Not one of us knows what it’s like to be old until we get there. So says 76-year-old Ronni Bennett, a former radio producer who also spent over 25 years as a writer and a producer in network television in New York and was managing editor of the first CBS news website. These days Ronni is busy with her acclaimed blog “Time Goes By,” where she explores aging with humor, compassion and uncommon candor.
In today’s show, Ronni talks about the evolution of her blog and she tells us what’s good about getting older. She weighs in on the eTrade Super Bowl ad featuring older adults and how media fuels America’s rampant ageism, she tells us why she decided to write about her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and why she was hit hard by the recent Op-Ed piece, “Am I Going Blind?” by New York Times writer Frank Bruni. Tune in for some real talk on aging from a straight shooter who lives with uncertainty, with grace and humor.
Ronni’s website: Time Goes By
“Am I Going Blind?” by Frank Bruni (New York Times, 2/23/18)
Ronni’s blog piece in response to the Bruni piece: An Extraordinary Personal Health Essay
UPDATE: On Friday, October 30, 2020 Veronica “Ronni” Bennett passed away. Two days before she died, Ronni recorded a conversation with her former husband, Alex Bennett, posting the conversation on her blog site. You can listen to it here: The Alex and Ronni Show – 30 October 2020.
JANA PANARITES (HOST): What is it really like to get old? That’s a question Ronni Bennett has found– in her words– fascinating and even mysterious for at least 20 years, and it led her to create a blog titled, “Time Goes By: What It’s Like to Really Get Old”. The Washington Post calls “Time Goes By” “the quintessential senior blog”. AARP refers to Ronni as “the dean of older bloggers” and her content has been called intelligent, passionate and humanistic. Ronni Bennett is a longtime journalist, a former radio producer, and she worked for over 25 years as a writer and producer in network television in New York City. She joins us today from Lake Oswego, Oregon. Ronni Bennett, welcome to The Agewyz Podcast. It is truly an honor to have you on the show.
RONNI BENNETT: Oh, thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
JANA: So let’s set this up for listeners. Tell us a little bit about first, how you ended up– we’ll start from the end and go backwards a little bit– how you ended up in Oregon, because as I understand it you’ve lived there since 2010. Where are you from originally? And tell us about your life in New York, pre-Oregon.
RONNI: Well, I was born here in Oregon, in Portland. I lived here until I was 15, when I moved to California with my mother. I moved back here in 2010. Well, I had to leave New York in 2006 I think it was… when, you know– speaking of ageism and getting old, I couldn’t get a job and I couldn’t afford to stay in New York without one.
So I spent… I went to Maine for a while and that didn’t suit me so much and I really wanted to be in New York, and I ended up here just because I wanted to be near a coast and I don’t like Boston and I don’t like Seattle. So I ended up back here because it’s close enough to the coast and I would much rather be in New York. I was there for 40 years and that’s my real home, my spiritual home and it should be my physical home, but I just can’t afford it anymore. Which is true of many people.
JANA: So you worked in network television. I want listeners to really understand the incredible work you’ve done. You worked on the Dick Cavett show, you worked on local New York City morning shows, you worked on Barbara Walters Specials and 20/20 to name just a few. Then in 1996 you became the Managing Editor of the first CBS news website: CBS news.com, which you referred to on your website as “a gas,” which I love. Then you worked at a bunch of other websites, and you write about how in 2004 you and many of your colleagues were laid off. And it was then that you faced what you referred to as “a wall of discrimination” and your forced retirement, which really pissed you off, and I don’t blame you. Tell us about that wall of discrimination and the forced retirement if you can, and the consequences of that, which you alluded to a little bit earlier.
RONNI: I was working at the time at the website for a business research company and they laid off a whole bunch of us– 10 or 12 of us at one point– and all of them of course were younger. If you work on a website and you’re over 50 everybody is younger than you are. And yet my younger colleagues– you know, we stayed in touch after we were laid off– my younger colleagues were getting work in 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks, which is, you know, a normal length of time. I, in a year, got only two interviews.
