Bette Davis Was Right

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”

The great Bette Davis uttered those sage words when asked by an interviewer how she was doing. Truer words were never spoken, as it were, since she had suffered a series of near fatal illnesses. But she was made from strong stuff and fought back, if not as hail and hearty as previously, at least still able to look forward to another productive day. After several strokes and other malaise, she returned to entertain us. We looked beyond her frail tiny body and trembling voice and saw instead her performance, her wit, her talent. Why? Because that is what she wanted us to see.

We all get to witness and experience the aging process up close and very personally, if we live long enough. None of us escapes our scheduled demise. And so what does it come down to? How does one advance in age yet remain vital to themselves and others? I’m convinced it is primarily a mind over matter process.

Moving up the ladder of life toward the top rung from which we do our swan dive into whatever our belief system denotes is our reward, we find each subsequent year challenging us with greater vengeance. Each challenge is more interesting than the last as the background music of “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” runs through our heads. As we advance in age we venture into better living through pharmacology as we dose ourselves with drugs to control osteoporosis and arthritis, shrink prostates, replace disappearing hormones and a daily aspirin to keep the blood flowing smoothly through the ticker we are counting on to just keep ticking. Yes folks, just check your medicine cabinet to find out your true age.

But nothing can replace attitude, and I believe a good attitude is our biggest asset as we face the Reaper and tell him, “Fuhgeddaboudit!”

Even if we are just faking it till we make it, whatever works is acceptable as long as it’s legal. In some ways, that is the trick of aging well: projecting for the public and truly believing that you are still young enough to be counted among those who contribute something to society. Whether that society is one’s family or a larger community is not important; what is important is to simply trying every day. As Maurice Chevalier said, “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”

My father subscribed to the philosophy that work defined a man and kept him going. He lived a very long life, reaching 90. Every day of his life he believed was a day to get something done, accomplished, to be productive. Work defined not only him, but most men of his generation. Hadn’t they seen it all? Born at the end of the first World War I, into the arms of a subsistence fisherman, he learned very early on the importance to facing each day with a strength of mind that called the body to order and said “work now.” The only times I ever saw him take a day off was during those rare occasions when he was laid low by some flu or called upon to lend a hand to a neighbor during their emergency.

Dad was well into his 60s before he gave himself permission to drive his Winnebago to Maine for overnight camping. The steel pistons that drove him everyday eased a bit over time –but never completely. He would have kept on working, fixing, repairing, inventing, being useful, had dementia not stolen the very organ that ran his machine. We thought he’d go on forever because he thought he’d go on forever, thus projecting to the public what he wanted us to see. Or put another way, courtesy of Nobel-winning author Doris Lessing (1919-): “The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven’t changed in 70 or 80 years. Your body changes, but you don’t change at all.” Amen sister!

Long before the evidence of his illness made it impossible to ignore, he was dealing with it. I can only imagine the strength of will and singular constitution it took for him to navigate through his days, days when he knew something wasn’t right. The reality of what he must have felt when he realized his clutch was slipping recently manifested itself to me.

One evening this summer I parked my car in the village to take my dog for his nightly walk. I decided to park at the town beach because the wharf was crowded with visitors. This is not where I normally park, but seemed like a good choice that evening.

Harry and I set off, stopping along the way to chat up our pals in the village and to socialize on that beautiful evening. In retrospect, I know we walked from the beach back toward the wharf, out to Good Speed, then along Church all the way to Oakland, and we kept on walking until we were back at the wharf again. That’s when I thought to myself, “Oh, I didn’t park here,” and in that moment I was totally at a loss to recall where my car was. As the seconds went by, I searched my brain trying to recall my movements from my home to the village and didn’t find a single clue – just a sickening blank. It was more than just being forgetful. This was terrifying. I decided that I would check all of the places I normally parked until I located my car, and that’s when the synapse fired. Instantly, I knew where the car was. The whole episode probably took less than five minutes, but those were very long minutes for me.

Once I was seated in my car, it took awhile for me to collect myself. The horror of losing that mental thread had completely unsettled me. I thought of dad. I wondered how often he had experienced something similar but covered it up. Would I cover it up? After all, no one knew but me. But did anyone need to know? Should I just fuhgeddaboudit? In the end, I told my husband and found comfort in his gentle response. Yet I felt sad not for myself but for Dad. He hadn’t identified his failing thought process … or had he, but faked it hoping it wouldn’t get worse? I’m glad I told, and I’ll tell my doctor during my annual exam. My family deserves my candor in this matter.

I had previously come to the conclusion that it takes a tremendous amount of bravery to age with grace and dignity. Now I am absolutely convinced of it. “To know how to grow old is the masterwork of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living,” said Henri Amiel, philosopher and poet, 1821-1881.

There’s no shame in aging, but there is fear of being viewed as diminished, less than, and no longer of value. As Henry Longfellow put it, “Whatever poet, orator, or sage may say of it, old age is still old age.” So I’m back to the importance of projecting a good attitude and staying busy, and striving to be a productive member of society.

I do have a seasoned hero to help me form my new identity as a senior citizen: my 90-year-old mother-in-law. She is my husband’s stepmother. She and my (now deceased) father-in-law married when they were in their 70s. They had met in a Florida retirement community while still married to their spouses. Eventually her husband passed away and then his wife (my husband’s mother). As friends, they supported one another in their grief and slowly found new love. “He was the great love of my life” – she repeats this mantra during every call and in every letter. I admire their willingness to spend whatever time they had left enjoying each other’s company knowing that one of them would inevitably be left behind. I’m sure they felt as Mark Twain did when he wrote, “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.” Roland and Sylvia didn’t think of themselves as old people. They thought of themselves as people in love and so that is what we saw: lovebirds versus tough old birds.

In spite of not being as strong or healthy as she was 23 years ago when we first met, Sylvia still keeps busy. She visits nursing homes, where she conducts sing-a-longs, knits lap blankets for the residents, and guides them in prayer. She swims, walks, does all of her own household chores and drives herself and others to do errands. Today, she is that tough old bird and proud of it. “I drove a lorry back home during the war you know … .” I think she could do so now if called upon. She is my hero of what is possible during extreme old age with the right attitude. You go, girlfriend!

When I retired last winter I considered it not as an ending, but as a beginning, a time to do more of those things I enjoy and to try new things. There have been bumps along the way, but overall I’m delighted to have the gift of time to use as I wish. Each day is like a present I unwrap with giddy joy. I guess I feel as Pablo Picasso did when he said, “It takes a long time to become young.”

Aging isn’t for sissies for sure, but as I once read, “Aging is a privilege not everyone gets to enjoy.” Yes, the body complains; yes, the memory fails; yes, whatever youthful vigor one had slips slowly away, but I wouldn’t want to go back in time. With age comes wisdom, and that is worth the journey. As the eternally gorgeous Brigitte Bardot reported, “It’s sad to grow old, but nice to ripen.”

By Marilou Newell

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