Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should hum and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. —Dylan Thomas
Everyone must die, but that inescapable reality weighs most heavily on the old. Obituary notices of friends and loved ones and declining physical and mental powers are some of the sharp reminders of mortality that may cause old people to give up—and wait passively for death. But many prefer to fight
I vigorously. At 90, U.S. comedian George Burns so personifies that lively approach that fellow comic Bob Hope, himself an active 83 years old, referred to the tiny, cigar-chomping nonagenarian as “the Peter Pan of the prunejuice set.” And shortly before his birthday last January, Burns summed up his attitude toward aging with an anecdote. Said Burns: “A newspaper lady called me up the other day for an interview. She said, Ts it true you go out with young girls?’ I said, ‘It’s true.’ “She said, ‘Is it true you drink four or five martinis a day?’ ‘It’s true,’ I said.
“She asked, ‘What does your doctor think about this?’ T don’t know,’ I replied.’ ‘He’s dead.’ ”
Proof: The story works better as a joke than a prescription for long life, but Burns is living proof that staying around for a long time sometimes pays off. After a lengthy stint in vaudeville-beginning with his first stage appearance at seven—Burns became known as the straight man for wife Gracie Allen’s zany comic routines during the 1950s. Then, when he was in his 80s and still active as an actor and comedian, Burns achieved stardom in his own right. Since then, he has based his career on mocking and denying old age, and in the process he has become a symbol of stylish survival for many of those who, like him, cut their teeth in the age of vaudeville. Vowing never to retire, Burns has already made plans for his 100th birthday celebration on stage at London’s famed Palladium. Said Burns: “I can’t afford to die, not when I’m booked.”
Not all humorists share Burns’s jaunty attitude toward aging, and Stephen Leacock, for one, once remarked that “the only good thing you can say about old age is, it’s better than being dead.” Still, like Burns, many ordinary
people have learned to enjoy the freedom of their so-called golden years. Gracefully or otherwise, they have accepted the transition to old age, as Jean Taylor did in Muriel Sparks’s 1959 novel Memento Mori (Latin for “sign of death”). In Sparks’s pungent treatment of life among the elderly, Granny Taylor declares: “How nerveracking it is to be getting old, how
much better to be old!” Typical of that new breed is Beth Restall, a 67-yearold Winnipeg instructor who, three times a week, teaches the rhythmic movements of Tai Chi to students her age or younger. Said Restall: “The senior years are terrific. It is a rich time of life. You have already done the things everybody else needed and wanted you to do. Now you can do what you want to do.”
Certainly, social attitudes have changed since such 1960s activists as Abbie Hoffman advised their longhaired peers to “never trust anyone over 30.” Now those same members of the huge baby-boom generation are in their middle years, and old age is no longer an unimaginably distant prospect. One result: the 49-year-old Hoffman now tells his peers not to trust
anyone under 30. Indeed, many U.S. veterans of the turbulent 1960s are now staunch supporters of 75-year-old President Ronald Reagan.
Veterans: Reagan has demonstrated that age is not necessarily a barrier to success in politics. And, like many entertainment veterans, including Burns and movie star Katharine Hepburn, comedian Lucille Ball has shown that the good roles need not be reserved for the
young. At 75, the durable redhead returned to the airwaves this fall in a new ABC TV series, Life with Lucy. And last week’s Emmy awards in Pasadena, Calif., provided additional proof that aging had become a hot show business subject. There, at an annual ceremony held to honor the best work in U.S. television, NBC TV’S Golden Girls won four prizes including the best comedy series award. One went to 64-year-old Betty White, who received the best actress award for her role in a weekly program dealing with the problem of four women struggling with advancing age.
Comments: But despite such signs of acceptance, many elderly men and women endure thoughtless comments from
the young—simply because they are old. Montreal artist Eva Prager, for one, recalls attending a recent party where another—younger—guest asked her if she was still painting. Declared the 73-yearold artist, who has done commissioned works of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and dancer Rudolf Nureyev: “What a stupid question. Art is a lifetime commitment. You don’t stop when you turn 65.” The bold strokes and vibrant colors of her work show that she still retains her powers—and her aware-
ness that time is running out. Said Prager: “As you get older, life becomes far more interesting. You have no time to think of slowing down. You don’t abandon anything because there is so much left to do. When you are young you waste so much time. Now, I don’t want to waste a moment.”
Like Prager, Grant MacEwan, a former lieutenant-governor of Alberta, is keenly aware of the passing of time. A partial list of his achievements demonstrates his belief that staying busy is one of the keys to a long, fruitful life. MacEwan, 84, is a former Calgary mayor, a former university professor and the author of some 40 books. Vigorous activity has always been MacEwan’s trademark, and while serving as lieutenant-governor 20 years ago, he often dismissed the chauffeurdriven limousine at his disposal, preferring instead to walk five km to his Edmonton office each day. But he enhanced an already-legendary reputation on a hot July day in 1984 when he attempted to discipline an unbroken bay filly on his daughter’s farm 15 km southwest of Calgary. MacEwan, an experienced rider, ignored his family’s objections and mounted the horse bareback. The filly threw him off and MacEwan had to stay in hospital for five days with a cracked pelvis.
But MacEwan acknowledges that many old people have never learned how to fill empty hours. Part of the blame, he says, lies with the individuals themselves and part with a support system that fails to prepare people for old age. Said MacEwan: “It is not enough just to feed old people, clothe them and house them if they have nothing to do.”
Swing: Toronto’s Helen Hogg is one person who has never had that problem. At 81, she is Canada’s oldest living active astronomer and an authority on Halley’s comet—a heavenly phenomenon that she observed for a second time last year after first seeing it on its previous swing past the earth in 1910. Hogg, a leading expert on star clusters, is gradually cutting down her workload. She began the process 12 years ago when she stopped teaching university courses, cutting as much as four hours from a 12-hour workday. And in a concession to age, she acknowledged that she now finds it difficult to prepare family meals for 20 people—but dinners for 10 are “simple.” Said Hogg: “The thing I hang on to most is my research. I wouldn’t want too much leisure. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”
Harry Rochford, 81, also espouses that sentiment. Rochford, a self-employed Montreal furniture maker and upholsterer, told Maclean's: “If you want to stay young, work hard. If peo-
ple do nothing, they deteriorate quickly.” Added John Rankin, a retired farmer who lives in Hamiota, Man., 60 km northwest of Brandon: “For me, retirement is a hypothetical thing. I just don’t get paid anymore.” Rankin has stayed busy by working for groups as diverse as the 4H Club and the Hamiota district health centre. But as an executive president of the Manitoba Society of Seniors, Rankin is also devoted to combatting stereotypes about old people. Said Rankin: “We detest a stereotype of seniors. There are as many differences in seniors as there are in any other group, and we like to feel they have as much individuality as anyone else.”
Optimism: Despite their varied pursuits and interests, many active old people have one character trait in common: a positive attitude toward life. Rankin, for one, said that optimism
helped him survive surgery for cancer 15 years ago. And Hogg says that “the glass is always half full, never half empty.” In similar fashion, 83-year-old Andrew Bileski has his own formula for staying young. For one thing, he began his retirement by helping Winnipeg’s Workers Benevolent Society organize and construct the seven-storey apartment block he now inhabits. And his maxim is simple and direct. Said Bileski: “I refuse to be a sick old man. I just refuse to be sick.” Other people have found their own solutions, but for Bileski and others such stubborn optimism is the fountain of youth.
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