Age 80 — What’s It Like?

This piece was written by George Bush, the 41st President.  It is so well written and expressive, you must read it–even if just to find out what an 80-year-old is thinking!

Age 80–What’s it like? Let me help you with that one.

Maybe other old guys can learn something from this octogenarian. Maybe as they ache and repeat themselves and tilt when they walk and wonder how others cope, they will see they are not alone. That should encourage them to head more confidently toward the finish line.

First of all, there are a lot of changes when you get to be 80. In my case, I still feel like charging ahead and living life to the hilt, but my body lags behind. My mind is out there on the playing field or on the campaign trail or circling the globe, but my skeletal structure cries out, suggesting I give it a break.

I can no longer fly fish off the rocks at our house in Kennebunkport. I used to love to go out there and cast chartreuse Clousers at big striped bass or even tiny pollock. Now if I keep my feet in one place as I cast, I find that when I go to turn and move my feet, I am in grave danger of falling into the ocean. It is a balance thing. I now feel closer to the old guys who fall down and break hips. I used to race across the rocks like a surefooted gazelle. Now, no more rock climbing for me.

Down in the Dominican Republic recently I was having a grand hot shower.
Suddenly I felt my foot slip. I grabbed the soap dish. I stayed upright, but in that scary moment I understood why I get so many calls these days–“Did you hear what happened to old Joe? Yep, he slipped and fell in the bath and broke a hip.” It happens all the time.

No question about it, balance at 80 offers great challenges; and, oddly, lack of balance does not get much sympathy from the younger crowd. One little falter and your kids look at you like the town drunk.

Just days ago I climbed out of our Suburban (yes, Arianna Huffington, we have a Suburban), and as I stepped down to the curb I almost fell.  It was kind of a stagger at first, then a dive. Had it not been for a great one-handed save by U.S. Secret Service agent Jim Pollard, Barbara would surely have been calling 911.

I love fishing in the rivers of Labrador with my friend Craig Dobbin. But this year the boulders in the Adlatok River that never bothered me a bit became impossible for me to stand on or climb around. My guide, Bill Lynch, held onto me in the river like you’d hold onto a 3-year-old kid. The current threatened me. The slippery rocks did me in. I used to love to wade the rivers and conquer the boulders, but at 80–no way!

I have a fast boat, a very fast 31-foot Fountain. It is rigged for fishing. With its two 225-horsepower Mercury OptiMax outboards, it can fly. I love that boat, and age has not kept me from going out in big seas or from making high-speed entries into our harbor. There is still a thrill factor there as I speed into our bay then turn sharply. Kids love this. I like watching them scream in a sharp turn; so this boat makes me feel young and very happy. Age has not diminished my love of the sea or the joy of driving my boat across the Atlantic waves.

Barbara does not like the boat because there aren’t any really comfortable seats for older people. She can’t read at 55 miles per hour either. We used to fish together a lot but now her legs rebel at the boat’s pounding. I miss her out there on the open Atlantic.

At 80, body kinds of things matter more. I love a good sauna or a hot tub.
Massage therapy is great; make that essential. I hope heaven has these wonders.

My back aches more now. So do my legs. So I have tried stretching.
Everyone says, “When you get older, you must stretch.” The problem is stretching is boring. There is no competition in stretching, no winners and losers. But it does help. It is better when someone helps you stretch. I like just lying there and letting someone else tie me into a half granny.

Well, not exactly, because I don’t bend that much. I like riding a low-hung exercise bike. I can fast walk but I can no longer jog. I miss the jogging.

I miss the adrenaline rush that came on after a good, brisk three-or four-mile jog.

I wish I could still play tennis. I don’t play tennis anymore except when I hit at charity events put on each year in Florida by Chrissie Evert or in Texas by Chuck Norris.

The Chris Evert event is showbiz at its finest. I am usually Chrissie’s partner. We have never lost. Chrissie sees to that. I am not saying the matches are rigged. I am saying the word must be out for the opponents to be kind to this former president.

