OVER WHAT HILL?
A gallery of free spirits on the move, defying time and the oncecommon notions about growing old
If people are only as old as they feel, a lot of elderly Canadians are defying time. Here are the stories of men and women, some
internationally famous, others prominent in their communities, who have taken the gloom out of growing old:
Being old, says Canadian-born stage and film actor Hume Cronyn, doesn’t get him down. “I like to think my reaction is healthier,” he says. “I get mad. I mean I really get very angry. My eyesight’s lousy. I have a degenerative disc in my back and immediately above it I have a broken vertebra, so I have a sore back most of the time. Bad eyesight and an aching back. I have lots to complain about.” However, sighs the 82-year-old Cronyn, all that is only the inevitable accumulation of aging.
While his body may be somewhat worse for wear, the professional career that began in 1931—when Cronyn appeared in a Washington stock company production of Up Pops the Devil—shows little sign of infirmity. He and wife Jessica Tandy, 84, worked in three movies this year, which for him included a brief appearance as a Supreme Court justice targeted for assassination in the whodunit The Pelican Brief. “They told me I would have to look like an old man,” he chuckled. “It took them five hours to apply the makeup.” In mid-December, Cronyn and Tandy abandoned the wintry greyness of New York City for the Bahamas. “We’re really staggering,” Cronyn confessed. He has no outstanding film commitments and does not know what he will do when he returns from the sunshine. “I’m getting rather picky in my old age,” he says.
Given his credentials, he can afford to be. Bom in London, Ont., Cronyn was a student at St. Catharines’ posh Ridley College and McGill University in Montreal, and during the succeeding 52 years appeared in dozens of stage plays, films and TV dramas, occasionally with Tandy, whom he met in New York City in 1940 and married two years later. He holds 22 awards for distinguished performances, including two Tonys, two Emmys and the coveted U.S. National Medal of Arts award, bestowed on him by president George Bush in 1990. Some of his roles required only small shifts from reality, most notably the 1984 fantasy Cocoon in which a group of geriatrics are rejuvenated by a brush with travellers from outer space. But if Cocoon
was supposed to awaken a yearning for immortality, it was lost on Cronyn.
“I just don’t think about it,” he says. “For example, I take great pleasure in going to church, any church, on occasion, but that has nothing to do with thoughts of an afterlife. If you live on to some degree in your children [they have three], that’s about as close to immortality as we have a right to expect. I’m not afraid of death. There’s a wonderful line in Peter Pan when Peter says, To die must be a wonderful adventure.’ I subscribe to that. I mean, there may be no adventure at all, it may be nothing but an interminable sleep but I’ve always liked sleeping. I can think of worse endings.” Of the Dec. 6 death of actor Don Ameche, who also appeared in Cocoon, Cronyn says: “Hell, every week now there’s another one and my black suit gets too much usage. I think it was Bette Davis who said, ‘Old age is not for sissies.’ ”
For now, says Cronyn, he will keep working because he dreads not being able to. “Some day I’ll just have to stop and then what the hell will I do? I just can’t sit and contemplate my navel hour after hour. I think actually if one could arrange one’s parting as happily and easily as possible, it would be while holding the hand of someone you loved and in the middle of some real involvement with life.” On a beach somewhere in the Bahamas, Hume Cronyn is enjoying that vision without the parting—still mad about his aching back.
In 1991, author Robertson Davies told an interviewer that the widely acclaimed Murther and Walking Spirits would be his last novel. He evidently changed his mind because now, at age 80, he has nearly completed yet another. “That’s a thing that makes writers live a long time,” he says. “You give your book to a publisher in February and if he gets it out by the following October you’re lucky, so you just have to hang
on to see what he’s going to do.”
But for the bushy-bearded Davies, who has written 45 novels, plays and collections of essays during the past half-century, hanging on does not mean simply waiting around. He rises early at his rambling country home at Caledon East, north of Toronto, which he shares with his wife, Brenda. They have four grown children. Davies begins writing by 9 a.m. At 12:30, he breaks for lunch followed by a rest period and “some outdoor things, although I’ve never been a great one for physical exercise. Hate it, as a matter of fact.” Between 5 and 6 p.m., he returns to work, usually revising what he wrote in the morning. In the evening, he listens to music or watches television. “You’ve got to recognize your limitations,” he says, “but not get silly and start coddling yourself.”
