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September 08, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The evolution of Ruth Lyell The evolution of Ruth Lyell (September 08, 2004)

Aging expert tackles the fear of growing old

by Alex Doniach

Dr. Ruth Lyell hunched over a white, soft-cover book. A few strands of silver hair brushed against her rounded cheek as she traced her fingertips lightly across the page.

"Here, here it is," she said. She looked up with eager blue eyes and pointed to a line embedded in the text. "Devoting one's life to keeping well is one of the most tedious ailments." She closed the book and chuckled. "I like that one."

The quote, written by French author Duc Francois de la Rochefoucauld, is in an anthology compiled and edited by Lyell titled, "Aging: Middle Age, Old Age: Short Stories, Poems, Plays and Essays on Aging." As a professor of aging herself, she hoped the anthology might help people realize that fear of growing old is part of being human.

"Everyone gets old," she said, "but poor health and old age is more difficult for people who sit and complain about it."

Lyell certainly doesn't. The professor, who taught students the psychology of aging for more than 20 years, is now learning what it's like to grow old. At 71, Lyell is just now fully understanding the ideas she's taught scores of students, in part due to her own aging and diabetes -- a disease that has changed her life.

Lyell sat at the dining room table of the Palo Alto home she has shared with her husband, Bill Lyell, for more than 30 years. Packed bookshelves line the walls and piles of magazines and newspapers lay strewn on tables and countertops. Lyell, in a red dress and tennis shoes, pauses to consider what it feels like for a professor of aging to age.

"It can be difficult sometimes," she said. "On the other hand I have so much more understanding and better perspective about things. When I read books, I understand things that I might not have understood in the same way when I was younger."

Lyell grew up on the north side of Boston. An avid student, Lyell worked her way into Boston University and later the University of Chicago where she received her PhD in sociology and psychology. In school she studied human behavior and wrote her master's thesis about generational patterns in female Elvis fans. In 1972, her husband got a teaching position at Stanford and the Lyell's moved their four children to Palo Alto. Lyell became a professor and taught courses at various community colleges in the area for over 20 years. When she became a full time professor she lectured on a variety of topics including the psychology of aging. Although aging was not initially her area of expertise, she developed a passion for a field that affects everyone. Her courses discussed the physical and emotional effects of aging including the causes and effects of dementia and various diseases including Alzheimer's.

Her career came to a drastic halt in 1989 when she was diagnosed with type II diabetes. Her various symptoms -- intense thirst, fatigue and hunger -- strained her ability to lecture and teach. She remembered having to lean on the podium so she wouldn't topple over from exhaustion during class.

She decided to see a doctor about her symptoms. He told her that the fatigue was caused by her body's inability to regulate insulin and that none of the food she ate was converted into energy.

Even though Lyell knew about her diabetes, she neglected to fully deal with the disease and soon developed cataracts in both eyes. Lyell's cataracts impaired her ability to see clearly and teach, and she remembered feeling panicked when it came time to use the computer for her classes.

"It was so difficult to teach because I couldn't read my notes," she said. "I typed out my own syllabi but I couldn't read the computer screen and I thought, 'My God, how am I going to get through this year?'"

Lyell resisted losing her career to the disease. But, when the California education system made cut backs and offered her a "Golden Handshake" -- a salary bonus to retire that year -- she decided it was time to get her disease under control. So, at 60, she left her job and opted for surgery.

With the cataracts successfully gone and her diabetes under control, Lyell felt a deep sense of loss and confusion as to what she should do with her time now that it wasn't occupied by students.

"I lectured in my dreams for years," she said. Her desire to teach and stay involved in the community prompted her decision to volunteer for the American Diabetes Association. She started organizing health fairs and giving talks about living with diabetes. She discovered that her volunteer work mirrored her teaching career.

"I love to teach people what I know," she said. Her background in psychology also helped her become a better teacher because it taught her to "communicate, listen and really hear what people had to say."

Growing old has been a challenge for someone who always prided herself on her ability to multi-task. She also struggled with the loss of memory characteristic of old age. Still, her disease prompted her to refocus on living a healthy lifestyle. She cut out fatty foods and took up exercise -- something she never liked.

She enrolled in nature hikes through Elderhostel and soon fell in love with long walks outdoors. "I developed muscles and started going much faster," she said. She credits her 15-mile-per week hikes with friends to a disease that prompted her to take a step back and "be healthy," she said.

Lyell comes from a family of diabetics. But, because she has taken measures to help her disease -- a healthy diet and exercise -- she has outlived any other diabetic relative.

Lyell includes reading and teaching as only a few of her favorite pastimes -- and she hopes that her energy can be an example to others diagnosed with crippling diseases.

Her cluttered living room, littered with pictures, newspaper clippings, and framed children's artwork, brims with her enthusiasm and passions.

"Diabetes doesn't mean your life is over," she said. "Old age doesn't mean that either. Now I have the time to read and spend time with my grandchildren. Life is good."

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