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Perspectives on Aging: Bob Roseth

Aging Unbound Bob Roseth
Robert (Bob) Roseth served as director of the University of Washington’s news office for 35 years. He has a bachelor’s degree from MIT and a master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri. Since retirement in 2014, he has been a volunteer Ombudsman for Long Term Care, has written two novels, has tutored a young Costa Rican student to help her prepare as an English teacher, has been a volunteer for the UW Retirement Association, and has studied jazz piano.

Ageism is a pervasive issue in our society that continues to go largely unchallenged. Despite the fact that we all know individuals of different ages and that we are all aging, there is still a disconnect that exists. It’s as if our perceived differences in the way that we’re experiencing aging have created a divide among us. We tend to focus on the limitations and stereotypes associated with certain age groups, rather than recognizing the diversity and uniqueness of everyone’s experiences. What do you think contributes to this disconnect?

What you’re saying is undeniably true. The question is: why so? I can’t speak for other cultures and other countries, but here in the United States, I think it’s about this the whole idea of impermanence. The idea that life is transitory is something that people fear. They don’t like to admit that their time on this earth is going to be finite. So, in a way, not coming to grips with issues of aging, certainly in themselves for a long time, is probably a denial of the fact that time here is limited. No one knows when it is, but it certainly has a limit. And people don’t like to think of themselves as being limited.

And the other thing that’s going on here is a focus on the physical. It’s undeniable that my reflexes aren’t what they were 20 years ago. I didn’t have arthritis in my wrist when I was 50. The physical changes are inevitable, though the pacing differs. The mind can stay active and vital, and in some ways is superior in people as they age. There are measures of an elderly person’s ability to manage their emotions: to take the long view, to not get overly excited, and to not get caught up in situations. There are ways in which they may be better decision makers in a lot of situations compared to when they were younger. So, the characterization of people who are old as being less capable in a physical sense may well be true, but in a mental sense, for most of the time they are alive, it definitely isn’t.

When we think about ageism, it’s fair to acknowledge that in some ways older people in the United States have it better than people in previous generations in other places. We have Social Security, we have somewhat of a safety net. But one of the things that I’ve done in the past few years is, I was a volunteer Long-Term Care Ombudsman, which meant I visited assisted living facilities and I was very sensitized to some of those issues. In the pandemic, 30 percent of the people who died were in nursing homes. And that’s something we need to think about as a society. We need to think about what that means for the older population, particularly people of limited means, because they died.

Now, when we can look back at the worst days of the pandemic, there seems to be very few changes in that industry since then, and if there were another viral outbreak in the United States, those people would still be extremely at risk. We’re talking about thousands of people. In New York, the governor actually went so far as to try and cover it up, and there hasn’t been any reckoning. And 70 percent of the nursing homes are run by for-profit corporations. Why we allow that to happen in this country, I do not know, but it is a symbol of indifference and neglect, as far as I’m concerned. It’s of just gigantic proportions.

In talking about the fear of aging, we seem to associate it with death and the inevitability of our mortality. And in reading through some of the theoretical work in ageism, I came across what you described, this fear-based causal root, which is the proposed source of this disdain and disproportionate conflation of aging and impending death. In this realm, were there any preconceptions you recall having about aging over the course of your life that have been demystified by real life experiences?

When I was growing up, the contact I had with older people was initially with my parents, and then my grandparents. My parents lived until they were nearly 90. My grandfather died about 70, and then my grandmother was in her 80s. I don’t remember my parents exercising or even going on long walks, perhaps not living a healthy lifestyle. My father had a stroke and a heart attack before he was 60 years old. People would say I resembled him physically, so I grew up with a kind of an apprehension that I would follow in that path. But obviously it hasn’t happened. I am in much better physical shape than he ever was.

Part of it is the luck of the draw, but part of it is actually that I’ve taken better care of myself. My mother died of dementia when she was 90. My grandparents had pretty much retired by the time that I came on the scene, and I didn’t have much of an impression of their lives. And with my parents, I didn’t really—at least I’m not aware of—know of any special activities or big shift in their lives that occurred as they got older.

I retired about nine years ago, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about retirement and what it meant. The big aha is … now I get to do what I want. And the question becomes one of what is it that you really want to do? And I do many different things, but I would say that the unifying fact among them is the idea that they elevate my spirit. I’ve chosen things that will gratify me, but not necessarily in a selfish way.