And I’ll describe one of them… that on the phone of the afternoon before I met with them, we talked about my background and what I had done and blah blah blah, and they were all excited. Could I come in to meet some of– a couple of other people, the next morning at 10 o’clock. We were speaking at about four in the afternoon. So of course I said yes.
So I’m sitting in the waiting room and time is going by, I think we were, maybe it was 10 o’clock we were going to meet, and it’s getting past 10 and it’s getting to 10:15, 10:20… then a door into the offices opened a little bit and two faces looked out and looked at– there were only two or three of us sitting in the waiting room. And the door closed, and then one of them came out and took me aside and apologized and said he was very sorry. Someone had forgotten to call me, but the job had been filled since we had spoken on the phone in the afternoon before. Well, that’s just not true at four o’clock in the afternoon.
And everybody there, you know, was like 25, 26, 28, 30 years old and that was true at pretty much most of the website offices that ever I was anywhere near. Which is fine. I mean it worked wonderfully at CBS news.com and the other places that I had worked, that they knew the technology, they knew how to do graphic design online and that sort of thing. I knew the news. I knew how to write. I knew how to make effective stories and we were all learning how to build the web together. Remember, this was the mid-‘90s when we first started. It was very, very exciting. Nobody knew how to do websites, so we were inventing it.
The only other news site at that time, that was being built and was online, was CNN. There were no others. So it was a great time and I was sorry to leave. I was 63 or-4 at the time. I had never thought about retiring. It didn’t cross my mind. And I was working in this wonderful new industry, having a terrific time, contributing a lot. And it broke my heart. It really broke my heart. Not to mention how angry it made me.
JANA: You were doing a lot of research into the issue of aging even before you started the blog and while you were still at CBS, is that right?
RONNI: Yeah. The story is– and it really happened this way– CBS wasn’t sure if, in 1995 or-6, they were truly committed to the Internet. So they put us all in a big old projection room where they used to run film. And there’s always a dais in the back of the chairs where the executives sit, so they put me as Managing Editor and the head of Graphics and the head of Technology and so on, up there, and then the whole rest of the room were just people working. So I looked up one day, I needed to talk to one of the writers, and I looked up trying to find her, and I was in my mid-fifties at the time. And I looked around and my first thought was, my God, I am the oldest person in this room. Not by a few years. By decades. Every one of these people could be my kid.
And I was shocked. I mean, I had gone from– you know, you went through it– you know, working in radio and television and now the brand new internet. And I’d had a wonderful career, and I hadn’t thought that I was getting old. It didn’t cross my mind. So that night I looked in the mirror and I said, yeah, you know, nobody’s going to take you for 25 anymore. And I couldn’t get that out of my head, that I didn’t know what getting old was about. I didn’t know a lot of old people.
I don’t have a large family with old people in it, and I had no idea what was ahead of me. So I started spending for the next few years, all my spare time that I wasn’t working, researching aging. Whether it was academic studies, stories in magazines, books, newspapers — every single thing was negative. They didn’t state it this way, but what every one of them meant was: shoot yourself before you get to be 60. And I couldn’t believe that! 60 was young. Even I thought 60 was young. And young people think 40 is old.
So I just amassed this huge amount of material, and I had left CBS, like, for several years. And there was this new thing that was coming along, I was keeping my eye on in the technology press, called web blogs. Blogs. And mostly– the first one that was invented was for people in Silicon Valley to exchange information with one another. But then it opened up to the public, and I thought that this would be– I had boxes by the way, boxes and boxes full of information and notes and books and reports.
It was just a mess. And I thought I could use this–I don’t need to publish necessarily– but I could use this to organize what I’ve learned about aging and make sense of it. So I did. I started doing that. And what happened is I forgot to turn the off– there was an “off” place where you didn’t have to publish… I didn’t even think about it. It was being published. And about two weeks later I found out 30 people were reading this thing! And it was only for me!
JANA: This was the early days of blogging.
RONNI: Yes. In about 2003 or something like that. So it kind of grew out of that, quite organically.
JANA: It sounds like it. So what were your expectations of the blog, in terms of its success? And have you been surprised by that?
