Two Sundays ago, I was watching the Academy Awards with my parents and during its last moments I had something of a surreal epiphany. I never thought I'd say 'Warren Beatty' and 'my father' in the same breath, but Beatty's demeanor while presenting the Oscar for best picture reminded me of my father in four ways.
First, they're of a similar age; Beatty will turn 80 later this month and my father is 82. Second, they've both been married to just one woman their entire lives.
Third, they now respond in a similar way: slowly. This is not surprising considering that cognitive processing and reaction times both slow with age. Geoffrey Kerchner, professor of neurology at Stanford says that the elderly take "longer to solve problems or make decisions."
When I ask my dad if he'd like to go for a walk, he ponders. Sometimes he'll even say "Wait a minute" and sit back in contemplation. I get impatient waiting for the response. What's the holdup? It's a simple question. Just answer, yes or no. He feels I'm rushing him.
But having spent more time with him lately, I see a wisdom behind the slowness. I've learnt that he's giving the question his full attention and respect, and he won't answer lightly. For him, the answer depends on a variety of things. Did he sleep well last night? Will the chemo he took this morning tire him out? How's the weather? How will he feel after breakfast? Is anything happening tomorrow that he may need to conserve his energy for? He's in fact quietly considering all the factors before deciding.
For a lot of older people (except Trump), what they say matters. They weigh their words. They want to get it right. They can't afford to waste time doing things that are wrong or be stuck with the consequences of a bad choice. However, they need time to get it right. And given the time, my dad is the one who - when I'm set to leap - says "look" and offers valid alternatives to consider. He also suggests that on our way home from the walk, we stop off at the library to return my overdue DVDs of old Hollywood classic movies as well as the store to buy the latest edition of the income tax software so he can do his returns for the year.
Given the natural slowing down of the elderly, we sometimes forget their capabilities and their wisdom. In Beethoven's 'late period', he produced the least number of works but some of his most difficult compositions like the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Diabelli Variations. Between the age of 60 and 80, Claude Monet painted his famous works, the water lilies. Jessica Tandy and Christopher Plummer won their first and only Oscars when she was 80 and he was 82.
I think on Sunday night, when Beatty was dithering with the all-important envelope, he was not having a 'senior moment'. He was pondering. When he opened the envelope, pulled out the card and read it to himself, he pondered. He looked inside envelope again to see if there was anything else. He paused. He looked at his co-presenter Dunaway. He looked backstage. He looked at the envelope yet again. He paused.
All the while, the audience and Dunaway, were waiting impatiently and wondering, "what's the holdup?" It's a simple question. Who won best picture?
Beatty however was considering all the factors. Why did the card say "Emma Stone" as well as the movie name "La Land"? Had he been given the wrong envelope? Was it the wrong card? Who should he ask? Should he ask? Was the best picture indeed La Land? Was he too old for all this circus? Maybe Faye would know what to do?
Mind you, at this point, Beatty did not say to Dunaway anything like "Hold on Faye - something seems wrong here" or even "I think we need to verify this." Rather - much like my dad quietly handing my mom his bloodtest request form and waiting for her to notice that his name has been spelt wrong or the hemoglobin box hasn't been checked off - Beatty silently handed Dunaway the card and then waited for her reaction. This could be more accurately called 'a male senior moment'.
Diane Howieson, professor of neurology at the Oregon Health & Science University, says "Older adults tend to be slower in conceptualizing problems and less ready to change strategies when circumstances shift." This may have accounted for Dunaway's behaviour. She is 76 - the same age as my mom. Not realizing there was a problem, much less a need to change strategy, Dunaway simply went ahead and read the name of the movie out loud. And the rest is 2017 Oscar Night legend.
My dad stood up carefully and steadied himself with one hand on the fireplace mantel. "Idiots," he said. "They should have slowed down; then they'd have gotten it right."
And in case you're wondering why this article was not up within hours of the ceremony ending rather than days, I too - getting long in the tooth - was pondering vital questions. Is this a fair assessment of my dad? Should I write this blog? Why? How's the weather? And is there anything happening tomorrow that I need to conserve my brain power for?
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