In working with the elderly, there are many times wherein I witness a violation of the idea of Energy Conservation. I am not talking about leaving on too many lights or televisions to drive up the electricity bill, using too much water to feed the garden or buying more food than could possibly be consumed and then throwing it out days later. No, that type of energy waste is usually seen in the young.
Older people consistently forget one thing: that their energy is limited, and there are only so many activities they can fit into a given day. For example, a woman in her eighties who lives alone and needs a walker to get from room to room might awaken at 5 am to take a shower, dress herself, pour cereal and milk into a bowl, only to find that she is so exhausted by noon that she cannot prepare lunch or change back into her pajamas when the sun goes down.
When I meet such a person and treat them at home for physical therapy, I am forced to ask them the following question: If you have only $20 allotted to your bank account for this entire day, how will you spend it? That $20 equals the person’s energy capacity. How much of their daily routine is using this finite amount of $20? This woman who was mentioned previously probably spent about $12 on her morning activities. There were only $8 left in her bank for the rest of the day.
This is what Energy Conservation is all about. If energy is measured in dollars, how are we as people choosing to spend them? I have found that overestimating our energy dollars is not a finding unique to the elderly. It is just more obvious in people with limited physical stores of energy. Yet even the younger set of society is at the mercy of this energy theory. All of us have limits to what we can accomplish, but we have been thrust into a society driven by production and energy expenditure as the markers of our success.
The following is a tale of a woman named Donna. Donna was born in 1952, in the suburbs of New Jersey. Donna had a fairly unremarkable childhood, her parents were married, her father was a little distant and drank too much (but whose father didn’t, Donna asks), and she had two younger sisters. Donna graduated from High School in 1970 and became a manicurist. She then met a man at a social mixer named Mark. Donna and Mark married in 1974 at a local VFW.
Donna and Mark had one son, Peter. Peter was a good kid, they lived together in a Cape Cod in Cranford, which they owned. One day, in 1989, Donna got a phone call at the nail salon that her husband was dead. Mark died of a massive heart attack at work, and Donna was forced to continue to raise a teenaged son and decide her own future. There are three journeys of Donna’s choice in how she might spend the rest of her life’s energy. None of them are good or bad. They are simply forks in the road of Donna’s life, potentialities that exist for her and all of us. Read on to discover them…
Adventure Number One: Donna continues to work as a manicurist. Her colleagues go to her husband’s funeral. Donna’s boss promotes her to Lead Nail Technician and manager of the nail salon. Donna’s son graduates from high school and secures his MBA from the Wharton School of Business. Donna helped Peter do this because she was left a life insurance policy on her deceased husband worth $173,000. As the years wear on, Donna develops osteoarthritis in her knees, from crouching down on a stool, giving pedicures to women far younger than she. She cannot exercise, because the pain and stiffness in her knees has become so severe. Donna spends her evenings at home, alone. She admits to being a Reality TV Junkie, saying, “I guess we all have problems. Mine are no worse than most.”
Adventure Number Two: Upon the death of her husband, Donna takes the $173,000 and pays off her house. She then gets her real estate license. Donna begins as an average realtor, but quickly joins the ranks of the top real estate brokers in New Jersey. At age 57, Donna opens up her own real estate firm. She has over $3 million in the bank and looks forward to sending her grandson, Petey Junior, to whatever college he chooses. Donna rarely sleeps and forgets to eat regular meals. All of her friends tell her that she has a fabulous figure. Yet somehow, those compliments fall short when Donna sustains a small stroke. It does not have outward manifestations, this stroke, no one can tell. But Donna stares at her ceiling at night and wonders if she can exceed the sales figures that she hit during the last calendar year.
Adventure Number Three: Donna is crushed by the loss of her husband. She spends three entire months in bed in 1989, until her 15-year old son Pete nudges her one morning and asks for pancakes. Donna makes those pancakes and the sun shines through her kitchen window. Donna looks for the paperwork for the $173,000 Life Insurance Policy. She enrolls herself in night classes to become a paralegal. She gets a job at a local law firm and meets friends. These friends are women who invite her out dancing, to trips to Mexico, and they giggle over white wine after work. Donna takes Zumba classes and walks in local parks. As she looks forward to every spring and watches Petey Junior play Little League, she marvels at her own leg strength when climbing to the top of the bleachers to see him play ball.
So, there you have it. Donna had three possible versions of her future and how she was going to spend it. These three different tales of Donna’s life remind me of my favorite series of books as a child. They were entitled Choose Your Own Adventure. There were usually three destinations to where the reader (YOU) could travel. No decision was right or wrong, it was simply left unto the reader to choose where she or he wanted to go.
But let us go back to the notion of Energy Conservation, because that is the basis of this narrative. In Adventure Number One, Donna stays within her job and gives her son an excellent education. She isn’t really fulfilled, and she is not physically healthy, but that choice worked in the moment she made it. In Adventure Number Two, Donna becomes wildly successful in her real estate business. She has the assets to retire and money to help successive generations. But she also has a stroke that she does not like to talk about and has little sense of peace. Even then, we know that Donna has made her decision on how to live and she is sticking with it!
Finally, we have Adventure Number Three. Donna has chosen a new career path as a paralegal with the proceeds from her husband’s passing. It isn’t sexy and she will never make a huge financial splash. But it is a solid path, one wherein she will not breathe in acetone from nail polish remover, and in this new job, Donna finds meaningful relationships. She stays close to her son and grandson; while she may not have paid for college education for them, she made certain to invest in her own. And that money that she paid for paralegal school bought her far more than a job. It bought her health which lasts over decades. Donna found all kinds of health: financial stability, physical engagement in exercise, and life-sustaining connections with others.
This all boils down to Energy Conservation. How much money do you have for this day, to get you through all that you must? You are going to spend it on traffic jams, resentment towards your boss, and waiting on line for your turkey sandwich at lunch. There are no limitations to how easy it is to spend this money. It will leave you before you have time to count it. But remember…the opposite is also true! You have ways to add to your bank account. And you already know what they are. So, the next time your colleague asks you to go to a baseball game, your best friend calls you from the West Coast and asks you to pour some wine remotely to talk, or a small child walks up to you and smiles no reason, just say yes. Because that is filling up your bank.
Forty years from now, when you are making breakfast, this older and wiser version of yourself will thank you.