Many of his contemporaries think the same way, Davies says, because the perception of aging has changed. “My grandmother, when she was in her early 60s,
wore black skirts and a widow’s veil and became as if she were a thousand. It was quite common then for an old person, even if they didn’t have much wrong with them, to hobble around on a stick— ‘You go upstairs, your legs are younger than mine,’ that sort of thing. People just got sick of that, both the young and the old.”
He dislikes travel but does it frequently, giving lectures and readings and taking part in symposiums in the United States and Britain as well as in Canada. A onetime Shakespearean actor, stage director, magazine editor, newspaper editor, playwright and teacher, he is currently professor emeritus and founding master of the University of Toronto’s Massey College. Continuing to work, he thinks, may have something to do with longevity. “If you really are serious about what you do, you always want to do it better than you did it before,” he says. “I’m always hoping that before I die, I’ll write one really good book and I don’t feel I’ve done it yet. I think this perpetual looking into the future possibly is healthy.”
At the same time, he says, he has confronted—and accepted— the fact of his own mortality. “You have to develop a measure of philosophy about it, which I find a lot of my contemporaries do not do. They allow a rather youthful dread of death to possess them and so they dash off to Florida, hoping that when death knocks at the door they won’t be home. That kind of thing is just nonsense. Death is inevitable, it is not dreadful, and I am not one of those hopeless people who thinks that that’s absolutely the end. The energy which has made you go for as long as you have, is never lost. It goes somewhere.” Maybe eventually. For now, it drives Robertson Davies to finish his book—and contemplate the next one.
i disappears from the low ground later this year, Cleator will head for the wilderness regions of the province’s Tweedsmuir park, pitch a tent and set up her propane stove. Then, she will spend a month as a parks department guide, noting where visitors come from, how long they plan to stay and what they want to see. “If anybody wants to know what it’s like up ahead, I tell them,” she says. For Jean Cleator, life at home is no less active. Example: “Yesterday, I slept in and woke up at 7. Normally, I’m up at 6:30. I’m not a great early riser.” Or: “I would love to have done it, but I have not taken up scuba diving or board-sailing. It came
along a little bit late for me and besides, I’m a bit of a coward.” In addition to swimming, she has also water skied but admits that “it took me a long time to get up on one ski.” Along with the lifestyle is a philosophy. “If you feel like doing it and you can do it, you do it. What’s age got to do with it?” AHAB SPENCE
A few months ago, Ahab Spence had open-heart surgery, which, at 82, slowed him down so much that he could walk only about a mile each day. But he had to get his strength back in anticipation of I this month’s return to work at Regina’s federally 5 supported Saskatchewan Indian Federated Col52 leges, where he is well into his second full-time caIn 1981, at age 55, Jean Cleator set a world record for 55-to-60year-olds in the 5,000 m, but she quit running the following year be-
cause it was wrecking her knees. Now 67 and a widow, she restricts herself to competitive alpine skiing, camping, hiking and backpacking in summer, swimming in the Pacific Ocean and work-
ing an eight-hour day at the Vancouver ski service centre she owns
with her son Barry. “It’s a little harder to stay motivated when you get older,” she says. “You have to force yourself a little bit more.” This winter, Cleator—a skier for more than 40 years—competes in the 60-to-70 age category for downhill racers, mostly at B.C.’s 5 Whistler Mountain and in the Rockies. She talks animatedly about life on the slopes, lacing her conversation with skiing terms—Nordic, ^ bindings, alpine, slalom, ski faces, gates, moguls, snow conditions.
reer. “I felt like I could take on anything,” he remembers, “but my wife wouldn’t let me and the doctor backed her up.”
For Ahab Spence of the Cree nation, the road out of the wilderness has been long and bumpy.
He was bom at Split Lake in north-central Manitoba in 1911 and got his first look at a classroom when his family sent him to school on a reserve near The Pas at age 10. He later graduated from high school in Moose Jaw, Sask., and went on to earn degrees in arts and theology from the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“I’m an Anglican priest by trade,” says Spence, who with his wife, Betty, raised six children. “I retired from the church when I was 70 but I’ve been working ever since. Various bureaucrats have tried to get rid of me. I’ve been told that I’m 80, I should quit teaching. They even gave me a title, professor emeritus. I thought that was a good hint but I didn’t go. I notice when people retire and they have no hobby or anything, in two or three years they’re gone.
