Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland
Later-life improvisation. I’m not talking about Comedy Central type improv. I’m talking more generally about creative responses that people make when they have no script to follow – or don’t like the script they’ve been given.
My introduction to senior improv came a few years back when I traveled down to the Research Triangle area of North Carolina to attend a week-long conference on aging at Duke University.
Each day, we would break for a buffet-style lunch with people seated randomly at 10-top tables. About the third day, I found myself sitting by a lady who introduced herself as “Lucy.”
After I introduced myself, I asked, “What’s your story?” I didn’t have a chance to get a word in edge-wise for about 10 minutes.
The Readers’ Digest version: Lucy was in her late 70s. She hailed from Atlanta, where she had been an elementary school teacher and her husband of more than 40 years had been a small business owner.
Lucy had been a widow since she was 65, when her husband passed suddenly right after they retired and were in the midst of downsizing. She was shattered by the loss and upended by the new life she was facing that included house-hunting – alone.
Lucy had three grown children, and each invited her to come live with them. She had two daughters, one living in Baltimore and one in Seattle. Her son lived in Atlanta where he had been running the family business even before his father retired.
She hated the rain, so moving to Seattle was not in the cards. Her daughter in Baltimore had three children and a small home, so that wouldn’t work. Her friends were in Atlanta, and her son and his wife had a mother-in-law suite in the lower level of their home, so she moved in there.
“I could afford to move into assisted living or some kind of continuing care community, but that didn’t appeal to me either. So I accepted the invitation of my son and his caring wife to move in with them.”
The first Christmas, her son invited Lucy to join the family for a 7-day Caribbean cruise. She jumped at the opportunity, leaving from Ft. Lauderdale, the second busiest cruise port in the world.
Once aboard the Carnival cruise ship, she loved it. It was her first time on a cruise ship. Actually, it was her first time at sea. She loved the food, the people she met, the activities and on-board entertainment.
Most of all she was fascinated by the history and culture of the ports of call in a part of the world that included some of the early destinations of Columbus on one of his three journeys to the New World.
“This is for me,” she said. After several talks with the ship’s purser and reading through some of the on-board brochures, she decided to retire at sea – or at least to give it a go.
By the time I met Lucy, she had been at it for nearly 15 years. After all those years she had settled into an annual routine.
Each year she would do one round-the-world cruise. This would typically take 130 to 150 days – usually beginning in January and ending in May or June. She would visit 40-60 ports of call that would include 30-50 countries, depending on the cruise line and that year’s itinerary.
“I love it. I have customized senior nutrition, complete with room service if I request it. My toothpaste, soap and shampoo are regularly replenished. There’s a doctor and nurses when I need them. I get to meet new people every 7 to14 days as tourists come aboard for shorter trips. They change my light bulbs and even my mattress, if I ask – and provide clean sheets and towels every day, even without asking. Each day, I even get an abridged printout of the New York Times and a daily menu of lectures, movies, bridge and other social activities.”
Following her annual round-the-world jaunt, varying her course from year to year, she would spend the summer and autumn months visiting her adult children and grandchildren – staying from six to eight weeks with each – with side trips to visit long-time friends.
Between Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, which she spent with her family, she would enroll for four weeks in the residential program at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.
Though Lucy was in good shape herself, she liked the Duke program because it was residential, providing a place to live; included a comprehensive medical evaluation, which gave her an opportunity to adjust her meds and make other accommodations required by the passing of years; and allowed her to attend lectures on everything from wellness and nutrition to aging and sleep apnea.
Then, in January, she would begin the process again.
Lucy said, “Traveling to visit my kids taught me that cruising sure beats air travel. When you are cruising, your accommodations travel with you – even though it’s only a small, 10×10 windowless cabin. You save time packing and unpacking. You avoid endless security checks and flight delays or cancellations. It’s just a lot more civilized without the TSA.”
Lucy admitted drawbacks. Because she traveled tourist class, she had to live out of one large suitcase, one garment bag and a carry-on. She knew she would be at risk if she needed hands-on personal care or became seriously ill. Rough seas meant staying in her cabin to avoid the risk of falling.
“But, all things considered, I wouldn’t trade the life I’ve lived, the friends I’ve made and the opportunities I’ve had to experience the world. It has been amazing. You should try it someday when you get old.”
I responded, “I’ll take that on notice.”
Now that I’m longer in the tooth my thoughts have returned to Lucy’s stories and her advice. She assured me that she could live her cruising-plus-family-visits lifestyle on the same budget she would need for assisted living. I don’t know if that’s true, but it might be interesting to try – at least for a year.
Someday. When I’m really old.