I Am No Less Capable Than Before

hands and cane

Earlier this year, I had a fall. I rushed to catch the 41 bus at the Northgate Transit Center and took off through a planted area rather than walk 100 feet out of my way on the sidewalk. I tripped on a tree root and heard a loud crack as my face hit the sidewalk in front of me and my glasses scrunched into my forehead. A kindly driver called out, "Do you need help?" from his passing car.

My impatient style set me up for that fall. A cane probably couldn't have prevented the trip but might have softened the fall and made it less likely that I would spend three hours in an emergency department getting an MRI and then spend time and money having to replace my glasses.

Sue Shaw

Contributor Sue Shaw helped organize local events celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

This is what it took to get me to use a cane—not constantly, but at least when I am out and about on sidewalks less traveled. I knew that I was old. I knew that normal aging means loss of function. I knew that a cane would allow me to walk further and for longer periods of time. I knew that using a cane would reduce the risk of a fall and injury that could lead to any form of assisted living.

I owned several canes. One is foldable—it fits in my purse. One is a custom cane, cut to order for me by a physical therapist who taught me how to use it. One is a walking stick that is an Asian-style cane purchased as a souvenir of a weekend Zen retreat at Green Gulch Farm. I also own a set of Austrian walking sticks purchased at REI. So what was this resistance that I felt to carrying a cane outside my home?

This wasn't about lack of awareness or access or inconvenience. I passed by those canes every day on my way out the door. This wasn't about ageism. I don't mind being old. I have been ahead of the curve on acceptance of my own aging and the changes in function that have come with it. I love my hearing aid and I couldn't function without my eyeglasses. I joined the Crone of Puget Sound and I was eager to join the activities at my senior center. I recently moved into an independent living apartment a full five years earlier than the average age for new residents.

My resistance was about accepting my canes as tools that could increase my independence and reduce my risk for social isolation. The issue was my own ableism and the ableism of the culture I live in.

I can't change societal ableism, but I can recognize it and I have come to understand how it impacts my decisions and behavior. I can see that those popular "oldster" movies featuring older actors and story lines with aging characters are addressing ageism, but they reek of ableism. These films show 80-year-olds traveling to distant lands, finding an affordable and safe place to stay, forming social and sexual relationships, finding part-time work, and riding double on Vespas. I guess that is called "successful aging."

Even my own senior living community markets an image of ableism. Though I live among over 500 people, many of whom use canes and walkers every day, there isn't one cane or walker among the 33 pictures printed in our recent annual report. The message I take from this is that showing an assistive device for ambulation among our population would not be attractive to an 80-year-old prospective resident.


These cultural images of aging have influenced my behavior. In these past months, I went through several stages prior to walking into the new Blythe Danner movie with a cane! [Spoiler alert: No canes or walkers in Blythe's new movie!]

I suppose what forced me to contemplate using a cane were repeated phone calls from my sister telling me about her own falls. Through listening to her, I recognized my own resistance to taking better care of myself. I began to see my unwillingness to be written off by society as less than able. My sister's e-mailed photo of her new walker had a profound influence on my willingness to use a cane. Sibling competiveness isn't all bad!

I have realized that my using a cane will influence others. I am no less capable than before. In fact, maybe I am more capable in that I am more aware of my own and other's limitations. I am going to have to practice this new behavior for a time and figure out which of those canes are going to work best for me.

I have no doubt that this is a behavior I will continue. I want to live long enough to see Richard Gere play the role of an old man with a walker.

Contributor Sue Shaw sits on the Seattle-King County Advisory Council for Aging & Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging. She represents the Advisory Council at Seattle Commission for People with disAbilities meetings, and helped to organize ADA 25th anniversary events (see "The ADA at 25: Continuing to Make Your Life Better" in this issue).