Mary Kenny: Fallen woman
A painful tumble last winter brought many useful life lessons
It's a sad fact of life that the older you get, the more likely you are to fall. And not in a good way, like falling in love, or falling (as they say) pregnant. I mean tumbling to the ground because you've lost your balance.
Falling is the most common cause of accidental injury in older people and third of people over 65 fall about once a year.
I'm in denial about it, actually. I don't say that I fell. I explain that I tripped over some loose hanging straps in my own home, on Christmas Eve last, and had the most ghastly tumble. Couldn't get up for an age. Floored. Felt as though my prosthetic hip had been knocked out of its socket. No, didn't call an ambulance, as I felt sure I'd be lying on a hospital trolley for the duration. So just lay there for a long time, like in Franz Kafka's story, Metamorphosis, when a man finds he had been turned into an overturned beetle, and is powerless to get up.
Eventually, in exquisite pain, holding on to furniture, and leaning heavily on sticks, I was able to rise, somehow. To my great good fortune, my very kind cousin and her husband looked after me over the Christmas period, and with the support of two sticks as crutches, I was just about able to hobble.
I wouldn't mind, only it happened again. And then a third time. The first tumble had interfered with my balance, quite seriously.
For the first two months of 2017, I felt half-crippled, but looking back on the experience now, I'm strangely grateful for the it. Because I learned an awful lot from it.
It's like what the TV astronomy professor Brian Cox says: failure - and mishaps - are great, because they teach you life lessons. All science is based on failure. You have to do something the wrong way in order to learn how to manage it the right way.
Firstly, I learned to be thankful for the kindness of strangers. On the second fall, I tripped over a manhole in the street, and a chap emerging from the betting shop in somewhat raggedy old clothes picked me up. "I'm a bit rough," he said, apologetically, "but I'll do whatever I can." Sir Walter Raleigh couldn't have been more gallant. On the second occasion, I toppled over at the neighbourhood library, and was rescued by a gentle guy by name of Simon. I thought of the Stations of the Cross - a narrative I love: Jesus falls the third time.
Then, next lesson, I learned to approach walking very, very carefully. You won't find me suing the local authority after tripping over an uneven piece of pavement: I now look where I'm going. For the winter evenings, I purchased a miner's lamp and stuck it on my forehead, so that it could light the way before me. I am as prudent as a camel and as watchful as a hawk.
Thirdly, I learned about the existence of a "balance clinic". Loss of balance can be associated with a number of conditions, relating to eyes, ears, diabetes, urinary infections, and more, and these can all be checked out by a hospital balance clinic. They make you do walking exercises. "Pretend you are on a tightrope," said Siobhan, the friendly physio who was doing the testing. "Walk with one foot directly in front of another." They make you stand on one leg. They make you lie down and see how hard you can push against their strength. They put you through a series of questions about what you can and cannot do at home.
They tell you to stand on one leg every day - maybe when cleaning your teeth - and to walk pretending you're on a tightrope. Siobhan also told me to walk uphill whenever I could: make your heart do the work.
You can use a stick as an aid to walking - but it improves your confidence not to. Walking well, I learned, was sometimes about confidence, as well as carefulness. Some older people who fall experience a shattering loss of confidence and even panic attacks afterwards.
More than four months on from the last January mishap, there have been no more tumbles. I don't say it can never happen again because you never know, literally, what's around the corner. But I feel well recovered.
The prosthetic hip wasn't dislocated - just strained rather acutely - but with the right mixture of rest and exercise, it knitted itself together again. So that's something else that I learned: the body can repair itself.
And another invaluable lesson was this. During those two months when I was so wobbly on my feet, I kept thinking about what everyday life is like for disabled people. They must face such challenges, just getting around. (I was so thankful we had a mild winter: snow or sleet would have been catastrophic.) A staircase not properly bannistered can look like the Cliffs of Moher when you're unsteady on your pins. A swing-door into a building can be terrifying. An escalator, even, can seem nerve-wracking. Compulsory disabled access is, I know, sometimes a financial headache for small businesses, but it is still such an enlightened innovation.
There was only one thing I yearned for: a walk-in shower. Alas, I had no access to such a facility. Well: there's another useful lesson - no one dies if you have to go without bathing for a few weeks!
And the greatest lesson of all: what a blessing it is just to be able to walk anywhere you choose. Carefully, of course.