June Allyson, where are you?

This week as I write about some of the physical and social effects of aging on community development, I have noted some drop off in reader interest, from an average of 30 or so regulars to maybe eight or 10. I am good with that. I am mostly writing to organize my thoughts about the issues and opportunities for building stronger communities with the involvement of people like me who are doing their encore work. On the other hand, I do hope that people of all ages would benefit from thinking about living full, satisfying, and healthy lives as they grow older. Rather than save ourselves for the future, we should prepare ourselves. Rather than dissipate our mental and physical resources, we should foster them. And, rather than pretend change will not happen, we should address it.

Including peeing our pants.

For most of the past decade I shopped for my late husband’s Depends. There is about a 20 foot stretch of most Walgreens stores devoted to adult urinary incontinence supplies. Chucks. Quilted pads. Pant shields. Briefs, boxers, and tab-types. Multiple Sclerosis often brings with it lesions in parts of the brain and spinal cord that control kidney and bladder functioning. One consequence of sitting for long periods of time in a wheel chair is insufficient evacuation of the bladder which can lead to urinary tract infections. Repeated urinary tract infections seem to contribute to other kidney and bladder problems, which in turn weaken systems and cause less control and more infections.

I have been fortunate to be husband to one of the least embarrassed people on the planet. While he enjoyed his privacy, he had no patience for delicacy about things over which we have no control. Perhaps that is why I felt so odd shopping for Depends. He liked certain styles, one brand, and one size. If I couldn’t find it, I’d ask a clerk for help. Most often, I’d get a response in hushed tones. We went from a drug store and entered a church – during a service. Possibly a funeral. The hushed, almost reverential tones suggest we just cannot face one more fact of life: people with health conditions and people over 65 frequently have urinary incontinence. For women, the prevalence ranges from 30% to 50%; for men, the range is 15% to 30%.

Women increasingly seem to go to search engines to crowd source information on incontinence when exercising. Weak muscles at the pelvic floor contribute to stress incontinence when doing jumping jacks, jumping rope, or using a trampoline. Common answers include, “See your GYN,” “Wear a very absorbent pad,” or “Stop jumping!”

Even after June Allyson advised us for decades that Depends can and should help us find a “new lease on life,” word has not gotten out to the 18 year-olds who stock drug store shelves (or their grandmothers) that we can indeed talk about Depends. More recent product ads have featured the likes of Clay Matthews, perhaps in an effort to normalize use of incontinence products. Still, rarely a month goes by that I don’t hear of someone’s mother or grandmother who doesn’t get out much. A bit more conversation reveals her worries about incontinence.

Can we imagine this? Bright, creative, affectionate, lively people limited by the worry of incontinence! This is beyond sad. It is wasteful. Our communities need more engagement, not less. We need more perspectives and experience, not less. The U.S. population has approximately 15% of us at age sixty or older. That means that the number of incontinent older people is approaching the number of unemployed people in the U.S. The latter is reasonably discussed as a serious problem. But why not the former?

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