RONNI: You know, in the beginning I didn’t have that. I was gratified that a few other people in the world were interested in aging, because most people run when you mentioned getting old. They don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to think about it. So I was gratified that there were a few people out there who actually were interested in this stuff. And I didn’t have any expectations. There weren’t any ranking services yet. It wasn’t very widespread.
I wasn’t thinking of going out and making a success. I mean, a lot of people in recent years have started blogs and gone on to much bigger things. That wasn’t my point. I was still– had these boxes and stuff I was trying to organize. And it grew from that. The readership was growing enough and then some people interviewed me, and so more people were joining the readership part of reading the blog.
And I then had to invent it, because nobody is saying good things about aging. And nobody is saying that ageism is a bad thing. Those are the two forces behind what I was thinking. So then I just started– I’d been a TV producer most of my life, so how do I turn this new medium into something interesting that just isn’t copy of a newspaper? So I spent a lot of time developing that, too. It shouldn’t just be a newspaper slapped up on a screen. It should be more than that or different from that, if not more.
JANA: Well, I love the physical layout of it. I mean, especially of course the header, where you literally age in front of the viewer. You have a series of pictures across the screen.
RONNI: That’s one of the best ideas I ever had in my whole life.
JANA: It’s fabulous. It’s really fabulous. And the font is large, so it’s reader-friendly. It’s just an acknowledgement of the basic reality that after age 40, most of us need reading glasses. And it’s written mostly by people who are experiencing the stage of their lives firsthand, right?
RONNI: It’s written by me. I’m the only writer.
JANA: Oh, okay. I thought there was also a– [overlapping]
RONNI: –except on Sundays is the music column, which is written by a friend of our– of my age anyway– in Australia.
JANA: Which is how old?
RONNI: I’m 76. He’s a few years younger than me, but not much. And there was a person who wrote a Gay and Gray column and she went off to start her own blog. And Bill Thomas, before he became as well-known as he is, did a column for me for about a year. But that’s almost more work than my doing it myself.
JANA: What do you think about how misconceptions about aging affects self-image? And what do you think are some of the most prevalent misconceptions about older adults?
RONNI: Well, first of all that we’re all sick. That we all forget everything we ever learned in our whole life. That we are slow, that we are incompetent, that we’re a drain on resources and we have no good use at all in the society. Society– we are set up in such a way that old people are just ignored. Shoved to the side. We are useless.
One of the things that bothers me the most is that the media holds up the few old people, you know, the 82-year- old who climbed Mount Everest– which, by the way you know they’ve made climbing Mount Everest easy for anybody these days. Or the guy who goes– the 75-year-old who goes skydiving, with a person holding him of course. They are held up as the epitome of old people, that we are all supposed to be like that.
I remember there was one, I kept seeing stories– there was a whole week that every place online did the story about some woman who went bungee jumping. This was about 10 years ago. You know, you get old, you’re going to not be able to do some things that you used to do. Just like, what nobody pays attention to, is that when you’re very, very young, they’re a whole lot of things you can’t do. That doesn’t make young kids bad, but it makes old people bad.
And it’s just always been that way. And some people refer to ageism as the last prejudice. I would put it second to last. I think fat is the last prejudice, but it’s, you know, they vie with each other for being the last one that everybody ignores.
JANA: Yeah. What you were saying before about putting older people up on a pedestal who are skydivers and such… there’s that end and then there’s the other end, where we think about older folks as stooped over, frail people using walkers. So it’s one extreme or the other. It’s like there’s nothing in between.
RONNI: I think that there’s a place to be really funny about old people. My readers will leave lots of comments, we laugh a lot about things that go wrong when you’re old. There’s nothing else to do but laugh about it and get on with the next thing. And there’s some very funny things that could be done. I think that anybody’s who’s doing a commercial about or aimed at old people should always have somebody older than 65 as a consultant because those 40 and unders, they don’t know. None of us do. Not one of us knows what it’s like to be old until we get there. It’s not even that they’re badly intentioned commercials, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.
JANA: Uh Huh. [laughs]
RONNI: You know, our current president has been a boon for all comedians. There’s just so much material to work with. And I can’t stay awake that late at night, but I record three or four of the late-night comedy shows: Seth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, two or three others– I change from time to time– and then I watch them the next day, because if you wait any longer they’re old.
