This is a big week for birthdays, including Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin, Al Capone, Muhammad Ali, Edgar Allan Poe, Janis Joplin and last and certainly least, Codger, who will have to blow out the candles for all of them.
It is a milestone birthday for Codger, who is surprised, but pleased at having become so old. He loves Shelter Island because it is an Elderdorado, hundreds of shades of gray, a country for old men (and women).
The youngster on the Town Board is 55. Thirty percent of the population is over 60, which is twice the national average. The only place Codger feels younger on the East End is at Guild Hall’s live opera broadcasts where the average age is deceased.
Codger says you can’t say any of this yourself unless you are a senior citizen.
Otherwise it’s ageist.
Codger’s father, Coot, was approaching his 75th birthday when he went through his ageist phase. He announced that life was pretty much over at 75, and that he was now “sliding down the hill.” He no longer wanted to be “cheered up” for still breathing, which included birthday parties in which he had to blow out candles.
Coot had recently retired and moved with Codger’s mom, Cookie, into their upstate second home. He was distracted and disengaged. It looked like curtains for Coot.
And then it all turned around.
People in the community found out that Coot and Cookie had been teachers and recruited them to help old people with the paperwork generated by health issues and taxes. Coot and Cookie suddenly got younger.
Coot announced that his life had resumed and he would attend his birthday parties.
They lived on happily and productively until Cookie died at 90 and Coot at 100.
Old age is the elephant on Shelter Island, but what does that mean? Back in 2000, when the pre-Codger was writing about the failed campaign to build a $750,000 all-senior center here, Fred Puelle, a retired minister who delivered Meals on Wheels, asked him, “Which old people are we talking about? The ones rocking in the corner or the folks who flirt, work out at the fitness center and enjoy the grape? The folks waiting for me to bring them food or the ones down in Palm Beach for the winter?”
These days you can still count Codger among those flirting, working out and enjoying the grape (all with his wife, Crone). But he is aware that all of us are a bug or banana peel away from rocking in the corner.
There is a bustling senior services center now in the medical building on South Ferry Road, but the Island government has yet to fully confront the needs of many older citizens living alone and in shaky financial and mental circumstances.
Elder issues are entwined with all the issues confronting the new town administration — affordable housing, water quality, ticks, taxes and short-term rentals. The lack of affordable housing on the Island, for example, has exiled many young people, which affects not only their parents and grandparents directly, but also the talent pool for the fire department and the emergency medical service, our basic safety net.
Compromised water quality has a greater effect on people with compromised immune systems, as does a tick-borne disease. Taxes are of more concern to people on small fixed incomes; short-term rentals could be helpful to those whose budgets are stretched tight.
In the enhanced wisdom of elderhood, Codger thinks a master strategy that sets guidelines and goals for the future, that policy statement of “visions and intentions” known as a comprehensive plan, would be a great start toward dealing with these issues. He is encouraged by the new Town Board’s willingness to dive back into the comprehensive plan, marking the fresh administration as freed from the past.
The plan was written in 1994 under a board that included such pillars as Supervisor Hoot Sherman and Glenn Waddington. One task force member was future Supervisor Gary Gerth. The plan was updated in 2009, then shelved.
Despite the board’s enthusiasm now for bringing it back on the agenda, Councilman Paul Shepherd, who claims to have tried to “stab that thing in the throat” the last time it came up, recently declared that Islanders might not “want their lives planned” because they are “a pretty rugged bunch of individuals.”
Back in 2000, when Henrietta Roberts was the part-time coordinator of senior services, she dismissed as outmoded “the Islander mentality of taking care of their own.” As an example, she told the pre-Codger that the senior problem was “very complex” and needed town support.
Codger hopes Shepherd, a merry provocateur born yesterday in 1955, will keep his stabbing knife sheathed, make a plan and get older.