Embracing senior moments with humor, insight
Aging — and dying — may be an inevitability, but it need not be a tragedy. Just ask octogenarian Bernard Otis, the author of “How to Prepare for Old Age (Without Taking the Fun Out of Life),” who has learned through personal experience, extensive observation and interviews that aging with dignity and joy is a choice.
In real life, an infectious grin stretches across his face, and joy radiates down to his strong and lively handshake. Although he originally started his blog, seniormomentswithbernardotis.com, and his book as a way to deal with the loss of his wife, Anna, reactions he gets from his readers of all ages have given him renewed purpose and great personal satisfaction.
“I drew the conclusion that when people weren’t prepared for death, they weren’t necessarily prepared for life, either,” he said. “They were not living their lives in a way that counted, and not aware about what was happening around them. Many people have a misconception that they will retire at 65 and that will be the end. However, the truth is that life goes on, no matter what stage of it you’re in. You need to embrace it.”
Otis, 86, currently lives in a seniors residence in West Hills, but he is still a man about town. He maintains his blog and recently found romance with a woman visiting one of his fellow residents.
His book, put out by Incorgnito Publishing Press in May, touches on a lifetime of lessons that he has acquired. It is made up of chapters, which he playfully calls “Senior Moments,” filled with stories and observations that cover “the journey of life, the boulders in the highway and how to get around them,” according to Otis.
It is dedicated to the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, who, Otis said, mentored him during the writing process and editing of the book and is quoted in one of the chapters.
The concept grew out of Otis’ preparation for and coping with the loss of his wife, who died of cancer in 2012; Schulweis provided moral support for him in those days as well. The whole experience was cause for reflection for Otis.
“If you knew this was going to be the last day of your life, how would you live it?” he asked aloud, rhetorically. “Most people don’t think about that, but how would you live it? I would get up in the morning and find somebody who needed my help. After that, I would do something I really enjoyed, and at night, I would go home to the arms of the person I love. Even if I don’t know what day will be the last day of my life, that’s how every day should be lived.”
Otis says in the book it is easier for a person of any age to comprehend the most important truths about life when they also understand how they can be distracted by everyday “small stuff,” as well as petty arguments and conflicts that can potentially tear apart families. He also stresses the importance of starting preparation for aging as early as possible in one’s life.
“This is a major problem among seniors — the falls and the broken hips that lead to their dying, and families are oblivious or often afraid to address this,” Otis said. “Families should prepare themselves for these situations, have family discussions to prepare themselves for the eventualities of family members getting older. … Parents should explain to their children about what happens to people at different stages of life and death, and they need to know how to handle it.
While the book project, which involved interacting with people at his residence and other senior centers over 2½ years, helped him come to terms with his wife’s passing, Otis grew to embrace the notion that he could provide a public service and create a philosophy that could serve as a manual for people of all ages and backgrounds on how to accept life as it comes — from birth to death, while fortifying one’s relationships with family and friends along the way. In other words, being adaptable, grateful and open-minded.
One idea Otis came to advocate: Never hide from death. Parents should not shield children from that fact of life, but instead teach them how to face it and explain what happens to people at different stages of their life and death. He recalls how he was bothered by the fact that his parents wouldn’t allow him to see his grandmother while she was in declining health, in the days and weeks before her passing.
“I believe the best way to [deal with aging] is to connect life and death in a way that makes sense, as a continuum between past present and future,” he said. “If people understand it, they won’t fear it.”
Otis likes to precede his personal observations and anecdotes with jokes as a way of keeping the attention of readers and lightening the mood between serious topics. One of his favorites, about dating after 60, involves three women sitting by the pool at an assisted living center. An elderly man walks by them and jumps into the pool. The first woman says, “You must be new here. I have never seen you before.” He replies, “Yes, I just got here yesterday.” The second woman asks, “Where are you from?” and he says, “I just got out of prison after 25 years.” The third woman says, “You’re single!”
Born in Detroit, Otis grew up in a traditional Jewish home and enjoyed a long career as a food service and restaurant facilities architect/designer. He continues to stay in touch with relatives throughout the country, including his first wife, who lives in an assisted living center in Dallas near their adult children. And therein lies another important life lesson, he said.
“Everybody who comes into this world has two significant assets: Awareness about what is happening around you and the ability to make friends, maintain family connections and build relationships,” Otis said. “Even with those gifts, some people forget how to use them. That loss, in turn, makes the aging process and facing mortality all the more difficult. With my book and blog, I want to remind people of how to make those skills work for them again, at any point in life.”
CORRECTION [Aug. 24, 2015]: This article originally mispelled the name of Incorgnito Publishing Press.