During the time I was working, I served on a lot of nonprofit boards and things like that. But when I retired, I resigned from all those boards, and I decided that I was going to get involved in more direct service. I would say that has been one of the most gratifying things, probably the most gratifying thing that I’ve done—maybe in my life. Being able to help other people and contribute in some way to other people’s achievements and progress has probably meant more to me than most of the things that I’ve done in my life. I felt an internal need to explore those things, and I started out by tutoring elementary school kids. And then I ended up tutoring a woman in Costa Rica to help her learn English so she could get a college degree. But the ability to be part of somebody else’s achievement was a real surprise. There was no way that anything in my background, personally, or in the people around me, prepared me for that.

It sounds like you have been actively pursuing and cultivating significant and fulfilling relationships. This process seems to have led to a period of personal growth for you. Interestingly, your experience resonates with the findings of the longest running study on happiness from Harvard, which suggests that happiness is linked to having meaningful social connections. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to communicate with someone every day, but rather, the quality and substance of those relationships are what matter most. It very much seems that your experiences align with this idea of cultivating meaningful connections.

Yes, and this woman in Costa Rica is now my friend. I mean, we began with me assisting her with her homework assignments. And now she’s finished with school and has a job, but we still talk several times a week. I tell her that I have gotten more out of this experience than she has. But in a very fundamental emotional way it’s been an amazing thing and if I had gone looking for this in the way that it unveiled, I wouldn’t be able to do that. I feel so fortunate that I was able to connect with someone at a level of a very deep friendship that just evolved out of this very formal intellectual relationship.

It’s wonderful to hear about this reciprocity of knowledge and experiences. This reminded me of the increasing interest in intergenerational relationships and the community programming that is starting to emerge around this idea. Learning takes many forms and isn’t always confined to a formal setting. In fact, it can come about through conversations and spontaneous exchanges. With that said, I’m curious to know more about your decision to take piano lessons, which you shared with me before. How did this come about?

So, the story goes way back. I don’t remember the day when we got a piano in our house when I was a child. But it was odd because my mother and father didn’t play the piano. I think my mother always had ambitions that I would play the piano. About the age of nine, I think, was when she took me to a teacher. I didn’t have much exposure to music in any sort of formal way, and I didn’t really understand why I would want to learn the piano. It was sort of apart from everything else I was doing, another activity. And I never really got the piano. I think I was about 12 and a half when my teacher called my mother and said, “Please, don’t bring him back. He’s not practicing.” And, indeed, she was right, I wasn’t.

Then we fast forward about 38 years. My wife and I have a son who gravitated to music, and particularly to jazz and to the saxophone when he was 10 years old. And he demanded of us that we get him lessons. So, this was a whole different experience, and he became quite an accomplished musician. And around this time, it was before I retired but I was just sort of thinking of how to use the little bit more time I had in my schedule. I remember his saxophone teacher saying, “If you practice an instrument for 1,000 hours, you might get somewhat good at it.” Good round number turns out, anyway for piano. That is probably an underestimate by a factor of 10. When I saw that number, I said, well, I will waste 1,000 hours in the next 3 years. No question about it. And I could definitely squeeze that into my day, and I started taking lessons and stuck with it.

It’s interesting, in my work I would occasionally get involved in public speaking and it never bothered me. But public performances scare the life out of me! One of the very first times I had to do it, I had a Disney movie experience where the notes became birds and flew off the page—it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I kept going, though, because I enjoyed making the music, and I enjoyed the challenge, you know? And I’ve continued doing that. I’m never going to be a performing musician, but the challenge that I have to meet weekly in trying to understand a new piece of music and playing it as well as I can, preparing it for the teacher, having it critiqued, then going back and massaging it, finding other ways to make it sound even more like music—it’s a lot of fun, it really is. And it’s hard. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I watched my son overcome those challenges in his musical journey, and I didn’t quite understand at that point the level of satisfaction that he was getting. But now I do. And it’s enjoyable, and I get to play tunes that professional musicians play. Obviously, I don’t play them as well, and that’s okay—that’s perfectly okay.

The standard I set for myself is: What am I capable of? And, every once in a while, I surprise myself, and I play it better than I thought I could. That’s the real kick, is where you know you say, “Oh, I can’t play this at this tempo, or I can’t play with this this degree of complexity.” I’m able to go beyond these goals and do something I didn’t know I was capable of doing. When I started to get pain in my wrists from arthritis, my biggest fear was that this was going to impair my ability to play the piano. And it hasn’t. I mean, at some point, it may. And that’s going to be a tough watershed to come to the point where physically, I can’t do it anymore. I don’t know how I’ll cope with that, but it may not happen.

