The circle of life


Cow-Calf Commentary

KIMBALL, Neb. – According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, farmers are pretty old. In that report, the average age of a U.S. farmer was 58.

In 1900, about 28 percent of farmers were older than 50, while 72 percent were younger. In 1950 about 35 percent were 50 or older and 65 percent were younger than 50. In 1974 about 48 percent were 50 or older and 52 percent were younger than 50. As of 2012, however, 29 percent were age 50-64 and 34 percent were 65 or older, for a total 63 percent. The under-50 farmers represented only 37 percent.

For the last eight months, I’ve been watching one of those older farmers wage a losing battle with disease.

My dad, a fellow who has farmed and ranched at some level since about age 15, has developed  non-alcoholic steatohepatosis and cirrhosis of the liver. The prognosis is grim; it’s going to be ultimately fatal but not before some time passes and a lot of suffering is endured. 

How much time? There’s no way to know, really. How much suffering? Again, there’s no way to know for sure, but a lot.

One effect of the disease is the liver weeps ascites fluid into the abdomen, and that fluid has to be removed weekly in a process called paracentesis. Basically, a big needle is inserted into the abdomen to suck out the fluid. The weekly quantity ranges from 5-10 liters, or about 1 to 2.5 gallons. It’s not a lot of fun, but it’s perhaps the easiest part of the ordeal.

The bad part, the suffering part, is liver damage beyond the body’s ability to repair. This causes all manner of unpleasant symptoms. Nausea and vomiting, itching, feeling terrible all the time, weakness, confusion, difficulty breathing, etc. The process is also causing a slow but steady and irreversible wasting away of muscle tissue. The once strong fellow is now navigating slowly with a walker, and while he can still get out and about in a very limited fashion, he’s getting weaker all the time.

Watching the progression of this disease has been quite difficult. I’m in the position of being the only person in the family with a medical background, so in addition to managing much of the day-to-day care, I’m also the chief explainer for everyone else. “This is why that, and that is why this, and here’s the plan, etc.”

I suppose most of us have wondered from time to time what will happen when our parents come to the end of their Earthly journey. If I’m a typical example, then I suppose most of us never gave it a lot of real thought. I always put it off for a more appropriate time in the future. 

As it turns out, the future finally arrived and it’s quite a bit different than I expected. I’m not surprised, really. Life seldom lines itself up to our complete liking and approval.

Interestingly, I am also a farmer/rancher, and I’m part of that older age cohort. I’ve passed the average age reported in 2012, but I’m holding out hope that when the new Census of Ag comes out in February, I’ll once again be younger than average. I doubt that will happen, but it’s something to hope for.

I’ve spent some time this year thinking about what my own personal approach to aging should be. My dad’s illness has convinced me that being as fit and healthy as possible is the best defense against illness and disease, that fitness and health lead to better quality of life for us old geezers, and the more fit and healthy a person is, the better chance they have if and when they bump into a severe medical challenge. None of this is rocket science and it’s been established fact for a good many years.

The question then becomes: “What am I willing to do to improve my health and fitness?” 

The path to that goal involves diet and exercise. Am I willing to take that path?

I got started in the spring, and so far, so good. I’m more than pleased with my progress and I’m looking forward to continuing down this road.

I’m more physically fit now than I’ve been in years. I’ve been alternating roadwork and resistance training in the weight room since April and I’m honestly astonished at how good I feel and how much I’m able to do. Some time ago – more than a decade ago when I had my first Achilles surgery – I resigned myself to never being able to run again. But something funny happened after the follow-up surgery I had in 2017. Between a really good repair and a smart and patient approach to improving my fitness, I accidentally found out that I can run again.

The running is a work in progress. Running on flat ground still causes a lot of soreness and stiffness in the ankle, but surprisingly, it’s actually getting better over time. As long as I don’t go wild and overdo it, I think I’ll eventually be able to clock multiple miles.

The trick, which I stumbled on accidentally, was running steps. We have a railroad viaduct in town which is equipped with several flights of stairs, and for some reason I decided to see if I could run those to build up endurance and improve cardio health. It was a bit of a struggle at first, but I found that running uphill is a lot easier on the ankle than running on flat ground. I think it’s down to joint geometry and lever physics. Rather than bashing straight down on the heel on flat ground, running uphill seems to spread the impact over the whole foot and leg – and probably just as importantly – over a longer interval.

Anyway, the viaduct steps are 21-step flights, each with an 8-inch rise, for a total of 14 feet. When I started I was doing 15 flights, now I do 60 flights, three to four times per week, and I do them a lot faster. It’s an excellent workout.

When I began to work out seriously in April, I could hike pretty well but didn’t have much endurance. I remember being proud of myself for being able to walk to the top of a steep, 500-yard hill. It was hard and it exhausted me, but I could do it.

Flash forward to last Sunday, and I ran up that hill a dozen times during the course of a five-mile hike/run. In less than half a year I’ve gone from “never again” to “hey, I can do this!”

Along the way I realized that tiny increments of improvement can make a big difference in overall quality of life. You don’t have to do a bunch of running and weight room exercises either, that’s just me. For those in reasonably good health, working up to 30 minutes of walking three times per week – which is the generally accepted fitness guideline – can really make a difference.

If you’re old like me, there’ll be some stiffness and soreness. But, if you’re old like me, there’s stiffness and soreness anyway. So how can you lose?


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