almost 80 percent of the approximately 3,000 survey participants said a person is old when he or she turns 85.

In a MetLife study, the majority of respondents felt a person was old at 70.

My favorite definition is a quote by the statesman Bernard Baruch: “To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am.”

What people can and cannot do often conveys youth or “old age.”

A cane is associated with not being able to walk without some support. For some, that may conjure memories of grandparents looking older in their 70s with gray hair, poor posture, unstable gait and living life on the periphery.

But in general, that image does not match the realities of 2012.

The trick is to have a strong enough sense of self to override public perceptions and to challenge memories that don’t apply to today’s world. That’s what aging is about in this decade – redefining what it means to get older.

Now let’s talk about the cane, once considered a fashion essential of royals.

The first cane was a tree branch used by the ancients to provide some stability while walking and climbing. It also was used in self-defense. The tree branch evolved into the walking stick, which has been used for decoration and practical purposes.

Today, canes are designed for practical use as well as an accessory.

An advertisement describing canes for women is a good example: “For the ultimate in elegant beauty and colorful, classy sophistication, take a look at these floral canes for women. Each is designed with a vivid pattern laid on a sturdy, reliable walking cane that is sure to be a part of your collection for years to come. Our lady’s floral walking canes offer vibrant color and unrelenting style that you are sure to love.”

Canes come with unique tops, with jewels and are even made out of Lucite. You also can color-coordinate a cane to your outfit.

In time, we may see canes as a fashionable accessory to our wardrobe, somewhat like eyeglass frames. Designers may compete for the most fashionable styles.

W.J., thank you for asking a very important question. Do all you can to stay safe, follow doctors’ and physical therapists’ advice and just keep going.

By changing your attitude, you will be among the front-runners in changing the perceptions of aging.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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