JANA: Because there’s so much new material, too, all the time.
RONNI: And what’s so funny is that it is a bastion– late-night comedy is a bastion of ageism. And every single night, with rare exceptions, every one of those guys in their opening monologue, will do a throwaway joke about how awful being old is. Sometimes it’s self-denigrating. They might say, well, you know when you’re as old as I am… or a classic, not “lie” about old people [but] misunderstanding about old people that everybody accepts, that– what you mentioned, that everybody uses the cane and walk stooped over and that sort of thing.
Every single night, every single one of those comedians. And it really irritates me because the media, whether it’s commercials or jokes, everything else, they set the tone for the entire country. Media is our life these days, in all the forms that it comes at us. And it’s a barrage constantly of how awful it is to be old. And the late night comedians are some of the worst offenders.
JANA: That’s such a good point.
RONNI: And I like them! They’re so funny.
JANA: I mean, it’s such a good point. Some of those jokes even bother me. I feel like, you know, come on guys, you can do better than that. That’s just such a failure of the imagination. That’s such an easy, cheap laugh. You can do better than that. You’re smarter than that.
RONNI: Absolutely. And they prove it. I mean, they and their writers prove every night how really clever and funny and smart they can be. Except on that subject.
JANA: It’s not like I’m taking umbrage because I’m reaching that demographic. Well, I’m past it now. I mean, you know, once you hit 50… I’m fine with my age. I don’t have a problem with it. But it’s like, folks you should be concerned about that at any age because guess what? It’s going to happen to you too. And it doesn’t need to be framed that way.
RONNI: I think one of the things that the media and people in general don’t get, cause they think of us all as sickly and unable to do things, is that more than 80% of old people make it to the grave living on their own. They are not in care facilities. And I don’t think the world knows that. And maybe people have a house cleaner who comes in, or maybe they use Meals on Wheels or one of those new food-cooking delivery services.
Maybe they have a relative or a friend who comes in a couple of times a week to help out with this or that. But they’re mainly living on their own. And that’s most of us. I mean that’s a huge percentage. And most of us do make it to the grave on our own. And I don’t think that sort of thing is understood at all. So I just keep banging away at that kind of stuff on my blog. I think I’m mostly preaching to the choir.
JANA: Well, it’s a choir that appreciates the melody. You’re living alone now, and do you have kids?
RONNI: No, I have no children. And I have no family left.
JANA: Hmm… I would like to talk about your diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. You were diagnosed in June of 2017?
RONNI: Yes. June 1st, and I had the surgery on the 20th.
JANA: And I saw the video that you have on your website with your ex-husband, Alex. It was really very moving. You talked about how only 10% of patients can even have the operation. And your most recent, your most recent CAT scan was cancer-free. Yet the uncertainty lingers.
RONNI: It’s because cancer can always recur. And it commonly reoccurs with pancreatic cancer in the liver or the lungs. And so, I mean this is just recent, it’s only two weeks ago, maybe three– that they told me that the CAT scan was cancer-free as far as they can see, you know, and that’s always– they never say outright, “you’re cured.” [laughs]
JANA: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
RONNI: And in terms of pancreatic cancer, they wouldn’t use that word until you’ve been cancer-free for five years. Well, I’m 76. I could just as easily die of something else between now and five years from now. So you know, I’m not too concerned about that. But yeah, I’ve been lucky through this whole thing, that I was eligible for the surgery. As you said, only 10% of people are, and that’s because pancreatic cancer is so hard to diagnose.
So that by the time it is diagnosed for many people, for most people, it’s beyond the point where they can do the surgery and removed. You can’t take out a whole pancreas because otherwise you can’t live. So you know there’s a tumor on my pancreas, and they could take out that part of it. And that came back very well. They called it “clean at the edges,” which meant that they didn’t think that the cancer had gone beyond the pancreas, as much as they can be certain. And by the way, it’s a terrible surgery.
They cut you open all the way down the front, and they take things out. They take out the gallbladder, they take out the duodenum, they take out a piece of your stomach, they take out that piece of the pancreas. I mean, you end up with a LOT less in there than before, and then they have to reconnect all the hoses in different ways.
