What if I wet the bed? At 84, I’m facing my fears and facing aging head-on

This first-person column is written by Sheilah Bissett, who lives in Calgary. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see the FAQ.

I woke up one morning this spring and couldn’t get out of bed. My arthritic left leg was so sore that I couldn’t bend it.

I am 84 years old and suddenly I was scared. The “what if” questions poured in: what if I would never walk again? What if I wet the bed? What if I fall and break my hip? What if I can’t walk the dogs?

Panic, then slowly a little common sense is added to the perspective. There I was—already confined to a wheelchair in my head—and barely tried to get out of bed!

Moaning and moaning, I forced myself to lift that leg. Then I rubbed my knee, rocked it back and forth, and realized, “I can do this.

After three minutes, I got up and slowly made my way to the bathroom.

What does it take to age well? For me, it’s this battle between “I can’t” and “I can”. Having my coffee that morning, I reflected on how the signs of aging had crept over me.

My doctor kept warning me, “You’re 84, not 54. Slow down!”

I tried to ignore it and pretend everything was fine, but the list of “I can’t take it anymore” kept growing. I can’t open jam jars, pickles, wine or water bottles. I also can’t paint walls, hang wallpaper or climb ladders. I can no longer ride in a boat or even some cars, carry heavy packages or hold a baby in my arms.

I also had issues like cataracts, hearing loss, and balance and memory issues. The list seems endless. I ignored it because I’ve always been single and independent; a future of dependency on others was terrifying.

Bissett started a pet sitting service after her retirement. (Submitted by Sheilah Bissett)

But that knee shook me. I realized that I had to face aging head-on. I have to be honest with my “I can’t anymore” list and embrace the independence I have left.

So I received a custom made knee brace and in August I took my first steps towards a new way of life.

First, I created more time for myself. I realized that I never knew what it was like not to work, because here I am still working in a pet sitting business 10 years after my retirement.

I quit three clients and kept two and, to my delight, spent three weeks alone at home without a commitment. I read three books, called friends and met for coffee or walks along the river. I watched everything I wanted on TV, tanned on the balcony, went to bed at 7:30 or 11:30 and got up when I wanted. I danced in my apartment to ABBA.

A woman wearing a knee brace dances in a dining room under the gaze of a small dog.
Bissett dances to ABBA in her living room and celebrates the freedom that comes with having fewer commitments. (Submitted by Sheilah Bissett)

Then I tackled something I thought I would never be able to do. I painted my book shelves from pale yellow to dark magenta. It took three days to do what a younger me would have done in one day.

It was such a success that I also sanded off the rust from my balcony railings and slowly painted them too.

Even better, I pulled out my financial records and realized that with some cutbacks, I didn’t have to work as much. I may have to sell my car, but the peace of a less stressful life and increased connection with friends will be more valuable.

Now I have to learn to let go of old habits and gradually adapt to the idea that rest, not stress, will be a new and better life for me.

A set of shelves with small statues and other trinkets.
It took Sheilah Bissett three days to paint these shelves, but she did it herself. (Sheilah Bisset)

But I’m still caught in my doubts. Two weeks ago I received an invitation to a party with a five course meal, served with a chef, by a dog sitter client celebrating her 44th birthday at home.

I accepted right away, then I had doubts. An 84-year-old man with a reinforced knee with all these ladies? Where could I fit in? What would I wear? I can not do that !

I almost canceled at the last minute. But I made sure that since we had known each other for more than five years, the hostess must know what she was doing. So I asked a friend to drive me. I wore a long skirt to cover my knee pad and went to one of the most memorable dinner parties of my life.

We laughed and cried and shared stories of travel, teenage years, recent marriage, dating and divorce. The evening was amazing.

I’m 84, not 54. But I can do it. I will continue to take more risks in the future.

Tell your story

As part of our ongoing partnership with the Calgary Public Library, CBC Calgary hosts in-person writing workshops to help community members tell their own stories.

This workshop was organized by the Kerby Centre. To learn more, suggest a topic or offer help from a community organization, email CBC Producer Elise Stolte or visit cbc.ca/tellingyourstory.


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