Being mixed up with young people, I think that keeps me young.” The right attitude helps, too—“keep your sense of humor, don’t take life too seriously and get along with your wife.”
Spence’s “young people”—they range from 20 to 60—are mostly Cree wanting to know more about their language, heritage and legends. Spence teaches two classes, one a language course in advanced Cree, the other in Cree literature, which takes the form of storytelling. “What I try to do,” says Spence, “is to translate the legends and ancient stories into English so the class can appreciate what good people they have come from.” Many of the legends involve Wisakecahk, the cultural hero of the Cree nation. “He was a flatterer and a first-rate politician,” says Spence. “He can do good or he can do bad. He was always hungry.”
When he was 12 years old, Charlie Pike developed a heart condition that twice nearly killed him. In his early 20s, he tried to buy life insurance but the companies he approached said he was an unacceptable risk. Now, at 79, Pike is a downhill skier and distance swimmer who works out regularly and last summer took up Rollerblading to help him stay in shape. He also sells insurance.
“Life,” says Charlie, “is full of surprises.”
Pike owns Pike-Vezina Assurance and usually puts in a five-day week at his Boulevard René-Lévesque office in downtown Montreal. Three mornings a week, he alternates gym work with swimming, and most weekends he skis. He has a Montreal Amateur Athletic Association award for swimming 50 miles in the MAA pool during a recent winter. “I used to do 44 to 66 lengths but now I’m doing a little less,” says Pike. Last March at B.C.’s Whistler resort, he won a gold medal in a seniors’ alpine ski competition, negotiating the 46 gates in a mile-long slalom in 1:25. Then, in November at Alberta’s Lake Louise, he finished three seconds behind 38-year-old former Olympic skier Ken Read in a 2,000-foot downhill race. “You want to get down there fast enough that all winter no one will beat you in your own age group,” says Pike. “That’s just sheer ego.”
It is also—and perhaps more importantly—a reflection of his all-or-nothing challenge to the aging process. “Whenever I feel I’ve got too much to do, the pressure’s too great at the office, I immediately start exercising,” says Pike, married with no children. “Your attitude has become old when you say, ‘I’m not going to do this or that because it’s too much for me.’ If you’re starting to think that way, then you’re really going to age.” But fewer over-60s are falling victim to traditional thinking, Pike says. “I do think that a lot of people now believe they are 12 to 15 years younger than their chronological age. When I’m skiing, I go after the 50-year-olds—but the 40-year-olds can beat me.”
Pike had some advice for 60-to-65-year-olds who sit around and don’t
do much of anything. “Get involved in an activity that’s going to be a bit demanding,” he says. “People are never depressed if they have an absorbing activity.” Like Rollerblading. But wear protective padded clothing. Falling on concrete, says Charlie, is not a whole lot of fun.
She is liable to show up just about anywhere. In a TV commercial she sits vampishly on the hood of a pickup truck, the lights framing her red hair and flashing off the sequins in her dress as she moves. Another time, another channel and there she
is, persuasively pushing beer. Or on a billboard high above a Montreal street, her image hustles cars. “I always wanted to do something outside the theatre and now I’ve done
it, ” says comedian Rose Ouellet.
“Now, I have done everything.”
She probably has, for at age 90, La Poune—an affectionate but untranslatable nickname picked by her agent decades ago—has been entertaining audiences longer than any other stage personality in French Canada.
She entered professional vaudeville in 1917 when she was only 14 because she had become bored with amateur productions.
Ouellet lives by herself at Maison des Artistes, a retirement home for theatre people on Montreal’s downtown St. Denis Street. She gets up anywhere from 7 a.m. to early afternoon and, when she’s not working, sometimes visits old folks’ homes. “Everyone laughs because they’re all younger than me,” she says. Her only visible concession to vanity is her hair; when it began to
go grey while she was still fairly young, she had it dyed red—and has kept it that way.
She walks a lot and smokes whenever she feels like it. “I listen to my body,” she says. “If I eat something and it doesn’t agree with me, I notice. If it happens a second time, I won’t eat that food again. I think people can control their health. Mine is good. I don’t even know what a headache feels like.”