And it’s a really long and arduous recovery. And it’s not about cancer at that point. It’s kind of mechanical, of your body getting well again. And so when he finished describing it to me, when he told me about it first, it just sounded so awful. I said, what if I just skip that part? Can we just not do that part? This was in June. He said, you’ll be dead by the end of the year.
JANA: Oh, wow. How frightening.
RONNI: Well that focuses your attention real well. So I did it and yes, it was exactly what he said. It was an awful, awful recovery that took forever. It’s only the last month or two that I feel like I’m completely well from, just surgery– forget cancer. So I feel terribly lucky. I couldn’t finish the chemotherapy because it was playing havoc with my red blood cell count and I became anemic, too. So we stopped that and didn’t finish it. But apparently that and the surgery did well and so I’m very happy.
JANA: So what’s your regimen in terms of screenings? How often do you have to get them?
RONNI: Well, right now I do blood tests every week because we have to keep track of several blood readings in terms of the anemia and the red blood cell count. And then I go twice a year for CT scans. And I go uh, more often than that, about four or five times a year for just a regular checkup with the doctor.
JANA: And Ronni, what sort of support do you have? How have you gotten through this?
RONNI: I have friends. I have friends who are there. I have neighbors who have become friends. They were amazing, and then I was in the hospital for 11 days following the surgery, and there wasn’t much I could do when I came home. And they were– one in particular, next door neighbors, came every day to feed the cat and clean the litter box and go shopping for me. God, I learned a lot about frozen meals. Because I couldn’t do much cooking beyond shoving something in the microwave. You know, somebody needs to take over that industry and do better, because it’s really awful food. But they were just amazing.
Friends came by, friends called all the time. As I got better and better they would take me shopping and get me home, and they understood when I wore out quickly and they were just there through every step of the way. And I made the decision to write about it on the blog because– oh, a lot of reasons. One, there were going to be a lot of empty spots if I didn’t explain why I wasn’t there some days, when I was too tired to write. And the support from the readership was also amazing. I mean partway through I started to think, what do people going through this do, when you don’t have family like me, that don’t have all these wonderful readers who leave fabulous comments?
A lot of them told me about their bouts with cancer and their recoveries, or friends or relatives who didn’t recover and how they got through it. And apparently it was important to them to feel that they weren’t alone, whether it was their own disease or that of a friend or relative, to read my experience. But it hadn’t occurred to me up front that it would be useful to readers and it apparently was.
JANA: I want to talk just briefly about the Frank Bruni Op-Ed piece, because you had a really strong reaction to it. For people who don’t know, Frank Bruni of the New York Times wrote a piece called, “Am I Going Blind?” He experienced what he writes in the article as a stroke of the eye. I won’t go into the details of the piece, but Bruni wrote, “I’ve learned that the best response to weakness is strength. Prove to yourself what you can still accomplish.” So how have you adapted? And what has this taught you about what you can still accomplish?
RONNI: You know, there was something else in that piece. I want to combine with what you have just said, and he refers to a guy also in this named Joe Lovett, a filmmaker who by the way, 30 years ago or more I worked with briefly at ABC News. We’re not friends, I haven’t seen him since. But he told Frank, you cannot spend your life preparing for future losses. And then Frank adds, it disrespects the blessings of the here and now.
Besides everyone lives in a state of uncertainty. And that hit me really, really hard. One of the things I discovered after they told me that I’m cancer-free: I wasn’t celebrating. I mean, I would have expected to be jumping up and down and dancing and singing and all of that. And I wasn’t. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t– it wasn’t manifesting itself in the joy that I would’ve thought I should have.
And I realized that I had come to think of myself as a sick person in the eight months that I’d been going through this. And as of that day that the surgeon told me that I was cancer-free, I had to think about this hard. Why wasn’t I calling everybody I know and said, come on over, let’s all drink wine and get drunk and dance and stuff? I didn’t want to do any of that. And this feeling of being, over the next few days, feeling of being a sick person was lifting.
