1807 A worthwhile anecdotage
Well Aged: Making the Most of Your Platinum Years
by Ralph Milton
Madeira Park: Douglas and McIntyre, 2021
$24.95 / 9781771623100
Reviewed by Lee Reid
“Why did I wait until age eighty before I grew up?” quips author and retired publisher of Kelowna’s Wood Lake Books Ralph Milton, now aged 89. Growing old means living with “Radical ambiguities,” which is one of the many catchy terms Ralph uses to describe the precariousness of aging. “[L]ike fine wine, life improves with age … I believe we become more mellow, more flavourful, more interesting as we age. Yes, sometimes the wine turns sour, and that can be tragic” (p. 7). If readers question what quality of living means for the well aged, then I heartily recommend Ralph’s book. If you have burning questions, fears, prejudices or aversions about aging, such as: “Is life in one’s 80s and 90s the happiest time of life, or is it the hardest time of life?” then you will find reassurance, laughter and solutions in this book. According to Ralph, “Life is rich and rotten and powerful and painful” through the platinum years. “We can find joy in our old age” (p. 241).
Query: Why platinum years! Isn’t platinum used with hip replacements? (Apologies for my ridiculous humour, Ralph).
Ralph: “We’ve lived through, and mostly enjoyed, ‘the golden years’ of early retirement, but platinum glows with a deeper, silvery, nuanced beauty. It is softer than gold and scratches more easily. But it is far more valuable” (p. 7). Herein lies a unique advocacy for aging well, and for reading this review.
Well Aged is divided among thirteen chapters, with evocative titles like: “The Gift of Life and Death,” “Dementia,” and “Enjoying Age as Grandparents.” Other sections explore sexuality, spirituality, loneliness, health, preparing wills and end-of-life planning.
Although many themes are serious, Ralph Milton has written a hilariously honest book about life through one’s eighties, into one’s nineties, and beyond. This I welcomed, as elder living seems shadowed past the surge of boomers keeping positive and busy throughout their seventies. Is old, and older, a gloomy secret, shrouded in bad news and scary stereotypes? Are we all doomed to diapers, dependence on care aides, loneliness, and disability? Yes, such dire stereotypes about quality of life for elder seniors are scary. Yes, loneliness is an issue and many say amounts to an epidemic as personal losses inevitably accrue. Friends and family die, move, or disappear into dementia. Sexuality diminishes as hormones wane; prostate problems afflict many senior men, and incontinence curses all genders. The future can look depressing and dire. Personal abilities may diminish, such as sight, mobility, digestion, strength, and hearing, while quality of life shrinks accordingly. Must aging invite years of enduring a host of afflictions?
No damn way! According to Ralph, seniors need not be discouraged. Our priorities might change, as may our mode of intimacy, but this need not be viewed as disability or disease. “Do something creative,” urges Ralph:
Connect with a friend … you can’t let yourself be the victim of your own shyness…. Binge-watching TV doesn’t count. Take up painting. Or sewing. Or woodcarving. Singing, especially in a choir, is really good for you…. Develop a vocation. Find something that’s important and worth doing and go for it (p. 167).
Underneath Ralph’s “fix-it” helpful suggestions lie some integral values for readers who are willing to dig down. His advocacy on behalf of seniors may be gentle and comical, but don’t assume it lacks power.
Ralph’s writing is upbeat and heart-warming. Humour glimmers in the most unexpected scenarios, such as bowel care, or being propositioned in the dining hall of his independent living residence. My only objection to Ralph’s tongue-in-cheek writing is the use of hackneyed terms to describe old age: “Old geezer,” “old fogey,” “biddies and gents” in their “dotage” are some examples. “Bev and I eat three meals a day with 150 other old coots like ourselves” (p. 16). The context is usually funny, but the derogatory descriptors induce dread about being objectified as “the body in the bed” or “the geezer with the walker” as you age.
I prefer the more militant stance taken by seniors’ advocate Maggie Kuhn (1905-1995), who founded the Gray Panther movement in the United States in 1970. Ralph refers to Maggie’s anti-ageism policies in his book, and readers will see some quotes from this further in my review. What strikes me as common ground is that both Ralph and Maggie reject “disengagement theory,” which perceives old age as a period of necessary separation and segregation from society as a prelude to death. Maggie combated other injustices, such as enforced early retirement, or elder abuse hidden within nursing homes. She advocated for shared housing with younger and older generations.
