Living With a Disability While Aging: Local Author Francine Falk-Allen’s New Book Offers Insight and Humor on Coping

No Spring Chicken

Most of us at some point struggle to cope with what life throws at us, but few of us ever stop to imagine how much harder it must be for those with the added burden of disability. Multiply these challenges with the complications caused by aging, and the only thing to really do is face things with exactly the kind of humor, insight and warmth that Francine Falk-Allen offers in her new book, No Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability.

Falk-Allen is a polio survivor who has made it her mission to share her life experiences with others and help open minds to what living with a disability might be like. While her first book, Not a Poster Child, told the story of her journey with polio, No Spring Chicken builds on this, aiming to help those who are coping with physical setbacks. Falk-Allen is also the founder of the group Polio Survivors of Marin and an alternate member of the San Rafael City Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Committee.

Francine Falk Allen

We caught up with Francine to find out more about her story.

1. You previously wrote a book about your experience of living with a disability – what inspired you to write this second book?

“I have a wealth of experience in dealing with the vicissitudes of disability in an able-bodied world, having lived with a mostly paralyzed leg for 70 years. I felt that many of the things I have learned about travel, relationships with family and friends that are affected by physical limitations, how to keep myself healthy in spite of my partial disability, might be useful not only to people who are already disabled but to anyone facing physical challenges as they age. We all will encounter those challenges eventually. My goal in writing No Spring Chicken was to encourage those with wonky body parts not to give up on themselves, to continue to find ways to have a good time, and for me to share with their families and friends possible approaches to more satisfying relationships and ways of living.”

2. What advice would you give those who want to follow in your footsteps as a “wild handicapper”?

I spell all that out in copious detail in the book: How to plan travel so that it works for you, encouragement to accept invitations even though they may involve a lot of logistics, the many, many places in the world which I’ve visited that did or didn’t work. Also, I talk about being prepared for others’ expectations, such as the discrepancy between what many think is a short distance but could be impossible for a person with a cane, and more. For some, travel may simply be finding a way to go to a park and sit with a cuppa. Travel of any kind broadens our perspective and understanding and my bottom line advice is: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

3. What are some of the unique challenges that come from facing the dual hurdle of living with a disability and dealing with aging that those who don’t have to experience both might not realize?

Oy. (I’m not Jewish, but my husband is, so I get to use “oy” by default.) There are quite a few “unique challenges” for some of us. As a polio survivor, I’ll share a few that are specific to that condition but may also be present for those with MS, chronic fatigue and other disorders. With polio, the majority of survivors had no residual paralysis, but at least 50-75% begin to experience fatigue and weakness and sometimes muscle and joint pain earlier than others might. With polio, some motor neurons were actually killed off with the virus; the extent of that nerve death determines the presence or degree of paralysis. So whereas osteoarthritis may hit some people in their early 60’s, the wear and tear on joints from back and limbs working harder to compensate for weaker muscles may begin for polio survivors in their 50’s, and the fatigue factor is really the most limiting disappointment. We have to pace ourselves daily, resting more than most people. I could walk a mile or so in my 30’s, but now, a block is a long walk requiring rests along the way. So I got a scooter a few years ago, and hop off to stand up for engaging things I want to do or see.

4. How important do you think being involved with groups that help support people dealing with the issues caused by being handicapped and aging?

I feel that if a person feels disappointed, upset, or disconcerted by something difficult that is happening to his or her body, it is really helpful to link up with others who are having the same or similar problems. No one understands like someone who is going through cancer treatment, arthritis, or grief, whatever it is. These aren’t pity parties; they are groups of encouragement. Laughter is usually part of the format!

It has been my experience that through these groups people learn tips about taking care of themselves, they can find out about the most responsive and well-informed medical professionals and the most up-to-date medical or community resource information from the people who have needed it most. There are hiking groups for older people who have to take it slower, and that’s a type of support group.

5. Tell us a bit about the groups you work facilitate/work with – Polio Survivors of Marin County (PSM) and San Rafael City ADA Accessibility Committee.

All of the above describes the group I started and facilitate, Polio Survivors of Marin. We meet once a quarter and have been meeting on Zoom for a year now, which incidentally has assisted some of our members in their 90’s who now find it difficult to drive!

I am an alternate member of the San Rafael City Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Committee, but I never miss a meeting! We have also met on Zoom recently. We discuss various aspects of accessibility in our town, such as whether walkways in public areas are wheelchair or walker-friendly, whether more Disabled Person (DP) parking is needed, even details such as contractors understanding that wheelchair users need a low coat hook in public restroom stalls. We look at the need for education for contractors and businesses and other similar topics. The budget for these necessities is limited, and our city government liaison takes our talking points back to whoever can most efficiently produce what’s needed. Accessibility issues politely brought to the city’s attention by the public are regularly addressed and appreciated. It’s possible that many in the San Rafael public do not know that they have advocates!

Francine’s new book, “No Spring Chicken: Stories and Advice from a Wild Handicapper on Aging and Disability” will be explored during her Book Passage event on Thursday, July 15th at 5:00 PT.

For information on PSM email Francine at [email protected].

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See David’s virtual Book Passage event on Monday, July 5 at 12:00 PT. His in-conversation partner is travel teacher, writer and all-around Bay Area guru, Don George, also from the San Francisco Bay Area. Don has also been the chairman of the Book Passage annual Travel Writer’s Conference for many years.

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Jessica Gliddon

Jessica Gliddon is the Group Digital Content Manager for Marin Magazine. An international writer and editor, she has worked on publications in the UK, Dubai and Cape Town. She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, and is the former editor of Abu Dhabi’s airline magazine, Etihad Inflight. When she’s not checking out the latest exhibit at SFMOMA or searching out the best places to eat and drink near her home in San Francisco, she volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.