Stepping Out

Since the 22nd December 2014 I have walked over 200,000 steps, at an average of 6,000 steps per day. That’s approximately 91 miles based on my stride length. How do I know this? Because I have an app. Like most things these days anything that can be measured has an app. And now I am addicted to trying to keep my average up and reach 10,000 steps (about 5 miles) a day – which is the “magic” figure that the experts say we should walk –  lest we become sedentary creatures and allow all manner of illnesses to take their hold for lack of exercise. That’s probably pretty sound advice!

Until recently, I have had a real struggle with achieving a balance with exercise and general wellbeing. For years as a young man I was an exceptionally fit athlete, running at county level, competing for selection in the all England youth athletics team, and generally able to excel in just about any sport I chose. Now in my 50’s I just cannot attain the level of fitness that my ego would like me to – I can’t be as fit as I was when I was 22! But that has not stopped me trying. I have pushed myself hard at the gym, but each time I come home exhausted and therefore not feeling the full benefits of the exercise.

It was my partner Caroline who, knowing what motivates me, finally persuaded me to try something different. Walking. She has been doing this for longer than me and introduced me to the app, also persuading me to join her for a walk in the grounds of one of our local National Trust properties (Anglesey Abbey for those of you who know Cambridgeshire). We covered more than 10,000 steps that day, and it has become a regular weekend walk.

Coincidentally our good friend and fellow blogger Elizabeth Marro (Betsy), wrote a piece about her own walking ambitions and her intent to walk 15 miles a week – you can read that blog here – http://elizabethmarroblog.com/category/walking-dispatches-from-the-journey/. Betsy is an inspiring writer, and her article wriggled it’s way into my psyche, and spoke to me about just how good walking can be for one’s soul, she writes “When I walk, I will not listen to music or talk on the telephone. I will look, feel, think, seek encounters. I will smile at strangers. I will open myself up to possibility. I will take one step at a time and maybe, at some point, it will become clear to me why I am walking and where I am going.”

Caroline has continued to encourage me to walk – though now I have something to aim for in terms of average steps I don’t need  so much persuasion (reminding me that I am goal oriented!). But walking does more than get a few steps or miles under ones belt just to be able to say “I reached my numerical goal”. Walking takes you out. It takes you into the outdoors, and it takes you out of yourself. I am fortunate enough to both work from home and live in an area with easy access to country walks. I don’t even have to get in a car and drive a few miles to a ‘walking spot’; where we live we have splendid rural isolation as well as being able to choose routes frequented by others if we don’t want to remain entirely solitary. Although I have to admit that often it is the solitary nature of a walk in the countryside that is most appealing. Unencumbered with having to make conversation you are free to look and listen to the world around you –  the variety of what you can experience is surprising.

My local walk: Fields stretch to the horizon

My local walk: Fields stretch to the horizon

One day this week I set off on a lunchtime walk under fairly gloomy and wintry conditions. I walked 2 or 3 miles with nothing more spectacular to see other than a few ploughed fields stretching across the flat lands of the fens to a razor-sharp horizon in the distance. But half way round my 5 mile circuit I was in for a surprise. And as I turned a corner the dark clouds above parted just a little – enough for the pale sunlight to shine through. So narrow was this cloudy aperture that it looked as though a spotlight was shining from the sky. As the clouds moved the ‘spotlight’ appeared to move, shining on the magnificent cathedral in the distance. It illuminated the stone so brightly that the ancient building stood out in sharp relief on the Isle of Ely. Dancing over newly ploughed fields and copses of trees the shaft of light then briefly seemed to follow a flock of wood pigeons, or maybe they followed it, before finally fading back to grey. It was almost as if this ethereal illumination had been just for me, no-one else was around to see it.

The view of the distant Cathedral from a country lane in the village just after the ‘spotlight’ had passed

A route revisited is never exactly the same. Yesterday Caroline and I returned to Anglesey Abbey, the ground was crisp with frost and a dusting of snow. The snowdrops are now bursting through the earthy undergrowth, whole swathes of them give the woodland areas an appearance of a white polka dot carpet. The silver birches, planted to create a stunning visual display, reach for the sky like slender brushes painting white clouds on a blue canvas. 10,000 steps went by very quickly and enjoyably. Through the simple act of walking and being outdoors, I may well have found the solution to my need for exercise at a level that suits me. Thanks Caroline and Betsy of encouraging me to step out!

