Guest: Fromme, Allan
READ FULL TRANSCRIPT
THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Allan Fromme
Title: “Living After Sixty”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. The other day I was looking through the file that I call “General Good Things” and came across a perfectly wonderful fan letter I received some years back that commented on how nice it was on one particular Open Mind to see two elderly gentlemen engaging in such civilized talk. Well, that was a jolt, but true too in the observation, and not necessarily about the civilized talk, but about the two elderly gentlemen, only one of whom obviously was my guest. Well, there’s obviously been something of a shift in our national emphasis, it seems to me, maybe just for good, solid economic reasons. There simply are so many more of us in or pushing senior citizen status, and thus making for a larger and larger market for the elderly that our national obsession with youthfulness may just be drawing to an end. After all, who would ever deny that American psychology follows the contours of the marketplace? Indeed, our seems to be the age when age seems to be in. And so my guest today, the distinguished psychologist Dr. Allan Fromme, has written a book that’s bound to strike a very popular nerve, Sixty Plus: Planning It, Living It, Loving It, published by Farrah, Straus and Giroux.
Dr. Fromme, thanks for joining me today, and thanks for the optimism that you always show in what you write and what you say and what you do. And I was impressed with this piece where, at the end of the book, on the back cover of the book, in which your publisher notes that “What Fromme thinks is that the end of life is often as glorious for them as the end of the symphony in which all of our instruments are heard. Taking the same attitude, we can employ all our instruments or resources to fill life with satisfaction”. And I know that’s the theme of your book. What makes you so optimistic? What’s so good about 60-plus?
Fromme: Well, I think it’s an opportunity to live life as we’ve always wanted to live it but are unfortunately seriously handicapped by the way we have lived it. There’s far less freedom in our earlier years than we like to think we have. For one thing, it’s common knowledge that we’re all dominated by the work ethic and many people literally kill themselves at their jobs. It’s important to get ahead, to be successful, to strive for more, more and more. So that many people come to devote so much of their time to their work that they get to be failures at home with their wife and children, they get to be failures socially. They think they have many friends but they’re really little more than business acquaintances. They fail in terms of neglecting themselves, their physical needs. But they keep dreaming about the life that they want to live, and they keep dreaming about the things that they hope to do later on because of the accumulation perhaps of some savings that’ll all make it possible. Much of this is unfortunately unrealistic. It’s very difficult to fulfill those promises if you have neglected them totally all along the line. The person who lives the best old age, the best final stage of his life, the best retirement is one who has lived that way all along in bits and pieces. You know, the person who says, “You see all those books that I keep buying? Those are, I’m going to read them all when I quit”. They don’t get to read them.
Heffner: Yes but you know, it sounds as though you’re identifying 60-plus with no working. And I find that kind of surprising.
Fromme: No, no. Not really, not really. As a matter of fact, retirement age in many companies keeps being pushed up further and further, and there are many people who keep going on further and further. And I’m not particularly recommending quitting one’s job. I’m recommending modifying one’s job, not at the age of 60, but at the age of 30 when you’re only halfway there. I’m primarily as a psychologist interested in the quality of life, not the amount of success as defined at this moment in history socially. Not at all, not at all. For example, take our notion of beauty. Unfortunately age is not associated with beauty. The way we regard beauty is pretty much in terms of the dimensions of the physical package and the kind of dimensions you find in 18 and 20 year olds. The word “beauty” as it’s used with human beings rarely involves such things as poise, tact, compassion, wisdom, understanding, patience, et cetera et cetera.
Heffner: You mean all those things that come when you’re our age?
Fromme: No, no, you can have them earlier, but I think those are the highly precious characteristics that take many years to cultivate and develop like a fine bottle of wine. It would be a shame to buy a great vintage and drink it too soon.
Heffner: Yes but Allan, isn’t your advice then, aren’t the things that you’re suggesting for us older codgers really things that are in a sense too late when it’s 60-plus? You seem to be saying that the devices by which we can cope with getting older or being older are really devices that we have to have practiced in our earlier years.
