CALGARY — Watching last Sunday’s Academy Awards with my parents here in this Canadian city, it was during those now infamous final moments that I had something of a surreal epiphany: Warren Beatty reminded me of my father.
Not only are they fairly close in age (Beatty will turn 80 later this month, and my father is 82), and both still married to their only wife, but these two lifelong sharp-thinking men both now respond in a similar way: slowly. This is not surprising considering that cognitive processing and reaction times both slow with advancing age. Geoffrey Kerchner, professor of neurology at Stanford says that the elderly take "longer to solve problems or make decisions."
When I ask my dad if he’d like to go for a walk, he ponders. Sometimes he’ll even say "Wait a minute" and sit back in contemplation. I get impatient waiting for the response. What’s the holdup? It’s a simple question. Just answer: yes or no. He feels I’m rushing him.
But having spent more time with him lately, I see a wisdom behind the slowness. I’ve learned that he’s giving the question his full attention and respect, and won’t answer lightly. For him, the answer depends on a variety of factors. Did he sleep well last night? Will the chemo he took this morning tire him out? How’s the weather? How will he feel after breakfast? Is anything happening tomorrow for which he may need to conserve his energy? He’s in fact quietly considering all the factors before deciding — and responding.
For a lot of older people (except, disturbingly, the 70-year-old in the White House), the value of what they say matters to them. They weigh their words. They want to get it right. They can’t afford to waste time doing things they shouldn’t do or be stuck with the consequences of a bad choice. However, they need time to get it right. And given the time, my dad is the one who — when I’m set to leap — says "look" and offers valid alternatives to consider. He also suggests that on our way home from the walk, we stop off at the library to return my overdue DVDs or buy the latest edition of the income tax software so he can do his returns for the year.
It’s a simple question: Who won best picture?
Given the natural slowing down of the elderly, we sometimes forget their capabilities and their wisdom (again, it's worth noting the Donald Trump exception). In Beethoven’s "late period", he produced the fewest number of works, but some of his most difficult compositions like the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Diabelli Variations. Between the age of 60 and 80, Claude Monet painted his iconic water lilies. Jessica Tandy and Christopher Plummer won their first and only Oscars when she was 80 and he was 82.
When Beatty appeared to be dithering last Sunday with the all-important envelope, he was not having a "senior moment" — he was pondering. When he pulled out the card and read it to himself, he pondered. He looked back inside envelope again to see if there was anything else. He paused. He looked at his co-presenter Faye Dunaway. He looked backstage. He looked at the envelope yet again. He paused.
All the while, we were all waiting impatiently and wondering, "what’s the holdup?" It’s a simple question: Who won best picture?
Beatty however was considering all the factors. Why did the card say "Emma Stone" as well as the movie name La La Land? Had he been given the wrong envelope? Was it the wrong card? Who should he ask? Should he ask? Was he too old for all this circus? Maybe Faye would know what to do?
My dad and the importance of pondering — Photo: Personal file
Mind you, at this point, Beatty did not say to Dunaway anything like, "Hold on, Faye, something seems wrong here" or even "I think we need to verify this". Rather, much like my dad quietly handing my mom his blood test request form and waiting for her to notice that his name has been misspelled or the hemoglobin box hasn’t been checked off, Beatty silently handed Dunaway the card and then waited for her reaction. So maybe this could be more accurately called "a male senior moment".
Diane Howieson, professor of neurology at the Oregon Health & Science University, says "Older adults tend to be slower in conceptualizing problems and less ready to change strategies when circumstances shift." This may have accounted for Dunaway’s behavior. She is 76 — the same age as my mom. Not realizing there was a problem, much less a need to change strategy, Dunaway simply went ahead and read the name of the movie out loud. And the rest is 2017 Oscar Night legend.
My dad stood up carefully and steadied himself with one hand on the fireplace mantel. "Idiots," he said. "They should have slowed down. Then they’d have gotten it right."
And in case you’re wondering why this article was not up within hours of the ceremony ending rather than days, I too wanted to take the time to ponder some vital questions. Is this a fair assessment of my dad? Should I write this article? Why? How’s the weather? And is there anything happening tomorrow for which I need to conserve my brain power?
*Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, editor, and commentator. She has contributed to several publications, including the International Herald Tribune, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Globe & Mail, and the Atlantic. She divides her time between Canada and India.
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