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Never stereotype anyone about age

Published April 05. 2014 09:00AM

Last week a friend of mine asked me to do some publicity for a show the historical society is putting on. All I had to do was interview the couple doing the show. I was told the couple would be presenting a musical production.

Interviewing them proved to be harder than I thought. When we first scheduled the interview, they had to cancel because the husband ended up in the hospital. When we rescheduled, I got there and no one was home. The husband had another medical problem, and his wife had to rush him to the emergency room.

She called later to say in an upbeat, cheerful voice, "Come on over. It was a false alarm."

When I learned they were in their 80s, my stereotype of age kicked in. I pictured them as old and ailing, figuring they might find it hard to have enough energy for the interview. I wondered if they would even be well enough to give a musical performance.

When I got there, instead of the feeble old couple I was expecting to see, I was greeted by a vivacious couple that acted more like 40 than 80.

"Actually, I'm 85 next month," said the husband, "and my wife is a younger woman. She's 83."

They had more energy and more interests than a couple half their age.

My first surprise is that they are still working, running a summer resort that's been in the family for decades.

They told me they give musical performances every single night on a showboat floating in a New York state resort.

They've been doing that for 60 years and don't see any reason to quit now.

The second surprise was their garage. It's been turned into a musical studio, complete with a huge drum set, piano, other instruments and sound equipment. They had to add soundproofing because neighbors complained when they played through the night. That's a different twist on loud music played by teenagers, isn't it?

What a lively, interesting pair.

I walked out of there thinking that once again, my perception of "old" keeps changing.

"Old" certainly has nothing to do with the number of candles on a birthday cake. If I've learned anything these past few years it's this: "Old" has more to do with attitude than numbers.

I was surprised to realize I had fallen into the trap of stereotyping people based on their age. I hate when anyone does that.

I, of all people, should know that because I have the pleasure of interviewing people who defy the concept of old age.

Anyone who thinks Florida is God's waiting room should come with me on a typical social outing. When we're dancing, someone will point to another couple on the dance floor and ask how old we think they are. Often, we miss by decades.

One of my favorite examples is Mel and his partner, Helen. We were next to them on the dance floor during a fast polka. David and I were getting winded but Mel was like a fast spinning top.

That's all the more remarkable when you know Mel is 96 and his partner is 85.

The story we all like best about Mel is the night he had chest pains on the dance floor. The couple he was with insisted they take him to the hospital.

After some initial tests, the doctor said his heart was fine. "Whatever you're doing, keep on doing," the doctor advised.

Mel looked at his watch and insisted on going back to the dance. "You have to go rest or you might fall over," insisted the guy who drove him to the hospital.

Mel's now famous reply: "Well, I'm not dead yet. I'm going dancing." He'll turn 97 in October and is still going strong.

I remember years ago when I did a feature on a guy because he was still skiing at 75. Now, I wouldn't consider the skier to be all that unusual because all around me I see people in their 80s and 90s enjoying an active lifestyle.

The publisher of a local health magazine was taken to the hospital with cuts on his face that required stitches and leg and arm abrasions.

When he was asked how it happened, the publisher admitted he was playing hopscotch. The punchline: He's 80 years old.

I got a kick out of that. It reinforces the lesson that we should never stereotype anyone by age.

Last week in physical therapy I was lamenting that there's a big kayaking event coming up but I'm not allowed to kayak for another few weeks.

"You don't realize how well you are doing for your age," said the therapist. Now, she's really good and I like her, but I bristled at her words.

"You would be right if my idea of 'doing well' is sitting on the sofa watching TV," I told her, "but that's not my lifestyle."

And that "for your age" comment really says she has a perceived idea of what people my age do. We certainly don't sit in a rocking chair.

We dance, we Zumba, we kayak, we swim, we bike, we hike, we surf, we play tennis and pickleball.

And sometimes we even play hopscotch.

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