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'You're Going to Die Anyway. Why Worry?'

December 04, 1990|GARRY ABRAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Annie Robertson turned 85, her life insurance company sent her a check she hadn't asked for, cashing out the small policy she had bought to pay for her funeral.

That was two years ago. But Robertson is still a little miffed about collecting before she really needs the money.

You see, Robertson and her good friend Marion Holloman, 83, don't plan on dying any time soon.

And they have paid no attention to a widely publicized study asserting that human beings shouldn't expect to live healthy, rewarding lives beyond about age 85.

"I'm going to see 100, if not more," Holloman says with a smile, echoing a goal frequently mentioned by others who have reached the big Eight-Oh.

But Holloman, Robertson and other people in their 80s generally agree with the study's contention that later years should be independent, active years. The quality of life, they say, is more important than maintaining life at any cost. In this they speak from experience, having seen friends or relatives linger in hospitals and nursing homes, unable to enjoy even the simplest pleasures.

"She just sits there," a woman named Ann told a senior citizens discussion group the other day, referring to a 94-year-old friend in a nursing home. "That to me is terrible. . . . I told my doctor, 'If I ever get that way I hope you put me to sleep.' "

Ann, a spry woman who asked not to be further identified, struck a nerve, drawing nods of agreement from those gathered around the table at the Hollywood Senior Citizens Multipurpose Center.

Robertson, whose 83-year-old sister is confined to a nursing home because of a stroke, wouldn't want to live that way either. "Close my eyes and let me go," she says. "I'm not afraid of death."

Indeed, a professed fear of dying seems notably absent among people in their 80s, including Robertson and Holloman, who were interviewed at the George and Helen Thomas Senior Citizens Center in the West Adams area.

"You're going to die anyway. Why worry about it?" asked Holloman, who spends about six hours a day on volunteer activities at the center and elsewhere. "I think about living every morning."

Holloman is not an exception. People in their ninth decade apparently believe that the best life is a busy life. Very few are health fanatics or food faddists but they credit a full schedule with adding meaning to their lives and keeping their minds off minor aches and pains.

Some also believe that having long-lived parents is a help. But more often, they feel that volunteer work, church groups and other diversions combat both loneliness and physical deterioration and extend life span.

"I am pretty lonely," says 82-year-old Howard Barker, whose wife died in 1985. Now, Barker, a rare smoker among the elderly, spends three days a week playing the piano and helping out at the day-care program for seniors operated by the Hollywood center.

"This gives me something to do," he explains. "I have my weekly program now. On Monday I do my laundry. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays I am here and Fridays my cleaning woman comes. On Saturdays and Sundays I go out for dinner."

West Hollywood resident Sally Marks, an 80-year-old widow, has been doing volunteer work with senior citizens since 1969 and now comes to the Hollywood center five days a week as a volunteer in the lunch programs.

"I keep very busy," she says. "I travel by bus to come here every day and I walk many blocks. My doctor says my activity is as important as the medication I take for my heart . . . . I forget myself for a while. It's when you get home that you remember things, like your shoulder hurts."

She adds, "I could sit around the house and watch stupid soap operas . . . . I think that's the main thing, keep active--keep active and keep involved."

But not all develop strategies for filling time's void, especially following the death of a spouse.

Samuel Selnick, 86, who lives in the Mid-Wilshire District, says he often feels at loose ends since the death of his wife 11 years ago.

"That's my worst trouble, time on my hands because there's nobody on my arm," he says. "Sometimes I can't sleep, I walk the streets at night."

Indeed, it seems no one reaches their 80s without being marked by personal sorrow. Holloman and Robertson say the deaths of their husbands were severe emotional blows.

Holloman, whose husband died in 1959, also lost two of her six children, one murdered during a robbery and the other dying of a heart attack.

"There are things in life that you have no control over," she said. " . . . You learn to accept it no matter how badly you feel."

Robertson, whose husband died in 1970, says, "It was very tough on me. . . . I did get myself together through the help of God."

The two women, who maintain close ties with their children, say that their religious faith and family bonds have been mainstays in times of personal crisis.

"I had family support at all times," Holloman says. "Love is what has helped me carry through. It really is."

But not everyone relies on this combination. Barker's only son lives in Anchorage, Alaska, so he doesn't see him or his two grandchildren very frequently.

"If they were living anywhere but Alaska, I would go and live there but I don't want to live in Alaska," he says.

Nor does he fall back on religion. "I was brought up very religious but I don't believe in religion at all anymore," he says. "When you're dead, you're dead."

Besides personal loss, bouts of illness have often scarred their lives. However, as long as they're not incapacitated, they learn to cope with the inconvenience.

For instance, Marks is blind in her left eye from a combination of glaucoma and cataracts.

Whatever shape they are in at 80, many acknowledge that reaching that age seems to mark a dividing line.

"It sounds old when I have to tell people my age," says Reva Mullins, a volunteer at the Hollywood center who turned 80 in July. "I think I'm doing great for an old lady. I think I feel like about 60 or 65."

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