Fromme: Well, that’s largely true. But I don’t believe that it’s totally too late for most people. I like to think it’ll never be earlier. You know, you look at the other side of the coin. It would be a lot easier – let’s put it that way – if we take the lessons I try to spell out in this book and get people who are 35 and 40 and 45 and 50 to take them to heart. It would make it much easier for them to reach 60 and 70 and improve the quality of their life as they’re going along up to it, so that then when they reach that point where they’re going to work less they have something to do with themselves.
Heffner: You know, I’m impressed by something you said a moment ago, because I was thumbing through – I’ll always remember this – it was what, four decades plus ago that I first read Plato’s Republic, and I remember the notes that I made in the edition that I had that I used in college.
Fromme: You’re lucky to have it still.
Heffner: Well it was at the point at which Cephalous was telling Socrates about this question of age. He’s of old age now and he’s saying, “How well I remember the age of Poet Sophocles when in answer to the question, ‘How does love suit with age, Sophocles? Are you still the man you were?’ ‘Peace,’ he replied, ‘Most gladly have a I escaped the thing of which you speak. I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.’ His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time that he uttered them, for certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom”.
Heffner; And you don’t seem to be emphasizing the relief that one can have in old age.
Fromme: What I’m about to say may have an ad hominem ring to it, but Socrates unfortunately was married to a shrew of a woman by the name of Xantippe, and is alleged to have said once that, “I recommend everybody, every man to get married. If you choose well you will live happily ever after. If on the hand you chose as I did, you become a philosopher.” (Laughter)
Heffner: You mean if one is philosophical about old age it’s a sign of that certain unhappiness in one’s earlier years?
Fromme: Yeah, I think love can ripen in old age and develop into something far richer than it ever, ever was, because of the greater depth of understanding, the greater amount of time that you can give it. I mean, consider for example what happens in our society. A young man and woman find each other attractive enough after a very brief courtship, and may. And it’s one of the very worst things that happens to their relationship. Because now she’s no longer his girlfriend, but rather his wife. And everything in our society, all the sex magazines and other things, entice him not with wives, not with, you know, grown, mature women, but rather with playgirls.
Heffner: That’s why I think you disagreed with what I said to begin with, if that is the area you disagree, when I said I thought that maybe age is increasingly in our time.
Fromme: I wish it were. I think there are more old people…
Heffner: Yeah, well that isn’t what I meant.
Fromme: …and the economy has had to adjust for it. But I don’t think it’s in the sense of still being an acceptable thing. Women pathetically try to look 20, 30, 40, 50 years younger than they are as they age. And it is a pathetic attempt, because you just can’t do it.
Heffner: You mean men don’t do that?
Fromme: Not to the same degree, but men do it too, men do it too. And men try to keep up with the young. They try to play golf and tennis the way they did 30 years ago. That’s ridiculous. That’s like a lightweight facing a heavyweight. You know, even in the savage sport of boxing we have weight classes so that, you know, you meet people with resources similar to your own. You can enjoy tennis as much at 70 as you did at 20, but there’s no reason to expect to play the same way.
Heffner: Yeah but let’s focus on this other question. You seem to be saying that it’s not true that increasingly age is in and that our institutions and that our attitudes will reflect that increasingly there are more people over 50 and over 60 than we’ve ever experienced in our history. This is not the age, the yaer or the age of the young any longer. You say that’s not quite so true.
Fromme: I don’t think so. At one time in our society when it was more stable and it involved far less mobility, age commanded a certain reverence. Wisdom was associated with age. People went to the aged for counsel. I don’t think that’s the case today.
Heffner: Now, you’re also saying you don’t think it will be increasingly again the case?
Fromme: Oh, I hope it will be. I sincerely hope it will be.
Heffner: But doesn’t our market literally find itself to be the basis for our psychology, and as the marketplace reflects a greater and greater interest in those of us who are approaching or there…
Fromme: Yeah, that’s a strong force.
