by Lorie Tensen

At 55, I consider myself pretty healthy and plan on doing everything in my power to see 100. I take no medications with the exception of supplements, I exercise six days a week, I use sunscreen 365 days a year, I get plenty of rest, and I’ve kept to a vegetarian/vegan diet for 30+ years. I went to grad school at 50 and am thoroughly enjoying my first career as a clinical social worker after decades as a stay-at-home mom. I try to balance a busy work week with an active social life, and living in wine country makes weekends an enjoyable adventure. Life is good…and yet, I worry about aging. Aging as an amputee, to be specific.

I’ve been an amputee since I was 13 years old. My lower right arm was amputated just below the elbow after a traumatic accident in my family’s grocery store. I’ve learned to navigate life as an amputee pretty well, and I’ve found alternative ways to open a tightly sealed jar, change a diaper on a squirming baby, crack an egg expertly, clip and paint my fingernails, and attach tricky little silicone earring backs. But I wonder how easy those tasks will be as I age, what alternatives will be available to me, and whether my medical insurance will cover said alternatives.

And what about that insurance coverage? My current BeBionic prosthesis breaks down on a regular basis, with the gaiter and fingertips tearing and needing replacement far too often. And because my insurance coverage is so fickle, the cost of repairs is typically out of pocket, meaning I have to reach into my savings to pay for the repairs. How will I pay for repairs when I’m no longer working? Do I apply for disability? Will Social Security even be an option? I will not be able to rely on a retirement fund, because I started my career at such a late age and deliberately chose a career that will only get better with age. These are some of the questions that keep me up at night: the cost of being an aging amputee.

I also worry about mobility and losing the use of my left (natural) arm. Despite my dedication to fitness and healthy eating, what happens if I fall and break my left arm? I wouldn’t be able to feed, dress, or drive myself, which would require home healthcare or a stint in assisted living. As a therapist, I’ve counseled many men and women who believe their physical health difficulties as senior citizens began with a bone break. My residual limb is just three inches long, and my prosthesis is heavy. I worry about not being strong enough to bear the weight as I age—especially since I’m not mentally strong enough to go out in public without my prosthesis. I wonder what options will be available to me as I get older, and despite intense research on the subject, I find no answers.

Let’s talk about emotional and mental health for a minute. I am blessed to have an amazing support system fronted by my two children and rounded out with friends and family who have walked beside me during more than four decades as an amputee. But while I know they love me and provide support when needed, I’m the one who’s missing a limb. After 42 long years, I still get sick to my stomach when I recall the accident that cost me my right arm. I still dig my nails into my thigh when phantom pains twist like an unreachable, unsoothable Charley horse cramp, even though I was told as a teenager they would ease with time.  I’ve weathered depression and know I have mental health resources at my fingertips. I. Have. Resources.

But what about those of us who don’t have the same access? As a therapist, I know how important it is for clients to feel comfortable with their therapist. People tend to choose practitioners they believe have something in common with them: gender, ethnicity, or experiences, for example. But I’ve yet to hear of another therapist who is an amputee; most people with limb loss are seeing able-bodied therapists. For that matter, nearly every technician, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and doctor I’ve seen working with amputees at rehabilitation clinics has been able-bodied. While I appreciate their knowledge and dedication, I cannot help but think: You have no idea what it’s like.

In a 2014 survey about limb loss conducted by the Amputee Coalition, half of the respondents were age 50 or older. Yet there is a definitive lack of information available for aging amputees. I’ll admit to letting my mind run wild with “what if” scenarios to a silly degree at times, but I know I’m not the only person with questions about aging as an amputee. I want to age with grace just like anyone else. I want to prepare myself for possibilities and arm myself (pun intended) with as much knowledge as I can to prepare for life as a senior citizen who happens to be an amputee.

I deserve this. You deserve this. We deserve this.

Have you thought about aging as an amputee? If so, what concerns do you have? Are there particular resources you would like to have readily available and easily accessible? Are you a senior amputee who has discovered healthy solutions to the challenges of aging. How can I be of service as a mental health professional and fellow amputee? And finally, what subject matter pertaining to aging as an amputee would you like to see addressed by Amplitude?

Send me a note with your questions and concerns about aging at [email protected]. I’ll take up some of your ideas in a future article. Let’s explore this subject together and help each other age gracefully!

Lorie Tensen is a clinical social worker living her best life in Southern Oregon. She hopes to continue aging gracefully and looks forward to celebrating her 100th birthday in 2066.