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 OK 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 ran 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. 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 to live.
A few days later, I found Louie an apartment in a senior-citizen residence complete with doorman and security.
For the next few 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.
There are many sources of these life lessons, as I like to call them. Some are personal, others universal.
The songs and tunes that have been so important to us over the years have healing properties of their own. In 1994, when I returned home from heart surgery, I went right to the CD player and plugged in Abbey Lincoln’s tune, “You Gotta Pay The Band.”
After what I had been through, I needed to hear the words: “When the revelry is over and the party is all done, you gotta pay the band that played your song.”
And I could feel the song’s swinging saxophone solo by the late, great Stan Getz. I had just paid the band big time for a life of too much revelry and for too little attention to the lessons I should have learned.
I hope I am doing better now. I hope we all are.
You never know when one of those life lessons will appear, so keep your eyes and ears open and your antenna tuned to the band.
It might be playing your song.
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 email@example.com.