While walking to my office this week, I noticed an older gentleman ahead of me in the long corridor. His steps were short, and one of his hips seemed to have a hitch in it. He carried two identical canes in his left hand as he made slow but steady progress down the hall. What drew my attention was the fact that he was keeping his bent forearm in constant contact with the wall. Suddenly his torso weaved and he came to an abrupt halt. After a beat, he kept going. A few seconds later, it happened again. “This guy has vertigo!” I thought. Sure enough, at the corner he stopped, executed a slow turn, and paused before continuing on his way, elbow dragging along the wall.

We had a short conversation in which he acknowledged that vertigo was one of his problems. When I noted the two unused canes, he said, “Oh, I don’t need these!” and defiantly took several steps to demonstrate “I can walk!” (with his elbow on the wall! ). Employees then interrupted us with a caravan of large, wheeled carts, and I took my leave. I didn’t pry into his medical issues, but I do wish I had chatted for longer.

Recently I talked to my dad about my symptoms. When I complained that I sometimes have to come to a complete stop at street corners in order to check for traffic, he was unimpressed. “I do that.” he said. “When I leave the gym and walk into the parking lot, I always stop and check for cars.” “Yeah, but you’re, like, 80 years old, Dad!” I struggled not to offend while explaining that a person of my age can typically stay in motion while looking over their shoulder, whereas it wouldn’t be uncommon for someone of my dad’s vintage to have age-related disequilibrium due to a lifetime of wear and tear.

That said, my dad did something a couple of years ago that sure looked like the result of vertigo. We had a long conversation about the difference between light headedness and dizziness, and in the end he insisted that he didn’t have symptoms of vertigo. I sent him an article about it and let it drop. But during this last visit, he got on the subject of “changes I’ve made now that I’m older,” and he was describing the way he goes about changing a light bulb. As he mimed climbing up the ladder, placing his hand on the ceiling, and then slowly raising his gaze, I thought, “That IS vertigo!” So I asked him, “What happens if you don’t put your hand on the ceiling, and you just move your head at a normal speed?” His immediate answer was: “My legs feel wobbly.” Methinks the sequence of up and down head movements that are required when setting up a ladder and climbing it are shaking up the otoconia in my dad’s ears!

Old guys. 🙂