I must ask, what are you working on right now?

I play a lot of jazz. Today I’m working on a tune by Dave Brubeck. My teacher decided I should learn the Miles Davis version of it. It’s called “In Your Own Sweet Way.” I was playing another song called “Nature Boy,” which is a tune made famous by Nat King Cole—a really pretty song. And then there’s another song, the third song I’m playing is “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” Now, when you get beyond playing the notes that are on the page, you can try and come up with improvised solos, basically inventing your own tune on the spot. My teacher suggests things that I can try infusing into the music to make it sound better.

I’m sure with your son being a musician you’ve been able to have a lot of interesting discussions with him on your musical journey. My parents aren’t musicians, but if they were to start lessons it would be so thrilling for me to watch them go through that and see the personal growth that accompanies the musical growth.

He’s at such a different level than me [laughing], but he actually complimented me recently on some of the things I was playing, and I think he genuinely meant the compliments—which were high praise. So that was really kind of fun!

There is this over-emphasis on outcomes as one starts learning an instrument. “Are you learning an instrument because you’re going to ultimately make a living out of it, or do you want to get a certain chair in an orchestra?” And then, if that is not the end goal, then sometimes individuals are discouraged from continuing with their instrument if their progress isn’t always being quantified or directed by something like that.

You’re right—it’s the wrong way to look at it. When you think about the life of a child, you know, 10, 12, 14 … they don’t have much contact with the idea of the infinite. With music, there is no limit. There are always more challenges. And my son had teachers who were able to throw this at him because it’s going to make him really wrestle with something and at the end, he’s going to be doing it really well. And you don’t have to be a concert musician to have that experience.

I was on the founding board of an organization called Seattle Jazz Ed, which started as a sort of compensatory program for kids to be exposed to music, who didn’t have music teachers in their schools. The board always wanted to know if the kids were progressing from the early grades up to the premier jazz band and group. And I said, that’s all well and good for those kids, but for the kids who are exposed to it in kindergarten and first grade, second grade, etc. and don’t go on, it’s still a value for them. They are having an important experience that’s so distinct from everything else in school. This is good, no matter how long or how little time they actually spend on it.

As we navigate the challenges of adolescence and beyond, it’s crucial to have outlets for self-expression and creativity. For many of us, cultivating a craft or hobby can provide a much-needed retreat from the pressures and restrictions of everyday life. It allows us to focus on something that brings us joy, rather than constantly striving for perfection or chasing after temporary, external goals.

At its core, cultivating a craft is about valuing the process over the outcome. It’s about finding joy in the act of creation, rather than fixating on the result. This mindset can be transformative, helping us to shift our focus away from external pressures and towards our own inner growth and development. Whether it’s through painting, writing, music, or any other form of artistic pursuit, we all have the ability to tap into our own unique creativity and to use it as a tool for growth and healing. Thank you for reminding us of this.

Here’s a story: I was invited to a retreat sponsored by the UW School of Medicine for their new residents. There was a physician who had studied stress among medical students, and so his lecture was about what to do in times when you’re running 48-hour shifts in the ER and studying 18 hours straight, and what do you do in your leisure time? And he used this phrase, and I repeated it a few times just this past week. He said, “When it comes to your leisure time activities, I think anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” And his lesson was about not bringing that Type A personality into your activities outside the operating room. You don’t have to be the perfect tennis player, and that’s how I feel about music.

I can’t play “Moment’s Noticeat the same speed that John Coltrane did, and I’ll never be able to do that, and there’s no point in me even trying. It sounds ridiculous just saying it out loud. But that doesn’t mean I can’t play it! And that’s the point: you’re not going to become perfect at it. You don’t need to constantly rate yourself on a scale of one to ten. That’s not what it’s about. If it brings you pleasure and you would like to continue to do it, then that’s enough.

What makes music compelling is the challenge of learning and the self-discovery process that comes with it. As the famous quote goes, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, but to play without passion is inexcusable.” This guiding principle is something that I see reflected in your own musical journey. As you continue to pursue your passion for music, you’re embracing the imperfections and the challenges that come along with it. You’re infusing each piece with your own unique passion and style. This is what makes music so captivating and reflective of the human experience—the emotional connection that we create through our own interpretation and expression.

And of course, Miles Davis, as you may know, says there is no such thing as a wrong note!

Sarah McKiddyContributor Sarah McKiddy is a second-year PhD in Nursing Science student at the University of Washington. Her research interests include cognitive health, music-based interventions, and the intersectionality of ageism.


Posted in Ageism