|By Riley McDavid
Back in the early 1960’s, before Mrs. McD and I were married, we were both employed at a large defense-oriented firm in Northern California. The staff was a well-educated crew that tended to be very young and had vibrant social lives. They worked hard but they also partied, they enjoyed good food and good wine, they played golf, they skied, they traveled, and on autumn Saturdays they tailgated before (and sometimes during) home football games at nearby Stanford University where many of them had studied.
After leaving the organization, Mrs. McD and I lost touch with all but a very few of them. Amanda Vaill once wrote a book about the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s expatriate friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, which she entitled “Everybody Was So Young.” And that title captures the visual memory I had over the years of our former colleagues.
Then, decades later, in the 1990’s, we attended the retirement party of one of them. We walked in the door of the restaurant, full of excitement, and were stunned. There were probably four dozen people there, all of whom we knew, but many we could not recognize. Gone were the full heads of hair and polished facial features. We noticed a few canes and walkers in the crowd, and Mrs. McD’s old boss, who was otherwise quite lucid and engaging, had had a stroke and couldn’t remember her.
Well what did we expect? That time would stand still for thirty years just so we could, for a few hours, relive our days as twenty-somethings?
This past weekend Mrs. McD and I saw “Quartet,” a thoroughly enjoyable British film about aging and the aged. (Films about old people, particularly those starring Maggie Smith, seem to be a growth industry in Great Britain these days.) The main characters in “Quartet” — Wilf, Reggie, Jean, and Cissy — are all retired operatic vocalists, quite famous in their day, who live in the Beecham Home for Retired Musicians. Their attitudes towards aging differ sharply.
“I hate growing old,” Wilf says. “Hate every bloody minute of it.”
“I’m not like you, Wilf.” Reggie says. “I positively liked getting old ,,, I’ve made the transition from opera star to old fogy with aplomb.”
Like Wilf, Jean, a retired world-famous diva and Reggie’s ex-wife, is being dragged kicking and screaming into her advanced years. “I don’t like it all,” she complains.
But growing old is what people do, she is told. That fails to mollify her.
“You still have your future,” Cissy tells her.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of it — there just isn’t,” Jean replies. “It’s all been.”
I know a very successful stage and film actor, now 70 years old and still quite active and in superb physical condition, who acknowledged he went through a period of denial about aging. “I went down and applied for Medicare today,” he told a group of us about five years ago. “Me? Medicare? Awful. Just awful.”
Another time he said he couldn’t understand why, some years earlier, his agent kept sending him up to L.A. for auditions and when he got there, he found himself competing for roles with, in his words, “a bunch of old guys.” Then at one of those auditions he went on a bathroom break, and while washing his hands he got a good look at his visage in the mirror. A sudden epiphany swept over him. His agent was sending him there for these parts because in fact he had become one of the “old guys.”
It’s easy to tell if you have become old. Young female checkout clerks start calling you “Honey,” and asking if you need help getting that tube of toothpaste you just bought out to your car. You purchase wine and the guy behind the counter, thinking he is sooooo funny, says, “Are you sure you’re old enough to buy this?” Words like “cataract” and “prostate” enter your vocabulary. And, sadly, you begin to lose good friends. By the time you have experienced about a half dozen of these events, denial goes out the window, and you come to realize that you are, undeniably and unalterably, old. It’s as if you expect your official geezer decoder ring to arrive in the mail any day.
But as Reggie suggests to Wilf in “Quartet,” old age isn’t a terminus. It’s just a natural part of the journey that you can enjoy if you have some luck and play your cards right. We live among 18,000 retired people, and just as we weren’t all born with an equal amount of talents and abilities, neither do we all enter retirement with an equal amount of physical and mental tools. Because of illness, injury or age, not all of our original equipment, including our minds, functions the way we’d like it to.
The more fortunate among us are able to create our own retirement regimen without the help of a recreation director for the superannuated. People write, they paint, they volunteer, they play golf and tennis, they act and sing and dance, they work as extras in movies and TV, they happily play the role of doting grandparent — the list goes on. But some are able to do few of these things. They suffer from a variety of physical ailments or, Like Cissy in “Quartet,” they are in some stage of dementia.
Some, sadly, define themselves by what they can no longer do. But many more, including many with notable disabilities, define themselves not only by what they can still do, but by what new horizons they still plan to conquer. Their motto seems to be what Bette Davis once said: “Growing old isn’t for sissies.”
Several years ago when I first began this blog I interviewed a group of buddies who have lunch several times a week at Age Well’s congregate meal at the Sylvester Center. As they ate they made plans for a bunch of things they were going to do that week.
“You guys are pretty busy,” I said.
“Young man,” one of them replied (I was seventy-four at the time), “once you start sitting in your chair and staring out the window, it’s all over for you.”
Aging, journalist Regina Brett once said, is all a matter of perspective. “After having breast cancer at 41, “ she wrote when she turned fifty, “I’m thrilled to grow old.”
As that ubiquitous author Anonymous once wrote, “Growing old beats the alternative. Dying young only looks good in the movies.”
Coming up on the Age Well Calendar:
Friday February 22: 6th Annual Senior Summit Clubhouse 3, Laguna Woods Village, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Registration begins at 8 a.m. Complimentary breakfast and lunch. RSVP by February 15 to (800) 510-2020 or (714) 567-7500.
Saturday, March 2: “The Captain’s Ball 2013. Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel. Cocktail reception and Silent Auction begin at 6 p.m., followed by dinner, live auction and dancing.