Is exercise worth the risk? We all know it’s good for us, especially as we get older. We need physical and mental stimulation, and as Dr Miriam Stoppard confirmed recently, table tennis is a great way to get both in a social setting. (Other sports are available, apparently!)
But it’s not without risk.
With increased activity comes the risk of falling and breaking a bone, which can have serious, life-changing consequences. Exercising can trigger problems for those with underlying conditions. How do we balance those risks against the danger of doing nothing, which is also bad for elderly people? Or against the fact that exercising also helps to prevent falls? If sport should carry health warnings for older people, so should recliner chairs!
I am an enthusiastic organiser of table tennis for older people. I see every week how much everyone enjoys and benefits from it. At the same time, I’m very aware of the risks. I’ve had to deal with falls, heart attacks and breathing problems and it makes me nervous.
I do what I can. I’ve done a First Aid course. I warn older people who aren’t regular table tennis players not to over-exert themselves, because I know how easily they get carried away. I keep an eye on them and suggest they take a break. I am probably annoyingly over-protective. These are adults, after all, who make their own choices, and they have the right to risk.
Go away, leave me alone!
Fortunately, emergency services usually arrive swiftly if someone is taken ill. But what if the person doesn’t want emergency treatment? I was brought up short when I witnessed an elderly player at an event (not at my regular venue) becoming ill, struggling to breathe, yet refusing help: Go away. Leave me alone. I don’t want a doctor. Family and friends who were present confirmed they didn’t want medical intervention, preferring to “let nature take its course”.
Nature said, not this time, and the crisis passed. But the incident challenged me. Shocked and scared me, to be frank. When I wrote about Margaret McCartney’s discussion of Do Not Resuscitate – or “Allow Natural Death”, I imagined it as a private matter. Relatives gathered round the hospital bed of a comatose patient, or around the sick bed of the frail person at home, preferring death over a longer, but poorer quality of life. I didn’t expect it to be played out in public in front of me.
Die doing something you love?
But perhaps such incidents will become more common, as older people take up challenging activities. The folk wisdom which urges us to die doing something we love is maybe less dodgy when applied to older people. But how do we feel about them exercising that right to risk while doing ordinary, public activities? It has certainly challenged me to think differently about death, and our ultimate powerlessness in the face of it.