The senior years can be a time of creativity—and surprises.
"God bless you.”
That’s the greeting I get now because of my birth date.
The lady at the bank asks, “What is your date of birth?”
“April 6, 1922.”
“God bless you!”
An hour later, the scheduling nurse at my doctor’s office asks, “And what is the date of your birth?”
“Well, God bless you!”
Then the cashier at the supermarket who checks my ID. And the lady at Motor Vehicles—my fourth “God bless you” in one day.
God, are you listening?
Of course, I know why they’re God-blessing me. I’m part of a population that never existed—or barely did—until the medical wizards propped us up with their CT scans and x-rays and needles and knives. From an average life span of about 49 years at the turn of the 20th century to a whole population of people like me who parent balding sons and menopausal daughters, the script is being rewritten.
This is all about putting some zing into your eighties, nineties, and—yes—hundreds. My recently departed (as she approached her 103rd birthday) friend Bertha Campbell was light-years ahead of people half her age and made it clear that she could see me at teatime but never for lunch: “The people I lunch with depend upon me to help them, you see.”
I’m sure she got God-blessed a lot, too.
“God bless you” is important because of what follows. If the blesser is middle-aged, what follows is “What’s your secret?”
The thing is I don’t have any secret. I’m more than happy to share everything I’ve learned about making the most of being an old lady.
I honed my expertise in Old Ladies 101 when, after a 57-year marriage, I found myself living alone at age 79. I had never lived by myself before. In my day, you married right out of Mama’s house; only bad girls lived away from home.
What I discovered right off at age 79 was the weirdness of being an I instead of a we. That’s good and bad. Bad for all the obvious reasons but good, surprisingly, because for the first time in my life I was no longer my parents’ daughter or my husband’s wife. I was Gloria—free to explore my options.
What were those options? A surrender to my children’s good intentions? A widow’s lament?
Or, to heed my favorite cliché, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.
This time, there were no suitors at the door on Saturday night proffering gardenia corsages and escorting me to cars borrowed from their fathers. It was up to me to get out there and stir up the dust.
Next: Knocking on Borden's door
First, I realized it’s probably a good idea to gift-wrap yourself before you venture out. I know from my e-mails that some old ladies make a big point of enjoying the freedom to look like slobs. It’s all about the joy of liberation from the strictures of the grooming and fashion mavens.
But I find that age-appropriate grooming works. It gives me a lift, and I’m pretty sure it makes people more curious about the contents of the rest of the package.
My personal metamorphosis occurred because I knocked on a door. I was living at the Foxhall, a condo in DC where my husband, Herb, and I had settled after his illness made the house too much of a burden. After Herb had been gone about a year, my friend and neighbor Anne Zim called and said, “Marvin and I are on our way to Ireland, and my uncle Borden will be using the apartment while he’s in DC researching a book he’s writing. Gloria, he’s so much like you. I really think you should come down”—she was on the first floor, I was on the sixth—“and have a drink together.”
That was nine years ago. I knocked on Anne’s door, and Borden and I have been inseparable ever since.
I’m 89, he’s 91, and our days are filled with discovery—of the beaches and animal habitats of Florida, of the endless delights of summers in the Berkshires surrounded by music. It might be a picnic lunch and wine on the Tanglewood lawn, a string quartet at the Hotchkiss School, or a performance by a choral group at the Berkshire School.
Borden and I adhere to a daily water-aerobics routine, which we’re convinced is as important as the pills we pop every morning and evening.
We’re not kidding ourselves—we don’t have a 20-year plan. But I’ll tell you one thing: We’re squeezing the life out of every day granted us.
When I say I literally knocked on a door to connect with my new life, I’m also using that as a metaphor for finding your way in this uncharted “old old” territory. Trust me—nobody’s breaking down doors to seek us out. Consider the projects initiated by just two of my friends I know who got out there and knocked on doors.
About ten years ago, Harriet Perretz moved from her home in Columbia to Riderwood, a retirement community on a 120-acre campus in Silver Spring. Her handsome two-bedroom apartment and the many activities available to her softened the blow of her move from the home that she loved. The problem for Harriet was that, despite the many stimulating trips and lectures and programs, there was no venue for enjoying the foreign films she had cultivated a taste for at a theater in Columbia.
Harriet knocked on a door. She approached the powers that be at Riderwood and offered to create and maintain a foreign-film program if the administrators would foot the bill. They agreed, and the program has proved a success. Harriet reviews foreign-film offerings from Netflix and has four or five DVDs at a time shipped to her home. She then picks the best and holds screenings twice weekly—Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons. About 100 people turn out for the evening showings and 30 to 60 on Saturdays.
Lonely old lady? Not Harriet.
Then there’s Faye Wolf, a dynamo who moved into the twin-towered Fallswood Condominium in North Bethesda and became its self-appointed social director. Before her neighbors knew what had hit them, they were caught up in theatergoing, museum visits, and art-gallery tours. For good measure, she instituted an exercise class, a book club, and a bridge group. Did Faye knock on a door? She knocked on 200 doors. And as if that wasn’t enough, she was recently honored for 20 years of volunteer docent service at the Kennedy Center.
Think about it: You raised a family. Your family raised a family. And you’re still hanging around. Now is the time to be creative and do just about anything your mature wisdom dictates. Never got to live out your “when I grow up” dreams? Get out there and go for it.
And by the way: God bless you.
This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.