Heffner: …that it’s going to create stereotypes and images…
Fromme: I think what will do it more than anything else, if I could, you know, look into my crystal ball and make a guess as to the future, is that, see, medical science has not only kept us alive very much longer. You know, a half a century ago the average age was about 16, 17, 18 years less than it is today. We’re being kept alive longer, but more importantly I think we’re being kept vigorous and vital and full of energy longer. Now, as older people more and more put their energy into evidence, I think they will be respected more and people will once again approach them with reverence and seek out their counsel. But if they’re going to act like old codgers, tottering old men with one foot in the grave, or old women with one foot in the grave, then nobody’s going to seek them out.
Heffner: Yeah, but Allan, there’s, in a sense there’s a contradiction there. You’re a psychologist, you’re a therapist, you give advice, and certainly your book, Sixty Plus, deals with these problems. What makes more sense, to continue to follow, to search after that elusive youthfulness and act as though one had the vigor and the energy and the capacity to be that much younger? Or to accept the fact, the notion that old is different? It may not be worse, it may not be better, but it’s different, and to comport oneself differently?
Fromme: Unfortunately one of the prime movers in human behavior does not come from ourselves. It comes from without. It comes from those sociological forces that impinge upon us. When you’re at work certain things are expected of you and you do it. If you’re under pressure to be eloquent, you’re eloquent. If you’re under pressure to work more than eight hours a day, you work more than eight hours a day. If you’re under pressure to meet certain challenges, you meet certain challenges. Left to your own devices you easily, easily, particularly when you have very little to do, begin to get too close to yourself. And every little tiny pain or ache or doubt or uncertainty acts as if, you know, freezes your brakes so that they get locked and you just can’t move at all. And when you succumb to that and once again reach out for the, what we call the secondary gains of illness, that is the sympathy and the consolation and the compassion of others, we turn ourselves into professional patients instead of live, vigorous human beings. There is no reason to do that other than the ones I’ve just described. I mean, there’s nothing genetic in it. It isn’t that age has reduced our capacities totally. There are many people who have achieved their greatest works at incredible ages. John Dewey – you mentioned Plato before – John Dewey, I think, wrote his greats book at the age of 86, Art is Experience. And one of his most complex and difficult books. He did a hell of a lot of thinking in the process of doing that book. And we can go on with long, long lists of that kind of thing. It’s a question of how you define yourself and what drum you’re listening to.
Heffner: But listen, one of the most common folk expressions certainly has been and probably is in all languages, “Act your age”.
Heffner: Now, do we say that only to the very young to ask them to act a little bit older than infancy?
Fromme: Well, I’ve never been an adherent of the wisdom of common folk expressions just because they contain as many, you know, wives’ tales and superstitions and inaccuracies as basic truths. I’m afraid this one is not very good advice.
Heffner: So don’t act your age?
Fromme: I think you should…see, I don’t think the number is significant. I think it’s how you see yourself, how you see yourself. I mentioned playing tennis before. I don’t go out and try…I love the game and I play often, but i don’t go out and try to play the way I did when I was 20.
Heffner: That isn’t what I hear about you.
Fromme: (Laughter) Well, that’s very flattering to hear, but it’s not true. It’s not true, I’m afraid. And I don’t even yearn to play like that. In fact, like the sundial, I count none but then, it says, “Count none but the sunny hours”, I count the good days or the good shots. You see, I’m a tennis player, not a tennis worker. John McEnroe’s a tennis worker. He earns a living that way. He has to be good all the time. I’m a tennis player. And play is an area in which you’re supposed to relax, enjoy yourself, use your imagination. So when I hit a ball especially good, I say, “Boy, McEnroe would do just as well”.
Heffner: Yes but you know, you said a few moments ago that there is something – you didn’t use the word therapeutic – but you certainly indicated that there was something very positive about work, about the demands…
Fromme: Oh absolutely.
