Rohan and I are dog sitting and a fortnight ago, when we were out walking, our charge, Lupey (see Lupey and I Grow Old), was involved in a spat. She was ahead on her lead when, without warning, a poodle rushed up from nowhere and for no obvious reason nipped her leg. Lupey, who is assertive by nature, responded in character and in seconds a ball of two growling dogs rolled across the pavement. It was when the ball was under my feet that trouble began.
My fall was in slow motion and I ended up lying on the ground stretched out on my side. After a quick check I decided that no bones were broken and no joints dislocated. There was, however, a hint of other damage – when I moved my left leg I felt pain just above the knee. Since my trousers weren’t torn, the skin over my knee wasn’t grazed and there was no obvious bruising, the damage was probably caused by twisting.
Assessment over, I lay on the ground and took stock – I was in no hurry to get up. My overriding feeling was one of vulnerability. A moment earlier I had been walking and chatting, now I lay prostrate having lost control and with it relinquished my autonomy. Finding myself feeling helpless and exposed on the pavement, albeit for only a few minutes, was an emotional jolt and a disturbing one at that.
A second concern related to my knee and what might happen next. Although the pain was slight, I imagined the worst; might it get worse and leave me suffering for months unable to walk any distance and with difficulty sleeping and climbing stairs? The prospect of prolonged pain was daunting.
Finally, there was a feeling of anger. The poodle’s behaviour made me furious. He had tripped me up and my fall should never have happened. Why did his owner allow the dog to behave like this?
I declined offers of help and got back on my feet unaided – it was a matter of pride. Since then, I have gone over the incident umpteen times and two key issues have predominated. First, how was it that I could not adjust my footing as I would have as a younger man? Second, why was the fall so emotionally disturbing?
Walking is a very complicated process and our bodies use a whole set of mechanisms that enable us to stay upright as we move from A to B. Our brains need to know where our limbs are in space and how to move them without falling over. When I was young and everything was in working order, it was easy for my brain to integrate the thousands of messages that arrived almost simultaneously linking my balance centre in the inner ear, to my eyes, to my cerebellum, to my muscles – particularly those in my hip, thighs and legs – and to the sensory nerves in my joints. Now older, the workings of different parts of the system have begun to slow or fail although enough of them work to allow me to walk with confidence on a flat surface or where there are no surprises. If I trip, however, I can no longer make rapid and integrated responses, no longer jump out of the way or regain my footing. Falling when the dogs got under my feet was inevitable.
Now to why falling over is an emotional matter. It can’t be the natural ‘human’ response, after all children, rugby players, acrobats, wrestlers all fall to the ground without the slightest concern. Feeling emotional is something that comes with age. Nor is it a matter of being on the ground. Nowadays, like many others, I do exercises that involve lying on the floor and I have no qualms. Nevertheless, in older people, fear of falling is almost universal. There are some explanations. It may be because falling reminds people that they are now old, a thought which many find depressing. Then there is the fear of damage. What if a bone is broken and I am unable to get up perhaps finding myself on the floor for hours, even days – a nightmarish prospect. There is also the fear that a fall might be the sign of some serious underlying illness. “Could I have had a fit or a stroke or perhaps even a heart attack?”
Very quickly the two dogs were separated and I was back on my feet. A man standing close-by asked if I needed any help and then went on to apologise. It was his poodle that had caused the problem, ‘Charlie is always doing this, he can be very naughty’. Then, after saying that perhaps he should keep Charlie on a lead, he shrugged his shoulders and walked off.
By the way, first, Lupey showed no after-effects following her tussle; second, the pain in my knee, which has never prevented me from going for long walks, is now much better; and finally I have just started exercises to help make me more nimble.
The illustration is a pictogram which, if it does its job needs no description.
For helping me write this blog I would like to thank Ajay, Sarah, Rohan and Vivien.