The slender silver birch trees at Anglesey Abbey seem to touch the sky

The slender silver birch trees at Anglesey Abbey seem to touch the sky

Anglesey Abbey: Snowdrops are appearing

Anglesey Abbey: Snowdrops are appearing

Anglesey Abbey: Polka dot snowdrop carpet

Anglesey Abbey: Polka dot snowdrop carpet

Holding on to Dad

Alzheimer’s is a wicked and vicious disease. There are no two ways about it. No life threatening, debilitating, wasting disease has any redeeming features about it, but Alzheimer’s takes the biscuit in how it gradually engulfs a person, a personality, and an individuals individuality with it’s silent attack on the stuff of memories, speech and recall; with its unrelenting impact on relationships, robbing not just the sufferer of themselves, but robbing friends and family of the person they knew. The person who gradually changes, gradually withdraws, gradually disappears. And finally can hold on no longer.

My father is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Well, I say early stages, but the signs and symptoms have been there for two to three years, yet defied diagnosis until recently. My father is still there though, and he is still self aware, so he knows what is happening, he can’t necessarily put his fears and worries into words, but he doesn’t have to – I can see it on his face, I see it in the old man shuffle of this once proud and upright man. He clings on to dressing himself well, yet even that is beginning to wane, and for a man that put appearances above almost anything, this demise is cruel.

My father was a practical man. I use the past tense, because he has lost much of his ability to fix things and do things with his hands. He must find that loss hard to bear, he is so aware of it that he has begun to clear out his garage-cum-workshop and give various tools away – tools that have been his friends for fifty years or more. Tools that I grew up with. I will probably keep them, though I have no clue how to use many of them, but it doesn’t seem right to throw them away – it would be like consigning my father and his practical past to the waste basket. The time is coming when he will no longer be able to drive, and that final bastion of independence will be the hardest of all for him to give up, he knows in his heart that it will be soon, yet he clings to the car keys like a talisman. A lucky charm that keeps him independent, that staves off the march of the time driven disease that attacks him. He holds on.

Yet there are positive moments. Moments of sheer clarity that shine through his confusion and forgetfulness, like a beacon to the man that he was – to the man that he still is deep down. My father has given me much advice over the years, a great deal of it that I have not agreed with, an awful lot of which I have gone against – and to be fair my decisions have not always been bad ones when I have chosen not to heed him. Last week though, he gave me some advice that is probably his best ever. Discussing my job, and how hard I work, and the fact that I am now in my fifties, he told me that he took early retirement at the age of fifty-nine, because he just couldn’t stand the rat race any longer, he had run out of things to prove, he had been successful, made his money, and at almost sixty years of age he didn’t want to chase the numbers any longer. He said to me “when you recognise that time is coming for you, put your financial affairs in order, do not ponder too long, and just let it go”. If you knew my father you’d realise how significant his words were, as he has never been one to obviously plan in that way, he is always caught up in practicalities and just “doing stuff”, so to express advice that is more about quality of life is quite unusual. And that advice may have come with regrets, you see (and if you read my very first post on this blog you will know) my father lost his wife in April 2014.

My father and I have discovered a new trust, a new way of relating to each other. While I, and my sisters, have to do much for him, he trusts us to do that. He trusts me in ways that I never thought he would, he trusts that we will care for him and make sure he is cared for, of course he fights tooth and nail if he feels we are doing anything that erodes his independence, but ultimately he has trust in our decisions made on his behalf. He still relates to me as his son, but we hug  now, and he expresses his love more now than he ever has, he seems prouder of me now than at any other time of my life. Of course he gets angry, he gets stubborn, and he gets frustrated – but honestly, who wouldn’t?

Trying to hold on to the pieces Image courtesy of iStockphoto

Trying to hold on to the pieces
Image courtesy of iStockphoto

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, because of my profession I know much about Alzheimer’s, how it progresses, what the disease does, how treatments work (or don’t work). So I know what is to come, but I know that he will hold onto his self awareness as long as he can, though I also know that he will ultimately lose himself as the disease envelopes him. As we watch this uncomfortably unfold, we manage his life for him, and we hold onto those moments of clarity, wisdom and advice, just as we treasure family photographs as memories of happy times, we will cling to words as well, because that is how you hold onto the person in those photographs.

Despite what I know, I look for the positives as well as accepting the inevitability of his decline. Learned behaviours are often the last to be affected, so he can still teach us the basics of ballroom dancing, an echo of his and my mothers dancing past (they once danced on the TV programme “Come Dancing” in the 1960’s) – and we have a had a few laughs doing that. He practices the piano twice a day, an instrument that he has played since he was a young boy, and he can still read new music, we’ve played boule and his hand-eye co-ordination learned and developed in his county cricketing days is still there – I am the only one who can beat him – because as a youth he taught me to be an even better cricketer than he was.

So I still have my father. He’s there. Sometimes the best of him is buried beneath the fuzziness of the low moments of the disease. Other times he rises above the disease and we have more of him.

Hold on Dad, just hold on as long as you can.