THE OPLA PROJECT – the first month

When I started out on my camping trip a month ago, I had no idea what to expect. I knew only that this trip would be different from all my trips in the past because of my decision to find and interview old people living alone (OPLA). I thought the difference would stem mainly from my having a job to do rather than just floating along day by day. I had no inkling how fascinating every aspect of this project would become.

My first stop was the town campground in Telluride, Colorado. As in all past summers, I always choose the most spectacular places in the West and the Southwest to set up camp. In Telluride I found not a single OPLA, but it was there I discovered that the search itself is rewarding and full of surprises. I feel free to approach anybody, telling them what I’m doing, and asking if they know anyone over 90 who lives alone. I’m still bowled over by the response I get. Almost everyone is immediately pulled in by the unusual question, they want to know more. And then they call over to a nearby friend and tell them about it. They pull out their phones and call people who might be able to help.They start reminiscing about every old person they’ve known in the past who lived alone but is no longer alive. They start talking amongst themselves about what an interesting project it is. For as long as I’m in town, whenever they see me they wave, smile, come running over to ask how it’s going. This has been happening everywhere I go.

The response is so gratifying that I might have kept asking about OPLAs even if I never found one. But as soon as I left Telluride and started exploring other small towns I did find them, surprisingly many of them.

I found the first one, a woman of 94, through the waitress at a cafe. The waitress was best friends with the woman’s great-granddaughter, and had been a part of the family for years. She called the woman, who lived in a nearby town, told her about me, and asked if I could come and talk with her. We arranged a time, I got directions to her house, and that was that, it was that simple.

All the OPLAs have invited me into their homes for the interview, with only one exception (“Oh, my house is too messy!”). I’ve sat with them in their living rooms or at their kitchen tables or out on their back decks, my notebook on my lap, my pen in hand. They’ve all been eager to engage with me, they’ve been open about their lives, both past and present. Even future. They’ve given serious thought to all my questions. We’ve been fully concentrated on each other, our attention has not wavered for the entire hour or two, sometimes even three, that we sit together. There’s been a great deal of laughing, and surprisingly few tears. I’ve been shown paintings, needlework, poems, crochet-work, and photographs, some of them of astonishing beauty. I’ve looked at hundreds of family photos on refrigerator doors. I’ve been held tight in loving grateful hugs. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Most surprising of all is the effect that being interviewed seems to have on most people. It surprises me every time. After I bring an interview to a close, the person I’ve been talking with does not look tired or ready to stop; in fact, they look animated, energized. And some have been nearer 100 years old than 90, and they haven’t gotten up the entire time to give their legs a shake. What’s going on?

I think it’s more than just a break from loneliness for them, since not all of the people I’ve spoken with have seemed lonely. I think it has to do with being listened to for an hour or two, with palpable curiosity and without judgment, with the focus completely on them. When I ask them at the end what it’s been like to be interviewed, many of them report that it’s the first time in a long long time that they’ve thought about themselves and their own lives. Many of them talk at length about each one of their family members, with pride about accomplishments and worries about difficulties. I keep pulling them back to themselves, to get them talking about their own life, their own feelings, their own memories. They seem to have lost the knack. As one 98 year old woman told me when we’d finished:

“I’m so revved up, my brain feels like it just woke up. I haven’t remembered all those things for ages, and now you’ve got me started. It’s all so long ago, and it looks different now. It’s so interesting! And even the hard parts don’t make me sad anymore, they’re over, and I can see that..…well….they were just a part of my life, along with all the good parts. It’s going to be hard to get to sleep tonight, I want to go on remembering and thinking about all these things.”

Could there be a more gratifying reaction to an interview?

I’ve been doing this for only a month now, so it’s too early to come to any conclusions, or to even decide exactly what I’m going to do with all this information I’m collecting. I feel I’ve barely begun. From what I’ve seen so far, being over 90 is truly a distinct stage of life, different even from 80. There are physical differences, of course, though in this age group, the ones who are able to live alone are all healthy in mind and body.

More interesting to me are differences that I’m just beginning to become aware of. They have to do with attitudes towards the world, towards life, even towards self. I’ll hope to learn more about this in the upcoming second month of these interviews.

Another month! Lucky me!

WHAT MAKES MARSHA SMILE?