And that’s the thing about you cannot spend your life preparing for future losses. I hadn’t even realized that I had started to think of myself as a sick person until it started to go away. So that particular quote from Joe Lovett and Frank Bruni perfectly describes what I think this needs to be. And I think we, too– that other part, we all, all our lives, we live in a state of uncertainty. When we’re very young, of course we think we’re immortal.
And by the way, I thought I was the one immortal. You might die, but not me. And then as we get older or things happen to us, you begin to realize that, oh, it’s not so perfect, is it? Things can go wrong. But you don’t dwell on them when you’re younger, and I don’t think you should when you’re older. Often a lot of the people who comment on my blog, especially during this period of going through this cancer of– you just have to wake up and live for every morning. That, oh, I woke up again today. What are we going to do today?
And I don’t think that’s very different if you’re as lucky as I’ve been my entire life and never had anything seriously wrong with me before, is that you just think it’s always going to be that way. You can understand that it might not be, but you don’t have to dwell on. And you don’t even have to dwell on it after you’ve had cancer or any other terrible disease. And these things need to be said out loud because then they become more real when you say them out loud, whether you’re talking about, you know in print or you and me talking, I just think of Joe’s quote, you cannot spend your life preparing for future losses. And that’s what I had been doing. And I thought I was doing the right thing. I was preparing to die until they told me I was cancer-free.
And I was doing it in some physical ways. I was not getting very far with it, but I was trying to clean the detritus out of the house and get rid of a whole lot of junk. I wasn’t getting very far with it. But that was the part of Frank Bruni’s column that hit me so hard, that you know, you just hear yourself inside going, YES, that is how I will live now. And that I had already started doing so, but hadn’t put it into words the way he did. So it was a strong column for me. I really enjoyed that column.
JANA: One of my favorite quotes from that article is he says, “I’m bumping up against my limits. The trick is figuring out when to focus on them and when to look away,” which is kind of what you were just talking about.
RONNI: Yes! Yes, yes. Same thing. I agree with that so much. And you do. I mean that’s one of the things– go back to growing old, is one of the things is even without getting sick there are limitations that come along. I mean, I’ve got some fluorescent, you know those long tube, fluorescent bulbs burned out in my kitchen and they’re kind of hidden on the top of the cupboards? And so I got the ladder out last week because I bought some new ones and I thought, I haven’t been on a ladder in more than year. Do I really want to do this?
And I decided I didn’t want to do it at six o’clock at night when I was tired. So when you and I are done, I’m gonna try it once more and see what happens. But that may be a limitation. You know, I’ll have to be very careful about this.
JANA: Uh huh, please do. So what’s your writing schedule like now? I know that you used to write every day, so what’s it like now?
RONNI: Well, I don’t publish on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Peter takes care of Sundays with the music column for me. So I have to turn out four things a week.
JANA: That’s a lot.
RONNI: It’s a full time job. I mean, I read and make notes and study and talk to people a lot, lot, lot more than I spend writing. But it’s a full day. I treat it as my– same thing as when I was working on the Internet or producing television shows. I get up in the morning, I have breakfast, I play with the cat, I sit down and what do I have to do today? Is there, you know, do I need to write a column today? Do I need to do some homework? Oh, there’s that book I haven’t finished. And you find inspiration in the oddest places. So it’s pretty much– it’s most of the time, it’s every day, that I’m not actually putting fingers to keyboard, but I’m doing the homework necessary, which of course takes 10 times as much time.
JANA: And the blog is financially sustained. Did you raise some funds?
RONNI: Three years ago– this is the third year– I started doing a donation drive. There are some substantial expenses if you’re on a low income to running a blog. I pay for the platform, a bunch of subscriptions that I enjoy, but I wouldn’t do if I didn’t have a blog to run. And so I started doing that and the readers are incredibly generous. I don’t take advertising on purpose. I find it so annoying everywhere on the web.
I mean you’re right in the middle of reading an article– and this is just about everything from the New York Times to some crappy little site about cats– is that you’re sitting there, you’re halfway through the third paragraph and something pops up over the whole screen. And don’t tell me there are pop-up blockers. No, there are not, depending on what else do you want to do with your computer. And so a long, long time–in the very beginning, I didn’t care.