When playing against some great player like Jim Courier or Tommy Haas, they hold back from hitting hard right at me. To give the crowd a thrill, they occasionally get into a hot rally with Chrissie. I just stand there muttering to myself, “When I was in my 30s, I could have held my own at least for a few crisp volleys.”

Chrissie still goes “Get to the net” or “Bend your knees more” or “Can’t you at least cover behind me on a lob?” You might think we were on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Chrissie Evert is a class competitor–was at Forest Hills and Wimbledon, and still is at the stadium at Delray Beach.

My reactions are much slower now. In this year’s match, Chris and I were playing against Tommy Haas and Chevy Chase. Chevy is younger than I am and better than I am, but not a heck of a lot better. Anyway, this year he drilled me in the groin with a well-hit forehand. Several years ago he never would have gotten me: My reactions would have spared me. But reaction times are down, danger to the groin, up. No more real tennis, but I sure miss it.

What was your question? Oh, yes–hearing. My hearing has deteriorated, not dangerously so, however. I can hear selectively. I can tune people out when I want to.

One has to be careful with the tuning out, because if the question is shot right at you, you don’t want to look dumb. But if the question is shouted from, say, the wife’s bathroom, you don’t need to respond. Sometimes I can make out the question clearly, at other times it is all just a giant mumble.

I try my hearing aid. Once you get past the part where the device screeches into your ear when you first put it in, it can be helpful.

My hearing aid helps when, say, I am watching a rental from Blockbuster.
The bad news is it kills when you are at a cocktail party or even in the office. The other day, eating out, I was coasting along hearing pretty well when someone crumpled up some paper a few tables away. It sounded like a low-yield nuke had just gone off.

Barbara used to insist I use my hearing aid: “You have the darn thing, just use it.” She doesn’t do that anymore. I have convinced her I only need it at certain times.

I have no problem with the cosmetics of hearing aids. I don’t care if it is the “tiniest hearing aid ever made.” Hey, if you are 80, people expect you to be deaf as a post.

I tell Barbara and my grandkids to pronounce more clearly. It is a diphthong thing. They don’t do it, though.

The grandkids are now convinced I am totally deaf. Little do they know that I just tune them out. Life is simpler if I don’t have to stop in when summoned to that messy room where they hang out to give my views on Madonna, P. Diddy or Eminem. I have no views on those people. I am happily disconnected from hip-hop, dirty-talking screen performers and science fiction. I love my grandchildren, all of them. But I no longer want to get their views on Hollywood celebrities or even hear how much they enjoyed the Dave Matthews concert way up near the Canadian border:

“It took us five hours to get to the concert area, and then we had to walk for an hour because there was no parking. We stayed up all night. Pierce slept in the back of a pickup truck.” I listened but I didn’t care. Is that selfish? All I could think about was recommending a good psychiatrist to all of them. Who, if totally sane, would drive all day, walk for hours, listen to a rock concert–in the rain yet–then spend the rest of the night camped in the bed of a pickup truck? Give me a break.

At 80, the motto “early to bed and early to rise” makes extraordinary good sense. At 80 you can say at dinner “I am so darn old, I hope you’ll forgive me if I excuse myself and go to bed.” No one argues, everyone understands.

In fact, I know the younger ones are glad to see the old fogey go. It is wonderful. Several years ago after dinner, our grandkids used to challenge me. “Let’s play peggity!” or “I can beat you at backgammon, Gampy!” Every once in a while I’d accept the challenge. Now it’s, “I won’t even pass go; I’m going to bed.”

There are things kids say that don’t exactly disturb me now that I am 80, but things that make me wonder what they are learning. They use the word “like” all the time. My beloved teenagers can’t say a sentence without saying “like.”

Like “Hi, Gampster, are you like going out in the boat, and if you do will you like take me with you?” Why do kids do this? Why don’t their teachers tell them to cease and desist? They should simply tell the kids “Don’t say ‘like’ all the time.” Maybe it is only us old guys who notice, because we like didn’t learn to talk that way and like now everyone under 20 goes “like” all the time. It’s a new phenomenon. I hope our grandkids grow out of it before I get to be 85.