Heffner: …about the discipline…
Heffner: …that having something to do.
Fromme: Right, right.
Heffner: Now what do you think is going to happen increasingly in the century ahead of us? Younger retirement, older retirement?
Fromme: Well, hopefully the society in which we live is going to be affluent enough to afford younger retirement. And I think actually people are going to be able to continue to work longer and longer. This is happening already.
Heffner: Yes but that’s a very unfortunate situation in a sense…
Fromme: No, it gives people the chance to choose. I mean, society is as goo as the number of choices it gives an individual ideally.
Heffner: But if, as you suggest, the discipline of work is positive us as we get older, there’s something that keeps us going about the discipline of work. And indeed technology will assure us that instead of 70, retirement will be 65 and 60 and 55 and 50. Then how do we deal with that?
Frommer: I’ll tell you how we deal with that. I’ve thought this through. If you want to take a moment or two to listen to the plan. You know, just as college professors get sabbaticals every seven years, ideally I would wish that in every job in America a man had to take every sixth year off from work at full pay. And it would cost the employers no more because they would divide six years pay into, that is the five years pay into six years. That would mean that a fifth of the workplace was always at large, in a state of retirement for a year. Doing that would give leisure the good name that it really should have. Right now it doesn’t have a good name. if for example you are 40 years old and wandering around with nothing to do everybody would think that you’re a derelict or a bum or an irresponsible person. But if on the other hand a fifth of the population was so involved, people would get used to the idea of leisure, they would look at it differently.
Heffner: And your thought is that would train them for…
Fromme: For their ultimate retirement.
Heffner: Okay. But you know, you say “ideally”, you are not dealing with an ideal situation.
Fromme: No, unfortunately.
Heffner: We’re dealing with a, in fact, aging population that hasn’t been geared to think in those terms. What then? Do we provide the advisories for them? Do we provide therapy for them? Do we provide the means by which they can learn many of the things that you talk about in Sixty Plus?
Fromme: This is one of the reasons I wrote the book. You know, I moved down to the west coast of Florida seven years ago, and I began to see lots of men who were very high achievers in business, who held top executive positions with some of the biggest companies in America, who used to work, without their realizing it, eight days a week. They’d discovered another one or two or three days to work. They came down there with nothing to do. Well, they thought, oh, they’d fish and play golf, which they did for several months. And then, you know, began to drink overly much or sit around immobile and get depressed. And I really learned from them how much they neglected their earlier lives.. but it wasn’t too late, we could still get them involved. The very first chapter of this book entitled “A Walk On the Beach” tells a true story of how I, before I had an office down there I was seeing this person with this home. And when I get there one morning he said, “You know, I’d like to speak to you in confidence. My wife was going to leave early on a shopping trip but she overslept and I’m a little uncomfortable with her within earshot of us.” And he said, “How would you like to take a walk on the beach?” He had a place right on the beach. We kicked our shoes off, took our shirts off, and strolled along the beach for an hour. It was wonderful. No directions, no telephones. There was nobody else on the beach, it was quite early in the day. But during that period of time I proposed all sorts of things to him that he might get interested in that might have been his vocational interests, his hobbies earlier in life for which he never had time. If I were to say something like photography he said, “Yes, I bought a very fine camera once to take to Europe, but when I go there I didn’t quite know how to use it so I didn’t use it at all”. This happened with everything. And he’d tried any number of things earlier but never really invested himself. Now was the time to invest himself in these things. He did have curiosity. But of course he had to be sort of sneaky about it and relate it to his business in some way. You know, if we got to speak about computers and what it could have done for him in his business. Then the next thing you know he began to read a few magazines and got himself a small computer. And although he started first on a business thing he then went off using it in other ways.
Heffner: Aren’t you talking essentially…in the first place, it fascinates me that you’re always talking about men, when the fact of the matter is that women live longer than we do.
Fromme: Of course.
Heffner: So we need to think through their problems even more than our problems.
