March 2, 2013

On growing old gracefully


---- — Whatever I’ve learned about growing old gracefully has come from many sources, not the least from my dogs.

Years ago, as I was visiting some friends in Vermont, I noticed a three-legged dog busy amusing his human companions by fetching sticks for them.

“Oh, poor thing,” I said.

“Don’t feel sorry for him,” I was told, “he doesn’t know that he is supposed to have four legs.”

I hadn’t thought about it that way. While many humans would be bemoaning their loss, this dog pranced about like three legs was the norm.

It was a revelation to me, one of those moments you see in a cartoon where an overhead bulb lights up. That’s why Isis, my blind dog, is so happy — she doesn’t know that she is supposed to see and nobody reminds her of that.

One problem with us humans and old age is that we know too much. It’s okay to remember those days when we could toss on a 60-pound backpack and walk up a mountain like it was level ground, but too many of us mourn for those things we can’t do anymore. My dogs taught me that if there’s something you can’t do anymore, do something else.

Another lesson came from Louie. During the late 1970s, I was the director of a senior-citizen program in Long Beach, Calif. Our offices were in a downtown storefront not far from where AARP was founded. One of our regular clients was a nattily-dressed 80-something-year-old man named Louie.

Most mornings, Louie would appear at the front desk and ask for me. When I came out to the reception area, Louie would sing a song for us. That was all he wanted — to sing a song, say hello and leave.

One day, Louie varied his usual routine and asked to talk to me. In my office, he told me that he had been mugged. Fortunately, he suffered few injuries, but he had been frightened and wanted my help to find a safe place for him to live. A few days later, we found Louie an apartment in a senior-citizen residence complete with doorman and security.

For the next several months, Louie regularly showed up for his morning song, but he didn’t seem to be his usual cheery self. One day, he asked to talk, so again we went to my office. He thanked me for finding his apartment and told me that each morning the tenants gathered in the lobby of his new home for free coffee and doughnuts.

“I enjoy talking to people, but every time I say ‘How are you?’ to someone, they start giving me a list of their aches and pains,” Louie said. “I can’t take it anymore, I need to be around people of all ages, people who talk about something other than what hurts today. I’d rather live somewhere else and take my chances on being assaulted again.”

Louie knew that diversity didn’t only mean different cultures but also different ages. Even though aches and pains sometimes dominate old age, not everybody needs to hear about it.

When last I heard of Louie, he was living in an apartment not far from where he had first been mugged. Despite having his own problems, Louie was one of the happiest people I have known.

Even my favorite jazz music provides lessons for me. In 1994, as soon as I returned home from a triple bypass, I headed right for the CD player and inserted Abbey Lincoln’s tune, “You Gotta Pay The Band” in the slot. After what I had just been through, I needed to hear that: “When the revelry is over and the party is all done, you gotta pay the band that played your song.”

I had just paid the band big time.

My books have also accompanied me on my journey. There they stand, silent reminders of the past, lined up on their shelves like soldiers protecting me from ignorance. The entire history of the civil-rights movement is there. But I have already read them — some more than once — and it is time they were read by another generation.

I tried to donate them to a library — to be read, not sold. When I took a few to the librarian, she immediately began to reject some because there were discolorations on the jackets. I left before she had a chance to let me know how that affected the wisdom of the words inside.

Maybe there is no longer interest in such artifacts in this age of technology. All I know is that they were like old friends to me, and, like old friends, they should be treated like I would like to be treated: kindly, gently and gracefully.

Ken Wibecan is a retired journalist. Once an op-ed and jazz columnist, later an editor of Modern Maturity magazine, these days he and his two dogs enjoy the country life in Peru. He can be reached at