Aging need not close off options

By ANDREW HOLZMAN

You know the image well: an elderly man or woman sits at home, perhaps watching television, alone and depressed. This vision for retirement saturates our culture — we see the “crazy cat lady” trope repeated on television, and comments we make in passing reveal a view of getting old that seems primarily derogatory. Some of us even see that kind of state as the inevitable end of retirement. You better enjoy it while you can, we say, because you might end up like so-and-so down the street.

The senior we all fear becoming is one whose lifestyle is defined entirely by the aging process. Healthy aging doesn’t run away from the facts of getting older; for the healthy senior, aging shapes the way we fit what we love into our lifestyle. A star tennis player might be unable to get on the court anymore, so he works on getting a new tennis program going in the local school. But the senior we are sometimes told we’re bound to become is one for whom the substance of life is replaced by the lifestyle of aging.

The good news? That life is far from inevitable. During my time interning at the Executive Office of Elder Affairs in Massachusetts, a common refrain in press releases was the reminder that retirement is supposed to be a beginning, not an end. Nowhere have I seen that hope for active aging more viscerally present than in Hyde Park. I don’t just mean programs like the Village, which seniors run for seniors. I also mean the Hyde Park Historical Society, which recently ran a program celebrating the accomplishments of young Chicago historians — that program was coordinated by Kathy Huff, who is, at least ostensibly, retired. That’s not unusual for the group; right now, some members are working on another program involving students from a local school. Allison Hartman is the president of DARE, a housing facility for people who are disabled — she and a number of those on her board are seniors, some “retired.” The secret for these seniors isn’t a secret fountain of youth hidden at the Point. It’s the positive outlook they take on aging.

Time at Montgomery Place has taught me an important lesson about how that outlook can be fostered: it’s mostly about the people around you. Over lunch, I talked with Executive Director Michael Apa. It’s clear he and Montgomery Place are reverently aware of the intelligence, vitality and prowess of independent living residents. In the assisted living program, referred to as “catered living,” they’ll give an architect blueprints or a diplomat a world map. From their perspective, each resident has lived a life of value and deserves to continue to live that way. I think this approach can work with a senior at home, too. Giving seniors credit: that’s the approach that works.

It’s rare that elders respond to the kind of matchmaking that people often do for them. “Grandma, you should join committee X, because you like to do Y!” What a senior really needs is to be taken seriously. When an elder feels like his love for painting is being respected and appreciated, he goes out on his own, finding applications that fit his place in the aging process. In Hyde Park, that’s when non-profits and new committees get started. Retirement should be a new beginning, and it’s up to all of us to create an environment that makes seniors feel empowered to live that way.

If you have questions or comment related to aging and life as a senior or this column, call Andrew’s Senior Scene Hotline at 508-397-0321.