At the same time, says La Poune, “I never think about death. Why worry about it? I know someone who lives in my building and it’s just terrible how she worries about death. I keep telling her, ‘What’s the point? You got yourself all worked up about it yesterday and you’re still here! Are you going to worry all of today as well?’ ” When her time comes, adds Ouellet, “it will be an interesting voyage to a place I’ve never visited before.”
When Pearleen Oliver walked out of New Glasgow High on that summer day in 1936, clutching her diploma, she became the first person among the impoverished blacks of Nova Scotia’s Pictou County ever to graduate from Grade 12. “We simply had no money so I ran errands, I looked after sick people, washed windows and washed floors just to get the quarters which I saved to buy secondhand books,”
she recalls. If you were black in the Depression-ravaged Maritimes, she says, “it meant you were on your own.”
She wasn’t on her own for long: the same year she completed high school, she met and married William P. Oliver, a young black Baptist clergyman who had just graduated from Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S. For the next 53 years, until his death in 1989, husband and wife fought for the civil rights of Nova Scotia’s blacks and made Oliver’s Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in the slums of Halifax a symbol of hope—all while raising five sons. Now, at 76, Pearleen is once again on her own, living in the family home on 100 acres of land in the Halifax suburb of Sackville. She plays the church organ, conducts choirs and travels around the countryside adding to her lifetime total of more than 1,000 speeches. Both Saint Mary’s and Mount Saint Vincent universities in Halifax have awarded her honorary doctorates.
The Second World War, says Oliver, meant jobs for blacks and the money to send their children to school. “Some went to Grade 10 and got certificates to go teach in the pitiful little black schools. Everything was pitiful. But to survive is the main thing. It was like being shipwrecked. The important thing was to have something to hang on to.” But the war did more than provide pay cheques—“it gave us impetus and a new kind of thinking which opened more doors.”
That new kind of thinking has influenced the way she looks at herself and the process of growing old. “Many people say when they get to be 65, ‘I’m old. I’ve got to have somebody do my work, I can’t drive the car.’ They start thinking like that and then they get that way. It’s all in your mind. I don’t think old. I don’t look old. I don’t act old. My hair is still black and I don’t dye it. I don’t dress like a little old lady. I walk snappy and if I want to wear heels, I wear heels.” Oliver avoids seniors groups because “they do nothing but play cards and sit around and when they get in these groups, they’re all alike, they have all the illnesses collectively.”
As for herself, “if I get a little pain, I lie down and it goes away. If I don’t feel well, I examine myself and ask now what did I eat, why am I feeling this way? I believe in my body, I believe my body can heal itself.” She claims not to fear death or even to think about it.
Which may be just as well—she already has her hands full, reading Dante’s Inferno, the Roman poet Virgil and books about frontier science. “I get up at 6 or 6:30 in the morning and I thank God that I’ve awakened and I say to myself, ‘Now, where am I going to go today, what shall I do first?”
If senior citizenship begins somewhere between 60 and 65, then journalist Morley Safer, the 62-year-old co-host of CBS television’s 60 Minutes, has only reached the threshold. He has no irresistible desire to cross it but, rather, to pause and reflect. “I’m obviously aware of the passing decades and I’m also aware that after the age of 35, it’s patch, patch, patch in terms of your body,” says the Toronto-born Safer whose arrival at 60 Minutes in 1971 followed seven years of covering the Vietnam War for CBS News. But in relation to work, growing older “never even crosses my mind.”
Material things, he adds, have become much less important. “The only ones that count are the ones that make life a little bit easier,” he says. “Like a fax machine. You don’t need a Rolex.” But he does need to work. “It takes on a special kind of importance, because around 60 you suddenly say, ‘God damn, I can really do this work.’ But God knows, I’ve not looked after myself. I still smoke three packs a day, I drink a bottle of wine a day and a couple of whiskies.”
Meanwhile, he travels thousands of miles a year in pursuit of stories, leaving behind wife Jane, 51, and daughter Sarah. “Permanent adolescence is almost a job requirement,” says Safer. “But it takes a fair whack of physical endurance because travel has become so bad, so wearing on the mind and body, that you have to pace yourself a lot better. I find that at 621 can do more things at once than I could at 32. You just become more versatile as you grow older. It drives my wife crazy, but I can read a book and watch television at the same time.”
For Morley Safer—and Charlie Pike, Jean Cleator and the rest—getting older, it turns out, really does mean getting better.
With JOHN DeMONT in Halifax and NANCY WOOD in Ottawa