I wasn’t looking for a profit-making enterprise here. It was just organizing material. But advertising is so awful, and I just wanted a quiet place on the web. I don’t need to make money. I have a lot less income than when I worked, but I’m fine. Everything gets paid, and we can have a nice quiet little place on the Internet where people who are interested can come here and talk about growing old. And it’s much nicer that way. And I wouldn’t want advertising all over the place.
JANA: When we’re younger, the question why am I here is sort of more connected to what you’re called to do in terms of a vocation. Like, what are my talents? What do I value? But as we age we sort of come to the question, why am I here from a really different place. I think we still want our lives to have meaning. We want to be useful, but we don’t feel like we need to sort of stand out and make our mark. Build a career. But in that context, what is your response to the question, why am I here?
RONNI: One of the best things about getting old, and there are many good things about getting old, way up there in the top three or four or five is: you don’t have to answer those questions anymore, and it’s okay. Nobody knows the answer to that question.
JANA: What a great answer.
RONNI: And I don’t have to answer it. I don’t have to answer it anymore. Yeah. What you said about being young… I remember once, I was a very unattractive young girl, at least I thought I was, and I remember when I was, you know, my girlfriends at school were starting to date and nobody was asking me to the prom, [thinking] that’s okay. I’m really smart and I can go out and I will find something to do that will change the world. And that’s better than having a date for the prom. I had that exact thought. And I didn’t do anything that’s saving the world. So I don’t have to worry about that. Things kind of peel away as you get older.
That– over and over again, usually something as silly as not having a date for the prom– I realized, every now and then, that I don’t have to do that anymore. Or, more is: why did I ever think that was important? There was a time in my life, a long time in my life, that I wouldn’t go to the corner bodega in New York for a quart of milk without putting my makeup on. I mean, what??? Did I think I was going to meet the love of my life at the bodega? And that he cared whether I had makeup on or not? And there are dozens of things like that.
JANA: I can relate to that, having lived in New York and LA– two very superficial, in their own ways, sort of cities. [both laugh]
RONNI: So funny.
JANA: Tell us about your upcoming engagements and any last thoughts that you have, things that we didn’t talk about that maybe you wanted to leave with listeners.
RONNI: I want to say that people need to think upon this: that there is nothing wrong with getting old. And that everything that is societally bad about growing old, whether or not being able to get hired anymore, or being ignored in conversations, or being called honey or sweetie or, “Gee, you don’t look that old” by people who don’t even know you… find a way to politely say “don’t do that” to people. And keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with being old.
Everything in our culture will tell you that it is a terrible thing. It is not. And given that you don’t have a way out of it anyway, you might as well find the good parts of it. And yes, there is loss. I mean, a big, big, big part of it is the friends who die and the relatives who die ahead of you. And you miss them so much.
But there are new friends to be found, if you want. And by the way, you don’t want the social life that you used to have in your 20s, 30s, 40s, maybe even 50s. You want more alone time. You know there’s a lot of talk these days in research circles and the aging press of how many old people are so lonely. And I don’t doubt there are. And anything we can do to help people we think are lonely, we should do.
But more and more as you get older, you want more quiet time, and this is a good thing. So it’s not a loss of social life, it’s choosing more alone time. Let me put it this way: there’s no reason that being old, for however age you want to ascribe that to– everybody argues about it—is, it’s as different as when you were a kid compared to when you were an adult.
You don’t expect your adult years to be anything like when you were 10, 12, 13 years old. And it’s going to be very different when you’re old. Pay attention. See how you feel differently. You don’t have to keep being what you were when you were 40, 50 years old. You know, it’s funny. It’s become so obvious to me that it’s hard for me to even talk about why you need to do these things. It’s just obvious. And I particularly have trouble with old people who pretend that they’re not old, because not only do they hurt themselves, but they add to the belief of younger people that we are useless. And they are pathetic.
I don’t think you need to be proud of being old. I mean, you got there because, well, you lived that long. You may or may not have had anything to do with that. Or it could have been just dumb luck, most of the time. But, you know when you’re a little kid you couldn’t wait for your next birthday? You couldn’t wait to be grown up? There were all these things you were going to be able to do when you were grown up that your parents wouldn’t let you do when you were young? And then you got there and you found out, Damn, they didn’t tell me it was going to be this hard. And it’s kind of, you get to let go of a lot of all those obligations and responsibilities you had as an adult.
