I am very fond of my gym, I go there to workout but I have some surprisingly interesting conversations there. Today, I talked of old age and love – sex, really – with a young man I will call Jack, who was on the treadmill next to mine.
Red draws people, and we sometimes get to talking, although normally noone bothers anyone while they are on the machines. Jack had something on his mind, we have talked before, he is in his 20's and works for the town highway department. His mother has read some of my books, he recognized me when he saw me. And he always spends a few minutes with Red.
I talk with the single mothers who come in with their children because they have nowhere else for them to go, and the divorced men who miss their dogs and the high school athletes trying out for sports teams, and people recovering from surgeries. We compare notes. There are some older men working out in the gym, but I am thinking I am one of the oldest men in the gym – there might be one more older than me. I walk on the treadmill, everybody else runs. I do not lift weights.
They explain the machines to me when I get confused. I was no better at machines when I was young.
At cardiac rehab, I was the young stud, the athlete, here everyone mostly runs circles around me, I feel slow even though I do well. But everyone is very nice to me, they open doors for me and tie my shoelaces when they come undone and I don't notice. They try to get me to wear sweatpants and sweatshirts, but I don't, I work out in my jeans and blue shirt. And they are crazy about Red.
On the machine next to me, Jack talked of his 80-year-old grandfather, who has congestive heart failure and recently was moved to a nursing home. His grandfather, perhaps slipping into dementia, talks of love and sometimes, of sex, and Jack is visiting him often – they are close – and trying to understand what he is saying and feeling. He kept looking at me and looked uneasy. But he was trying to get at something.
"Jack," I said after a few minutes, "are you trying to ask me about older people and love. About sex?"
Jack blushed a bit, and said yes, he was curious, he wasn't prying or getting personal, he just wanted to know how to talk to his grandfather. About love, even at his age. The nurses said his grandfather had a girlfriend in the next room at the nursing home. The old man claimed to be in love. Everyone laughed about it, joked about how cute it was. Like it wasn't real love.
Jack didn't know about sex, didn't really want to know. I imagined it was a tough conversation for him to start.
"Listen," I said, "I don't know your grandfather, but i can tell you this as an older man. We do have sex, we do love, we do make love. As often as possible. We like it, and as importantly, we need it. It is life itself." Jack was listening.
Unfortunately, I said, the popular culture has abandoned older people, we are a demographic nobody wants, we don't have as many buying years as the prized 18-36 aged group, the group every advertiser except the AARP wants to reach. we have pretty much vanished from movies and TV shows and magazines, the hot cable shows are not interested in us, there are no books that portray us as anything but doddering old mummies.
"Sometimes," said Jack, "my grandfather talks about sex, about having sex and making love. I do not know what to say."
Well, I said, I'm not 80 yet, I'm not even 70, I am just beginning to be old in many ways. I had a loveless life for a long time, and I think it was one of the reasons I nearly gave up on life. It's important for people your age to know, i said, when they look ahead, that they can make love until they die, your grandfather is not too old to love. And it is not a joke. And I am not too old to love. I can't make love like a 20-year-old, but I can surely make love. Lots of studies say older people are good lovers, we are patient and sensitive and empathetic. I make love as often as possible, it is so important to me, to my spirituality, to my connection with my wife, to my soul and heart. To my identity as a strong and valuable human being.
Don't let anybody tell you that older people can't find love and make love, they can.
I imagine it seems creepy to young people to think about older people making love, it was creepy to me when I was younger. But it would be good for you to get over that if you can.
But if you are asking me about your grandfather, I said, I would say to encourage him to find love and have love and get love whenever and wherever he can, in whatever way he can. And don't laugh at him or roll your eyes, treat him with respect and let him keep his dignity. That would be a great gift to him. He is just as entitled to love as you are and it is perhaps even more important to him now. It is not cute, that is patronizing. I learned in hospice work not to patronize older people, it is an insult to them. I will promise you, I said, I will be looking for love and making love until they pull a sheet over my head, there is always a way to do it.
I will never live a loveless life again.
Jack nodded, he took it all in. He didn't say much. He ran hard on his treadmill and I walked quickly on mine – level 10, speed 3.0 for 40 minutes. I didn't see his levels. Afterward, we got out paper towels and disinfectant spray and wiped down our machines. Jack petted Red and shook my hand and thanked me. He said he knew what to say to his grandfather now, but I didn't ask him what that would be.
It was a sweet thing to have this conversation in a gym with an open and earnest young man, he just wanted to do right by his grandfather. In my small town, people talk to each other, and the young do talk to the old. Sometimes, they even listen.
I never expected to be talking about aging and love in a small gym in my small town. I might not see Jack again for a long time, and when we meet, I doubt he will mention this conversation or bring the subject up again. Maybe I will ask how his grandfather is doing. Maybe not, I will know by his manner.
Life is like that, it has it's own program, it is not really interested in ours.