“Oh my god, if my husband had seen me wearing those he would have been grabbing my ass so hard!”

We’ve just watched a svelte young woman walk by, with three large jaunty pineapples printed on the back of her tights.

“Do you miss that part of life?”

“Do I ever! Are you kidding? But now I like the young men. I had an old one, enough already, but now it’s the young men. I think about them, I look at them. Boy do I look at them! But I’m too old now, what’re they going to do with me?”

Whoa! Marsha has suddenly sprung to life, after talking and talking morosely about all her ailments and her diminished life. She’s 91, short and shapeless. She walks slowly with a cane, wincing with each step. Her face is lined and splotched and puffy, her rheumy eyes almost hidden, her teeth yellow. She has lived alone since her husband died, 22 years ago.

She’s the first OPLA I’ve talked with who has owned up to still having sexual feelings and interests. I mention this to her.

“God I know! We’re s’posed to shut down and shut up and just make nice once we get old. We’re not s’posed to have any feelings at all any more, we’re nobodies.”

Now she’s animated, her face lively, her eyes sparkling, she’s full of mischief. She’s beautiful.

My interview with Marsha got me thinking about sex and the aged. It had been on my mind since the other day when I heard about group sessions being held to discuss “all aspects of sex,” offered by the Unitarian church “for people of all ages,18 to 65.”  I figured that must be the cut-off point for socially acceptable sexual urges, and I’d been stewing about that. Is that what everyone thinks? That that part of us dies and is no more, once we hit 65? Or is it just another way in which we gradually disappear the elderly, part by part?  Of course, there’s always the chance the Unitarians think that by 65 we’ve mastered that aspect of our lives and have no further questions.

My three daughters are all in their 50s now, all of them accomplished wise strong women. Yet I still am filled with the motherly drive to encourage them, protect them, help them on their way, even though they clearly no longer need that kind of mothering. What can I offer them at this point in their lives? What might be helpful?

I think one of the things I can do is show them what they realistically can expect in the years up ahead. Mostly what we learn about this stage of life, directly or indirectly, is negative, and it comes at us from all directions: old age means no longer being able to think clearly and creatively, old age means no longer being worth looking at, old age means aches and pains, old age means no sexual pleasure, old age means diminishment of everything we’ve enjoyed up until then.  It’s all about loss, incapacity, pain. And some of that, of course, is valid, it’s part of the story. But damn, it’s not the whole story, and I want my daughters to know the whole story.

So back to the sexual part of aging. What will counteract all the messages that tell us that that part of our selves atrophies and is no more? What can I report to them of my own experience? Because I think that’s one thing that is needed, more first-hand accounts from the trenches. Functioning, vibrant older people are becoming a little bit more visible. But the pleasures of the flesh, for this age group alone, remain a taboo topic.

What can I report to my daughters of my own experience? I can assure them that the sexual part of me did not disappear fifteen years ago when I turned 65.  But it did start to change, and that changing continues to the present. As with so many other things, the changes have been towards slowing down. The urges are less frequent, the pleasures more intense. From my close friends I’ve learned that this is not an unusual development. We laugh together about our former lustiness, evoking all sorts of wild memories, but we agree: we don’t have that kind of energy any more, it’s different now. And we’re thankful that the expression of our urges has changed to fit that difference.

Now here’s the really surprising news, for me anyway: old age may be the best time for orgasms, at least for some of us women. Orgasms are such an extraordinary feature of our bodies, aren’t they? Especially for women, since as lures towards procreation they really aren’t necessary. Perhaps they were granted as a compensation for the pain of childbirth. But what a surprise to have them last through old age, and even intensify. My friends and I had no idea that this was up ahead for us.

Yes, there are plenty of other factors that may affect our sexuality, but here it is, here’s what I want my daughters to know: aging itself is definitely not a death-knell for sexual pleasure.

Ninety-one year old Marsha drew the line at talking about it, but I suspect that now and then she smiles happily, dreaming of young men.

P.S. About that night in the Telluride Library: what would you have done? Would you have stayed? As the footsteps on the stairs came closer, a picture flashed across my mind: me in the huge scary dark unfamiliar building, with all the doors locked so that I couldn’t get out. I walked towards the stairs and smiled: “I’m just leaving.”