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A Painful Confession

William Housley

IT PAINS ME TO SAY this, but I hurt—everywhere. I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up. My feet hurt, my knees hurt, my hips hurt, my back hurts and my shoulders hurt. One more thing: I can’t remember. My memory is in decline.

Cataract surgery improved my eyesight. Hearing aids mean my grandkids don’t have to be two rooms over when we watch TV together. Exercise seems to reduce my pain slightly and increase mobility. I see new knees and hips on the horizon. Maybe next up is an artificial intelligence chip for my brain.

Knowing my limits helps reduce my pain. On the treadmill, my knee tells me there’s a big difference between 2.9 mph and 3.0 mph. When I try to push a little harder, my body quickly reminds me who’s boss.

My cognitive decline is stealthier, revealing itself only when I try to talk. Words that were once common in my vocabulary aren’t there for easy recall. The aging fog of cognition is slow but sure. Thinking speed, memory recall and the ability to perform executive functions are all starting to suffer.

Once upon a time, I was a flight instructor. Living in Colorado, I enjoyed taking students into the mountains. Mountain flying offers pilots the opportunity to develop their skills while enjoying a new perspective of the Rocky Mountains. Few things compare to the thrill of flying around snow-capped mountains in the early morning. We would land at Leadville airport. At 9,934 feet above sea level, Leadville is the highest public-use runway in the U.S.

Safely navigating mountains is about risk management. Weather can change in an instant. From personal experience, I know that unseen waves of air can flip a plane sideways in a heartbeat. At these altitudes, one risk that must also be managed is cognitive impairment due to lack of oxygen.

Supplemental oxygen is a good idea above 10,000 feet. It’s required above 12,500 feet if flying for longer than 30 minutes. Most mountain passes are above 10,000 feet. Rollins Pass, my favorite, is at 11,676 feet. To ensure you don’t need to dust the dirt off the underbelly of the airplane, it’s wise to fly higher than ground level when crossing.

To demonstrate how altitude affects thinking, I’d always do this exercise before the flight: On the ground before taking off, I’d ask my students to count the sequence of A-1, B-2, C-3 and so on for as long as possible. I’d stop them when they started to stumble. This was usually around F-6 or G-7.

Deep into the Rockies and after flying above 10,000 feet for a while, I’d follow up with these questions.

Me: “How do you feel?”

Student: “Great.”

Me: “How are your cognitive abilities?”

Student: “Not a problem. I’m fine.”

Me: “Do you remember the counting exercise?”

Student: “Yes.”

Me: “Okay, please count that alphanumeric sequence again.”

Student: “A-1… B… 2… err C… err 3.” At that point, they caught on, “Oh my, I had no idea I couldn’t think.”

Every student says “great” when asked how he or she feels. Why? The wingman of reduced cognition is a false sense of euphoria.

Understanding and managing risk is life-saving. A couple of years ago, I made the personal choice to stop flying. Giving up one of the loves of my life was painfully difficult, but it was the right decision.

Cognitive decline from lack of oxygen—or from aging—is real. Our ability to function slips away quietly. Just as flying in the mountains requires increased awareness of risk, our need for financial risk awareness is greater as we age. The flight of aging doesn’t stop mid-air. As we continue to our aging destination, our tanks continue to deplete until we finally land.

In the years before my father died, we asked, “Where’s your personal and financial information? How do we find your accounts and stocks?” His answer was, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you everything when I’m ready.” He went from being “not ready yet” to being unable to remember the details of his estate. Not having this information made things difficult for his executors. I don’t want that for my children.

If I die at the same age as my parents, I have about 25 years left. That seems like a long time to get things in order. But I’d like to stop flying my finances and get things in order sooner, and well before I can’t. I want to simplify now, and switch my finances and investments to autopilot. It’s likely that my investments and taxes will not be as “optimized” as I’d want them today. But I’m okay with that. It’s the price I need to pay to reduce the risk of bad future financial decisions.

William Housley lives in Parker, Colorado, and has worked with Youth for Christ for more than 47 years. There, he serves as a trustee on the 403(b) committee. In their work with Youth for Christ, Bill and his wife Gretchen, a registered nurse, have ministered to youth in California, Germany, Vermont and Colorado. Today, Bill continues to contribute to the organization as “legacy staff.” He and his wife love spending time with their three grandsons. Bill’s previous article was Gardeners Needed.

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