What I do appreciate is this more comical example of pro-aging, spoken in Ralph’s wry tone: “Now that I am a card-carrying member of the wrinkled pioneers, I’m discovering a whole new batch of social skills I have to learn” (p. 109). Pointing out that medical advances have improved quality of life for seniors, and in fact have decreased chances of dying from heart attack or cancer, Ralph concludes that “[I]t may be that I’ll just rust out and die of whatever bug is going around…. Or maybe I’ll just dry up and blow away” (p. 109).
Ralph credits his beguiling stories to a lifetime of support from his wife Bev, a retired minister, as well as to many helpers in his “Zoom gang” and to fellow residents in “The Dorchester.” In Kelowna, The Dorchester, which houses 150+seniors, represents an independent living facility where he and Bev reside in a 2-bedroom apartment. Their residential setting offers the opposite of a stereotypical warehouse for the old waiting to die, as it also serves up a plethora of practical tips and intriguing vignettes about the many characters and dilemmas that influence the platinum generation.
With Ralph and Bev, readers discover the dilemmas of seniors who must downsize into a residential care setting. Ralph does a thorough job with delineating and defining housing services for seniors that range from extended care and assisted-living, to nursing homes, or the more sumptuous independent living like the Dorchester, and he gives excellent tips for assessing the quality of care in a facility before you move in. Of equal importance is his caution that the typical waitlist for some extended care facilities is four years! Ralph points out that this long wait creates an impossibly stressful environment for an ailing senior and caretakers, especially painful when the senior is forced to stay home with caregivers who may not be able to manage the work, or who feel guilty for resenting the senior (p. 186). Yet caregivers too are trapped: “For many people, taking a loved one to a nursing home is an admission of guilt. You’ve broken your word” (p. 182). He is referring to traditional marriage vows that promise to companion one’s spouse to the end.
In an equally warm, and non-judgmental fashion, Ralph explores legacy, “sage-ing,” and the health needs of the old. “Never lose track of the bathrooms,” he cautions. “As soon as you enter a building, locate the bathroom… When your internal alarms go off, you don’t have time to ask for directions” (p. 111).
And what, you might ask, is sage-ing? Well Aged is a good example of this gracious but obscure term because the book represents harvest. Ralph shares life lessons learned in support of younger and older generations. Quite possibly, readers of any age may feel supported and seen in his stories.
One powerful value of Ralph’s sage-ing suggests that we find meaning through service or helping others. This is similar to the twelve-step groups recommendation that members engage in community service as a healing practice. “They have discovered that the key to finding meaning in old age is involvement with community — with other people” (p. 156). Concomitantly, he comments that his wife Bev’s vocation is to reach out with empathy to let others know they are valued:
We need help to make these last years as creative, as happy, as comfortable, as painless, as hopeful as possible. When we get into our eighties and nineties, most of the stuff we’re dealing with can’t be cured. It can be made less painful, less debilitating, and for that we are deeply grateful. But please remember, it’s quality of life we are after. Not quantity…. It’s about adding years to our life, and life to our years (p. 187).
Acknowledging that he writes from a culturally privileged position, Ralph also admits that his book does not explore aging through the lens of cultural diversity or interesectionality, nor diverse gender choices such as LGBTQ, although there is favourable mention with some stories from gay friends. He also acknowledges that his book is not about people housed in long-term care or nursing homes. “I’m writing this from the privileged viewpoint of a heterosexual white male, happily married, financially comfortable” (p. 5). However, his book is extremely relevant for seniors long before they go into nursing care, which I suspect comprises most of the readers of this review (p. 6).
Ralph reflects upon tough questions applicable to every age. “What will it be like when one of us dies and the other is left alone?” (p. 8). Like Gray Panther Maggie Kuhn, he addresses the cultural conditioning that pressures seniors to be passive and invisible and “nice.” “We were the so-called Silent Generation. We didn’t make waves, we never went much for protest marches and we mostly played by the rules” (p. 11). He goes on to say, “We are also the fastest growing demographic. Our average lifespan is increasing by more than five hours a day, every day!” (p. 12).
Herein lies the advocacy power of “the Silver Tsunami,” as Ralph and the health system term the ripening old:
We have power. We vote. They put polling places right in the seniors’ residences so we can go vote in our slippers and housecoats if we want to…. We’re not exactly marching, carrying placards saying ‘up with the old,’ because that is hard to do while pushing a walker. But we’re doing a damned determined shuffle! (p. 13).