Fromme: Well, their problems are very much the same. But because they’re closer to the domestic scene, although they suffer the same degree of mourning and grief at the death of a spouse, they’re closer to the business of keeping themselves alive. They know how to prepare a meal and keep a house clean. And a man, you know, neglected that aspect of his life, which I also think has been a mistake . he should have domesticated himself far more earlier in his years. So in a sense it’s easier for them, but not easy. Easier.
Heffner: Look, the other thing I was going to say about the group you’re talking about, men rather than women, although you say it’s just as true of women, you seem to be talking about a certain economic group: people who can afford to invest in cameras and computers and the like. Are we really only going to address ourselves to middle-class, upper middle-class…
Fromme: Well no. I think the problems are essentially the same regardless of socioeconomic status. But if you have to continue to work until your dying day, the working masks some of the problem, because you’re still compelled, you’re still under pressure to spend the major part of your day performing for your business.
Heffner: And isn’t it better to work, to continue to work?
Fromme: No, because you can agonize over it, too. You know, you can get bored even with the most fascinating job after doing it for 40 years. Isn’t that so?
Heffner: Yes but I’m just thinking, I’m trying to be as realistic as I know you always are. You have this realistic approach to life. You have this optimistic approach to life. And I was reading an article in Psychology Today, the January 1984 issue by Marilyn Nisenson about therapy after 60. And she writes, “The grain of America” – that’s a nice phrase – is compelling therapists and patients to accept each other”. And then at the very end, and I couldn’t help but think of Sixty Plus, your new book, she writes, “As more therapists turn their attention to the elderly, we can hope that they will be able to transmit to their patients a sense of what successful aging is all about: a renewed zest for life and an acceptance of its end”.
Fromme: And it’s a lot of easier for therapists to do this with the aged.
Heffner: But of course she says that therapists have historically stayed away from the aged.
Fromme: Oh, because you know, there was some silly notion many, many years ago that you can only help somebody psychologically up to a certain age. And that’s sheer nonsense. As I said earlier, the number isn’t significant. It’s how much vitality, how much aliveness is in the individual. If the person is alive enough to see a therapist, he’s interested in improving the quality of his life. And if he’s interested in improving the quality of his life, it’s easier to give something to them at that age than it is while he’s still working full speed to get ahead. Because what is it you try ideally to give anybody in therapy? Techniques to overcome the blocks, the difficulties they have, the built-in, you know, areas of anguish so that they can improve the quality of life. All right. Now, age aged have stepped aside, assuming they’ve retired, from one large area that gives them so much more time to devote to themselves. You know, it’s a gift, old age is. Many years ago very few people lived to an old age, to a ripe old age. Today many more do. And it’s an invitation to act, to live like an 18th century English lord. But we haven’t been brought up to live that way. We’ve been brought up to work. And many of us are workaholics. We feel a sense of self-respect, a sense of worthwhileness only if we’re working, and in many people overworking, so that they have to suffer as well.
Heffner: Allan, do you find that increasingly therapists are ready and willing to deal with the people who have to, of necessity, experience this nonwork situation, aging problem?
Fromme: Well, I would think it’s a lot easier if you’ve aged so much yourself as the therapist. I remember the oldest patient I ever had many, many years ago was a woman who – here, finally a woman – who was an artist, who gave me her age as, I don’t know, 69. She was about 78. And at first blush I thought, “seventy-eight, goodness what can I possibly do for her?” she had more energy than you and I put together. And we’re not 78, are we?
Heffner: I don’t know how much that’s saying, though, about our energy.
Fromme: (Laughter) If the person has a certain energy level, a certain amount of awareness, a certain enthusiasm for life, you can help a great deal. My job, I feel, in this book and as a therapist with the elderly when I see them, not that I see them exclusively, is to sharpen their appetite for life. So the most chillingly frightening statement I ever heard about age – and this wasn’t from a 60-plus or a 50-plus, mind you, it was from a 40-plus. In other words, in the 40s you can be this already antiqued — he
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.