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How Karen (67) climbed the monster hill in her own home

Estimated reading time 6 min. Published 19.06.2018
In 2014, Karen was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but life had been difficult even before this. Seven years prior, at the age of 56, she was diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, causing exhaustion. Life was turned on its head, as she went from scaling mountaintops on skis to struggling with daily chores. Karen named the stairs in her home the “monster hill”. Every night, she had to confront the stairs standing between her and her bedroom: “will you or I win today?”.

Small farm in the middle of the city

Not far from the center of Oslo they’ve lived together for 43 years. In Karen’s childhood home, which her grandfather built in 1936. As university chemistry students they lived here, since getting a city apartment was impossible for dog owners.

Their place could make anyone envious. The red house is surrounded by an idyllic garden which makes you forget you’re in the middle of a city. The garden contains plenty of plants and trees which demand much attention, particularly in the days of tropical heat which occurred this May. Their greenhouse and small fields are stocked like the produce department of a supermarket. Karen and Bernt have a large selection of berries, herbs, and vegetables, and they even have eight different kinds of tomatoes. This is their very own small farm in the middle of Oslo. Here, they both contribute actively to planting and harvesting, though Bernt is the one doing most of the rough work. Having the energy to tend to the flowers and plants is important to Karen, and for this reason she is very careful to exercise and stay active, so she can tackle as much as possible of daily life.

Doctorate

After a doctorate and seven years of teaching at the university, she began working with pharmaceutical development at a small Norwegian company. Although she’s on disability leave since 2016, Karen now does a bit of consultant work, building a quality assurance system for a Swedish entrepreneurial company.

  • “I never envisioned retiring before the age of 67, but then my health got to me instead. Nonetheless, I can’t keep entirely still. I need something to play with, and these days so much can be done on a computer. I don’t work as much as I wish to, but when your body needs four days rest after three days work, the question is whether it’s really worth it.”
“Getting out of the house is substantially important, and I want to stay in the best shape possible. You can’t stay seated inside the rest of your life. That doesn’t help anyone.”
Karen (67)

Mountain goat

As far as her body lets her, it’s important for Karen to get outside and move about as much as she can. Her will is not the obstacle. Karen is used to scaling mountains and glaciers by many different means.

“My daughter said to me: ‘It’s possible to call it a trip even if it’s just three hours.’ ‘Yes, but we’ve done that,’ I replied, but then I got in return ‘No, Mom, we’ve never done that.’”

Bernt laughs, shaking his head. “Our ski trips were usually six to eight hours,” he adds. The mountains of Jotunheimen were the most frequent destinations, both in winter and summer.

The importance of getting outside

These days, life looks very different for Karen. Despite her physical impairments, however, they haven’t stopped getting outside and active. With a small cabin requiring a 700m trek, Karen has no choice. Now she uses snowshoes and crutches for assistance, and going the tracks by snowshoe is more accepted than going by foot.

“Getting out of the house is substantially important, and I want to stay in the best shape possible. You can’t stay seated inside the rest of your life. That doesn’t help anyone.”

Karen wishes to inspire and show others there are opportunities even when you have a serious illness. There are simple aids for daily life. She has discovered many an aid on her own, and she’s had help from her occupational therapist to find others. Among other devices, she has an electric tricycle she can use if there isn’t snow. She’s shared this on Facebook pages for Parkinson’s disease to let more people know about all its clever functions. It’s very steady, but still quite small and neat. Karen has already been for a ride on the day of our visit, and she occasionally rides it to and from her training sessions with a Parkinson’s physiotherapy group.

“I could have had a stair lift if I wanted, but then you’re not doing anything yourself. The AssiStep helps me climb and walk down stairs on my own, in a safe manner.”
Karen (67)

Defeating the monster hill

Karen can handle many indoor activities by herself, but the stairs - or the monster hill as she calls it - is a challenge. Their bedroom is on the second floor, and the stairs are long, with two bends. After a stay at a rehabilitation center, Karen received a recommendation to get the AssiStep stair helper. After a conversation with her occupational therapist and the NAV Assistive Technology Center she had it installed in her stairs.

“With Parkinson’s, the only thing you know is it won’t get better. I could have had a stair lift if I wanted, but then you’re not doing anything yourself. The AssiStep helps me climb and walk down stairs on my own, in a safe manner.”

Karen gets very tired in the evenings. With the AssiStep she gets support to climb the monster hill stairs and stay in the best shape she can. This also applies to walking down the stairs, especially in the mornings when her muscles are rigid and sore. At those times, having something secure and steady to hold on to is a comfort. Bernt adds:

“It’s also very reassuring for me. Karen’s balance is very poor, so there is a risk of falling in the stairs. Now I know she has a failsafe in case she gets dizzy or loses her balance.

Daily life rehabilitation

Listening to Karen telling all her stories and experiences is incredible. Whether they entail dodging avalanches in Jotunheimen or supporting their bonus son running a center for orphans in Tanzania. There is so much more to write about Karen and Bernt, but the most important thing is explaining what they still do to this day, and how they take advantage of their current situation. Climbing mountains is no longer an option, but they still get outside and have their daily activities, which they intend to keep doing for a long time yet. It doesn’t have to be the top of a mountain to be challenging and rewarding. Everyone has their own peaks to scale and hills to climb.

Scaling peaks and going for mile after mile on skis together with husband and children made Karen tough and stubborn. She’s been climbing hills all her life, so even when life changed drastically, Karen didn’t stop getting out and staying active.