Gary Tetz

Last night, I saw a sliver of the future, and it gave me hope. Not the future of the world, or even of the country; I’m a little less bullish on that. This was more about what I perceive, perhaps naively, as a growing societal appreciation for seniors — a blossoming awareness of the too-often unacknowledged rewards of aging and the richness it can bring. 

In celebration of the season, my benevolent boss arranged for our close-knit work team to see Judy Collins, the iconic singer-songwriter, in concert. In a recent profile, the New York Times described her as “the ethereal soprano that guided listeners through the 60s.” A friend and contemporary of Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, she’s best known for her cover of Joni Mitchel’s “Both Sides, Now,” which won her a Grammy Award in 1969. Oh, and she’s also 80 years old. 

Going in, I didn’t know what to expect, and hadn’t listened very deeply into her catalog over the years. It would be one of those sympathy shows, I figured, the kind where you go home acknowledging the performer more as a historical artifact than as a still-vigorous artist. “How good could she really be at this age?” I even caught myself wondering.

Pretty fantastic, it turns out.

Sure, when she stepped out into the lights she moved a little gingerly, her hands showed frailty and her voice had thinned at the top of her range. But within a few minutes all that was forgotten as she commanded the stage — on pitch, funny, and more than anything, vital. The Times described her voice on this tour as sounding “as clear as a spring wending through a field of wildflowers.” She wasn’t 80 anymore, just an accomplished musician and artist singing her heart out.

For the next 90 minutes, we were able to simply bask in the magic of what she was communicating, which was vibrant, urgent, heartfelt and beautiful. In many ways, I suspect the audience experience was probably even richer than might have been true decades earlier in her career. There was a wisdom and vulnerability in her voice, and deep layers of emotion and meaning when she perched on a stool and sang Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” 

Keep in mind, Collins released her debut album in 1961, so she’s been doing this same thing for almost 60 years. She’s still out on the road performing 120 nights annually, and talked eagerly about next year’s planned tour with Arlo Guthrie. “And I’m getting better at it,” she told the Times. Perhaps so, because her new album just hit #1 on a Billboard chart for the first time in her career. 

Of course, we’re used to the never-ending parade of elderly musicians, traveling the country and amusing casino audiences with their sing-along nostalgia shows. Rockers like the Stones, The Who and Paul McCartney still pack stadiums by masking their frailty and mortality in a blast of sound, lights and video. But this was just pure, unenhanced Judy Collins — without all those technology crutches. Her humanity and chapter in life wasn’t a distraction, it was the point. 

My hope for the future stemmed from the fact that we were surrounded by a theatre full of adoring people, and their responsiveness was heartening and refreshing. True, most of them were on the older side. But there were plenty of younger folks too, defying the stereotypes of their generations by actually appreciating something simple, timeless and beautiful, one that wasn’t easily captured and trivialized for Instagram.

“There is a tendency to cast older artists as shadows,” the Times profile concludes. “We go to their performances and listen for an echo of the star in their prime. But Judy Collins is the thing itself.” 

That’s also the magic of what each of you do for our residents in long-term care. You look past the physical toll their journey of life has taken, and focus on what they still have to say and offer, knowing there’s still incredible wisdom, richness and beauty there. All it takes to experience it is time, patience and an open mind. 

I get all giddy with hope whenever I talk to a CNA who got into this profession simply because they love seniors. Whenever I catch a therapist in tears over a resident’s hard-fought and unexpected triumph. And now, whenever I see a roomful of modern adults willing and eager to receive the deep and multifaceted wisdom aging offers. 

That’s why an evening with 80-year-old Judy Collins seemed more about the future than the past. Because maybe it signaled a growing recognition that our seniors aren’t just shadows of former glories — they’re the thing itself. 

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.