Standing by the bulk-food dispensers at Sprouts is an old man intently frowning at a product. He is small, stooped and thin. He has bruises on his face, and he peers closely at the too-fine print on the label.
He beckons to me. “Are these pistachios salted?”
I answer, then hold a bag as he pulls the lever releasing the nuts, and we talk. I finally ask, “How old are you?”
“Eighty-nine,” he says. “And I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Don L. Bottomley, retired physician, has something on his mind.
On a later day in another place, Bottomley sits at a table and explains that the bruises on his face and two black eyes were from a fall that broke his nose. He healed quickly, and only a large bump on his forehead persists.
Falling remains a constant threat to a man his age. It not only can break his nose, it can kill him.
But the incident is a good segue into his complaint about being on the verge of becoming a nonagenarian, which is the lead-heavy name by which we type-cast humans who survive to the age of 90.
Bottomley is no longer married and has no children, so 10 years ago, he had to confront the calendar. “I had my own apartment, and I could see I wasn’t really making food the way I should. I was eating a lot of these microwave things, and I could see that was no good, so then I went into one of these independent-living facilities (in Encinitas).
“The whole transition was tough. I’m an independent, active guy. At least I used to be. I was a mountain climber. I was in all sorts of sports, canoeing, rafting. Just anything you can think of, that was what I was into. Now, I don’t have the physical capability.”
John Masefield wrote:
... the fire is dying;
My dog and I are old,
too old for roving ...
too lame to march,
too cold for loving.
I take the book and
gather to the fire.
“In these retirement homes, they’ll manage a lot of your life for you. That’s what you pay them for, and some people need that, I suppose. But for me, I want to stay active and independent as much as I can, and when I can’t, it gets depressing,” Bottomley says.
“You can’t sit around with your head in the sand like an ostrich. You can’t sit around and let whatever happens happen. You’ve got to be interested in the outside world. Otherwise, you’re just waiting out your own death.”
What do you do for enjoyment?
“Well, that’s a problem. Jazz music for one. ... Uh, I enjoy discussing current affairs, if I can find someone who wants to talk about it. I walk some. But there’s not a lot.”
Heaping stones on the pile, several years ago he surrendered his driver’s license because he could no longer drive safely.
The problem facing Bottomley and his peers is not old age, but the years beyond 89, which I choose to call “ancient age.” And if you’re 90 and not the exception — and there are plenty of those — it’s a time when you no longer lead nature walks, teach Boy Scouts how to tie knots or fly to Europe. It’s a time when you might forget your best friend’s name and even have to think hard to recall the year your spouse died.
In a crowd, you’re the oddity or invisible, neither of which is what you want to be.
However, if you’re a physician and spent a long career healing patients and keeping others from harm, the cut is deep. You have been a very important person to a lot of people, and that’s not easy to give up. And that’s where Bottomley finds himself.
You get bored reliving World War II, and a game of checkers seems pointless.
Shakespeare had the sense of the thing, and he never got close to 90:
Last scene of all ...
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
When did you retire?
“I retired probably in ’82. I think that’s when it was. I’m just guessing.”
That’s 33 years ago.
“Yeah, it’s possible. Maybe it was — it wasn’t ’92. It was actually — I’m thinking of my Social Security. OK, 1988.”
Bottomley is not hopeful about the state of the world today, or of its future. That could either be wisdom or a symptom. Maybe both.
For instance, he says of doctor-patient relationships: “It was better back then, because there was a sense of the patient as participant, and nowadays, there’s too much of what I call ‘robotics.’
“A typical example: I as a patient come in and say, ‘I have this problem.’ So first thing they do is the testing. Then they come in and they say, ‘Oh, your tests look great.’ And I wonder if they’ve even looked at me, because I still don’t feel good. Before, we didn’t have that scientific knowledge, but you felt that the doctor cared enough to listen.”
Bottomley sees important parts of society going to hell in a hand basket, as they used to say.
“Morals have changed completely, and so have a lot of things we never even think about any more. Now, there’s a lack of respect for others, especially elders. Years past, we had respect for their knowledge. It’s now just part of the social fabric, and it’s an unfortunate part as far as I’m concerned.
“Nowadays, kids don’t give a damn. They’re interested in the latest electronic things, and they play their silly, unreal games. I think video games have been a horrible thing for kids, because they spend their time inside when they should be outside enjoying themselves.
“Games have lost their creativity. Used to be, kids would get together, choose up sides and play for themselves, not for parents in the stands. That used to teach kids independence, and working things out with each other.
“Discipline is another big one. I’ve heard kids abuse parents in public. See, that would never happen in our time. The parents used to have control. Now, the kids have control, and it’s a very painful thing to see.
“I know I’m something of an old fogey, but tell me I’m wrong.”
Roger Angell of The New Yorker, now 94, says about that condition: “We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent.”
Arriving at what I call ancient age is thanks to healthful living, but mainly better medical care. I haven’t heard anyone say it’s a bad idea to arrive there, but for those fortunates of that age, it does have its challenges.
For one, you don’t feel good a lot of the time. You wake up hurting and go to bed knowing you’re going to wake up hurting. Two, you can’t do most of what made you feel worthwhile for so many years. Three, what you have left — and let’s hope you have a lot of it — is love and wisdom. All you have to do is find someone still alive who is interested in receiving either. If you do, purpose reappears.
For Dr. Don L. Bottomley, a nice man for whom I wish a lot of everything good (even long life), I guess all I can say is: Physician, heal thyself.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org