Playing tennis, and the 'what if?' game

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Tim Mullaney
Tim Mullaney

Watching the Australian Open tennis tournament, where temperatures have been hovering around 110 degrees, has helped my recovery from the recent polar vortex. It's also unexpectedly prompted me to reflect on the aging process and to imagine myself residing in a long-term care facility.

With regard to aging, tennis is marketed as “the sport for a lifetime,” but recent events have made me question this tagline.

I went home to Wisconsin a while back to discover an elaborate pulley system set up in the back hall. It seemed my parents had gone to an LTC conference and a particularly smooth-talking vendor rep had talked them into installing a home therapy gym, or something.

Turns out I wasn't that far off. The system was for physical therapy, to help with my mom's rotator cuff pain. A condition exacerbated (along with her tendinitis and a knee issue that required surgery) by her tennis playing.

Then there's my dad. Imagine him on the tennis court, running toward the net to get his racquet on a short ball … and now he's down, blinded by pain, after pulling one hamstring and straining the other. He'll go from the court to a hospital, in an ambulance.

Since that happened last year, my parents have canceled their membership at the local tennis club, and have been making noises about giving up the game. I hope they don't, and I've been glad that my father has been back at it recently.

Still, their injuries have planted a seed of doubt in my mind. Don't get me wrong — I've been run around the court by seniors often enough to know there's truth to the “sport of a lifetime” line. But my parents' injuries have gotten me playing the “what if?” game.

What if I couldn't play tennis anymore? I wondered this last night while lying on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, watching the Aussie Open.

Well, I thought, I already have a little taste of what that's like. I don't have a club membership here in Chicago, so I don't play for a big chunk of the year. The chunk known as “winter.” It can be a tough time. When winter has stretched into April, say, I'm almost frantic to hit the court. Even now, watching the pros battle it out Down Under, I want to experience the satisfaction of cracking a great serve myself. I console myself with the thought that spring will arrive, and I start to count down the days.

But what if I could no longer count down the days? What if I were, as they say, “in the winter of my life,” and the arrival of spring would not mean I could break out the tennis gear? What if I were in poor health, living in a long-term care facility?

By the time I'm in a nursing home, the inability to play tennis will be the least of my concerns, I thought. But maybe not. Maybe hitting a backhand will be one of the things that I most miss. I drew the blanket around myself at that thought, recognizing not for the first time but in an especially immediate way why depression is such a scourge for LTC residents.

So what could I do to counteract that depression, I wondered. I could watch tennis on TV. I could play tennis on the Wii. Would ping-pong be out of the question?

ESPN2 went to a commercial break, and I reflexively took my phone out to entertain myself. That's when it occurred to me that by the time I'm in a nursing home, there's no telling where technology will have taken us. Maybe I'll be able to just strap on my virtual reality helmet and take on the computer-generated equivalent of Rafael Nadal.

The prospect cheered me. I only hope that if I'm in a facility, I will know what technology is available. And that if I don't, I'll have caregivers who know that tennis was important to me, and can tell me what's out there to keep me involved in the game, and help me access those tools.

I suppose this is just saying I hope person-centered care and technology both will continue to evolve, and reinforce each other. It's hardly an Earth-shattering hope; these are among most commonly expressed goals in long-term care. But by making it personal, by playing the “what if?” game, I renewed my own sense of how important these objectives are.

We may be entering the dark heart of winter, but “what if?” can be played in any season. If you're in the field of long-term care and haven't played it in a while, I recommend a round or two.

Tim Mullaney is Staff Writer at McKnight's. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.


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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.