MAXWELL:  They’ll pry a pen from his cold fingers

11/11/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Since moving to St. Petersburg, a city with one of the nation’s largest groups of old people, I often think about how I want my life to end. Retirement is not an option.

Like my grandfathers, I intend to die working. Benjamin Maxwell, my mother’s father, died a few hours after putting his mule in the barn. He had spent more than eight hours plowing a field. He was in his 80s. Robert Albert Bentley, my father’s father, died while preparing a sermon. During more than 50 years as a pastor, this devout Christian, who picked citrus for a living, never failed to preach the “Sunday Afternoon Worship.” He was in his 80s.

I see myself going to the Great Beyond while writing a column that will rile prigs. Like my grandfathers, I cannot draw a line between work and other areas of life. To me, living means writing; writing, living.

It is a vocation and an avocation. Too old to write? I cannot imagine it. Ceasing to get excited about a new idea? Not appreciating the beauty of a distant vista? Not jumping out of bed in the middle of the night to switch on the laptop? Unthinkable.

One of those transforming moments, when I really saw how I wanted my days to end, came last year when I introduced Jimmy Breslin, 68, at the fifth annual Times Festival of Reading. We were chatting when an old man barged in, telling the Pulitzer Prize winner that he, too, was a New Yorker.

“What are you doing down here?” Breslin asked.

The man announced that he had retired, that he golfed almost every day.

“What in hell do you mean retired and playing golf?” Breslin said, contemptuously. “Do something with your life, man. Retired.”

Shocked, the man walked away.

“Who in hell invented retirement anyway?” Breslin asked. “Look at all of these old-timers. Retired. Wasting away.”

Having recorded Breslin’s exchange with the man in my notebook, I think often of him and his admonition. The very idea of retiring is even more foreign to me, even though I am surrounded by boomers afflicted with retirement fever, who obsess about their IRAs and 401(k)s, Social Security and Medicare.

But all is not materialism. Here at the Times, I know several older writers who come to the office every day and produce some of the best copy anywhere. I read somewhere that, as a group, writers _ because they read, talk, reflect and travel _ tend to remain intellectually nimble far into old age.

My favorite writer, poet May Sarton, embodied the truth of this idea. She died, at age 82, on July 16, 1995, shortly after finishing her final book, At Eighty Two: A Journal. Sarton wrote every day until the very end, dying of cancer and congestive heart failure.

“I am more and more aware of how important the framework is, what holds life together in a workable whole as one enters real old age, as I am doing,” she wrote at age 80. “A body without bones would be a limp impossible mess, so a day without a steady routine would be disruptive and chaotic.” Sarton’s “framework” and “steady routine” were her work, chronicling the wisdom that kept her vigorous, that changed readers’ lives forever. Although she was happy to have love, friends and money, her greatest source of joy was, as she said, “writing a poem almost every day.”

Monika Ardelt, a University of Florida sociologist who studied wisdom and old age, understands Sarton’s joy in the later years and her love of work. “Life satisfaction for the elderly is too often measured in terms of objective conditions like having enough money and being in good health,” Ardelt said. “I found that developing wisdom in one’s later years has a far greater impact on psychological well-being.

“Philosophically, old age becomes difficult for people because their physical abilities decline, they lose social importance when they retire, and they may lose their spouse and other loved ones, forcing them to confront their own deaths.”

Other experts agree that intellectual stimulation, more than physical activity, sharpens the mind. “Reading the paper, following current events, interacting with others are just a few things that can be done to keep a healthy brain,” said Dr. David Drachman, chairman of the Neurology Department at the university of Massachusetts Medical College. “Use it or lose it.”

Work, Drachman and others argue, is a sure way to keep the old bean in high gear. It also keeps the disposition happy, even that of a crotchety old columnist and that of a stubborn astronaut _ like Sen. John Glenn, 77, who refuses to be turned out to pasture.