And what are Ralph’s core values with old age? “Instead of fighting old age, I want to live into it. Taste all the good stuff that’s part of it. Accept the tough stuff. Celebrate the wrinkles that tell the story of my life” (p. 20). He asserts that old age “is becoming who we really are” (p. 24). “No,” he insists, “old age is not about longing to be who we once were!” We must ask instead, “Who am I now?” (p. 26). To paraphrase, we can begin again as aging nobodies, which for readers may be oddly liberating if not disorienting. If more seniors refuted the stereotypes and pressure to be silent and obedient pleasers, the implication is that living could hold many possibilities. “No Thanks,” responds Ralph to the prospect of passive aging: “There are too many people who exist in a kind of half-life — keeping the heart beating but the brain and the spirit are barely functioning” (p. 161).
Much of Well Aged is honestly vulnerable about the physical and emotional challenges of aging:
It is true that many of us are struggling with painful, debilitating health or family issues. The road we walk, on this last mile home, is full of potholes. We are losing family and friends at such a rate that funeral and memorial services are a major part of our social lives (p. 17).
And how has the pandemic affected seniors? “Social isolation has been very hard on us. Very hard. Loneliness, depression, boredom, worry have taken a far greater toll than most people realize” (p. 17). Yet Well Aged balances the pain of aging with touching mini-narratives, like the story of a small boy who is bullied at school about his freckles (p. 21). He confides his hurt feelings to his grandmother. “They told me I was ugly!” Grandma comments that she thinks his freckles are beautiful. The small boy responds:
“You know something that’s more beautiful than freckles, Grandma?”
“What would that be?”
Readers might question the place for memoir or legacy in Well Aged: “What is legacy or ancestral awareness…. Why is Ralph curious to know who his ancestors were and what were they like?” He responds: “There’s an ancient Hebrew saying that we are immortal as long as somebody alive remembers us. We’d like to believe that if someone asks our grandchild to name a grandparent, they wouldn’t just draw a blank” (p. 201). He also affirms the necessity of a caring community although he does not go so far as to recommend shared housing: “Over the years, a variety of studies and statistics have shown that people who have the support of a caring community during their last years tend to fare much better than those who have only the support of family and friends” (p. 240).
But for many seniors, family and friends no longer exist. Where does that leave them? Well Aged addresses the burdens of carrying grudges and resentments through old age, while suggesting the possibility of forgiveness. “It is very difficult to nurture a healthy spirituality unless we do some intentional forgiving…. Before we can get anywhere with the spiritual questions, … we’ve got to clean up some of the garbage that’s blocking our pathway” (p. 230). Ralph goes on to share stories of dysfunction in which people learn to make more affirming life choices to let go and forgive, concluding with the exhortation, “Too many of us are being held prisoners by our long-dead dysfunctional friends and families” (p. 231).
One of the most profound passages in the book is about death. “It seems that our whole culture is determined to deny the hurt, to avoid tasting the pain of loss and death” (p. 217). Ralph comments on MAiD (medical assistance in dying), which is one option, but another more common choice by seniors at end of life is to stop eating and taking liquids. With the help of modern pain control, “Most of us are aware that dying is much less painful now than it once was” (p. 218).
Well Aged employs a humorous elder advocacy that is serious and necessary. Ralph suggests that we “shoot down in flames” the six myths identified by Maggie Kuhn, myths that Ralph perceives as ‘…the slow slimy slide into senility’ (p. 130). Here are the most common myths about aging, equally prevalent today as in the 1970s:
i) That old age is a disease, a disaster. ii) That we are mindless. iii) That we are sexless. iv) That we are useless. v. That we are powerless. vi. That we are all alike.
I couldn’t agree more.
Shall we retrofit slimy stereotypes and age-ism with platinum? Despite the frailties, an old body may still grow into a Well Aged authentic life.
A retired clinician formerly with Nelson Mental Health, Lee Reid has written four books about BC rural and coastal communities. Her stories centre around the values and health care needs of BC seniors. Lee has also written stories about intergenerational education, rural home support care services, trauma, and dementia. Her books are From a Coastal Kitchen (Hancock House, 1980); Growing Home: The Legacy of Kootenay Elders (Nelson, 2016), reviewed by Duff Sutherland, and Growing Together: Conversations with Seniors and Youth (Nelson, 2018), reviewed by Luanne Armstrong. In 2021, she self-published a fourth book, Stories of Mount Saint Francis Hospital: 1950-2005, which illustrates a legacy of compassionate nursing care at an historic extended care hospital in Nelson. Editor’s note: Lee Reid has recently reviewed books by Gordon Wallace, Alison Acheson, Stefanie Green, Leslie A. Davidson, Phyllis Dyson, and Joan Neehall for The British Columbia Review. In 2018 she contributed a popular memoir of growing up in the south of England and North Saanich, The Spider Hunters. Visit her website here.
The British Columbia Review
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Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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