And there are all kinds of other ways to fill up that time that you– things you put off all your life. Not to mention that your inclinations change. You’re more inclined to want to stay home in the evening. I mentioned this to my neighbor. I said, you know, I just don’t want to go out in the evenings as much as I used it. She said, yeah, my husband’s the same way. He won’t leave the house after 6:00 PM.
And it’s okay. It’s okay! 40-year-olds will tell you, oh they’re so boring, they never go anywhere at night. It’s not boring. There’s tons of stuff to do at home. Being old is just, it’s as good as every other area of life. And yes, as I mentioned, the losses, and some of them are physical losses, and some of them are from conditions that we have to live with. It makes me crazy… the amount of pills I have to take now, since the pancreatic cancer. It drives me nuts. I mean I’m always counting them out and putting them in these little boxes. But it keeps me alive. It keeps me healthy. So I plug it into my life and try to make the best of it and laugh once in a while.
My difficulties as a result of the cancer are minuscule compared to some people. But most of us are mostly healthy at our age. So you accommodate what you must. And keep going. I mean the alternative, when it gets here, I think one of the jobs of being old– and it takes a long time, you don’t do this in a week or a month, it takes many, many years– is to learn acceptance of death. And it takes forever. But that’s one of our jobs.
But it doesn’t have to take over your whole life. It’s a little humming there once in a while in the background, while you consider how you can make peace with that. And other than that, it’s just another time of life. You know you were a little kid, and you were a teenager, and you were a grownup and then you started to get a little older, and now you’re an old person. It comes with life. And each one of those is interesting. When you’re very young, you can’t really sit back and look at yourself much. You don’t have enough experience.
JANA: You don’t have much to look back on.
RONNI: By the time you’re up here where I am, you’ve got enough experience that you can apply it to what’s going on in your life now. And hopefully you’ve learned enough that it will ease you through the difficult times of aging. I can’t pretend that it’s all wonderful, but I think it’s a fascinating adventure. Even the cancer.
UPDATE AFTER ORIGINAL AIRDATE:
JANA: Since we first aired this episode, Ronni began a round of chemotherapy treatments, starting about 10 weeks ago. She says that at first it was complete exhaustion. She couldn’t get out of bed much for three days. More recently, Ronni’s been a bit slower than most people for two or three days after chemo, but nothing like how awful it was that first time. She says she doesn’t know how she got so lucky with that, but she’s deeply grateful. Ronni’s also grateful for the results of her most recent CAT scan, which she received in February of 2019.
The scan showed significant improvement in the appearance of Ronni’s lungs and no new cancer nodules. She celebrated that good news for days, knowing it didn’t mean her cancer was being cured, because chemotherapy can’t do that, but it meant the chemo was slowing the growth of Ronni’s cancer, so she’ll have a longer healthy period of time then she would have without the chemotherapy treatments.
Her doctors have told Ronni that she has less than a year to live, but more than a few months. All that said, Ronni doesn’t like being identified only by her health. She’s continuing to write, a little less frequently but with her usual candor. She wants to spend this time doing things she wants to do, which includes using edible cannabis to help her sleep at night. And in a surprise twist, Ronni recently met the child she gave up for adoption 56 years ago. Ronni Bennett is facing her mortality in a way we can all only hope to face: with humor, grace and grit.
I love Ronnie. Thanks.
Re: people older than 65 as consultants for advertising to their own kind. I’ve been screaming about this since 2003. I wrote a book about it. I still blog about it.
Glad you enjoyed the interview, Chuck. I explored your blog; it’s terrific!
Most informative and enjoyable interview with Ronni Bennrtt. When I found “Time Goes By” over a decade ago introducing me to blogs, the intelligent, sometimes humorous writing resonated with me. Aging, significance of language have been a focus offering a perspective with fresh thoughts and ideas often mirroring some of my own views.
Thanks for your comment Joared – and happy to hear you dug the interview!