At 80, I find I still look forward to things. I still have goals. I look forward to my parachute jump on my 80th birthday. Barbara is okay with it, but she has managed to contain her enthusiasm. “One way or another, George, this will be your final jump.” I asked her to rephrase it. She wouldn’t.

I look forward to our oldest grandson, George P. Bush, getting married this summer. I am excited about the big event. I don’t dare tell George P. and Mandi, but a remaining goal of mine is for me to get to be a great-grandfather before I turn 82. It could happen.

Another goal is to live until 2008, because I want to attend the commissioning of CVN77, the newest and most modern aircraft carrier ever to sail the seas. The ship has been named for me, George H.W. Bush. Our daughter, Doro, is the sponsor of the ship. That makes CVN77 “her ship.” The commissioning of this grand carrier in 2008 is something I really look forward to.

I also look forward to our 60th wedding anniversary less than a year from now. But even in my 80th year, it doesn’t seem we have been married that long. It has been a wonderful journey.

Forgetful–that’s where my mind is. I can clearly remember some things that happened 40 years ago, and yet now I can’t remember where I put my glasses and who’s coming to lunch and sometimes I can’t instantly recall the names of close friends. Everyone says, “Well, sir, you have met so many people, how can you possibly remember names? Your mind must be full of names and places and events. How can you begin to remember last week’s speech in Orlando or Las Vegas?” The truth is my mind gets a little lazy these days. I am afraid I don’t concentrate on names when being introduced to new people.

To understand what’s happening to me now, I asked Dr. John Eckstein, my doctor at the Mayo Clinic, about the brain.

John tells me that the front of the left temporal lobe is where one stores and then remembers people’s names. Okay, so my left temporal lobe is a little lazy. Maybe it is full, maybe a few quarts over the top; but, hey, at 80 I don’t worry about this lobe, and I am not going to start eating seaweed, plankton or dried guava. I know I won’t be around for many years more so forget it–don’t worry about it.

Besides, I can always bluff through it. “Say, how’s the wife?” or “How’s it going, pal?” “You look great; how’s the old lady?” Careful with that last one, though. A lot of old ladies have gone to heaven or been dumped.

At 80, I do find myself reading the obituary pages a lot more. “Hey, Bar, did you see where Andrew died last week?”

“Last week? I thought he died years ago.”

I now understand more clearly what Phyllis Diller meant when she said “All my friends are dying in alphabetical order.”

Here’s another very important point about aging at 80. Back when I was a younger man, I could rationally discuss with a friend an ailment I might have. Now, if I start to tell a friend about my hip operation I must brace myself for a lengthy discussion about his operation, his prostate surgery or his wife’s gall bladder. It is better not to discuss your body parts with anyone.

How to sum it up. Being 80 is okay, not bad at all. Herewith a few general

  1) Life is good for Barbara and me. We have many happy memories of being President and First Lady, but at times I literally find it hard to realize that we actually lived in the White House. When we go back there I love to go through the West Wing or browse through the residence. The President and Laura always make us feel so welcome. I am sometimes overcome with emotion when I sit alone in the President’s private office on the second floor of the residence. That marvelous White House staff, the men and women who see Presidents come and go and treat them all with respect, always seem to be welcoming us home.

  2) It hurts more when the press and political opponents criticize one of my sons than when they used to knock the socks off me. I know that criticism, fair or grossly unfair, goes with the territory; but it still hurts a lot when someone you love is attacked day in and day out.

  3) It is true that the older you get, the faster time flies. It’s going by lightning fast.

  4) Family is everything, and prayers matter a lot.

  5) Satchel Paige was right when he said, “Don’t look over your shoulder.
Something might be gaining on you.” So I look forward. I want to give something back. I want to live life to its fullest. Every night Barbara and I say our prayers and we count our many blessings and we give thanks to God.

At 80, there are a lot of breathtaking sunrises ahead, and many brilliant sunsets, too.

In the Navy we young pilots all prayed for CAVU: Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited. But, you see, at 80, that is where my life is now. Thanks to my family and my friends, my life is CAVU.

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