It’s 7:15 a.m. on a Tuesday in late spring. Hank Blum has been lying in bed for almost an hour “chilling,” as he calls it, and wondering what to do for the day.
Fifteen minutes later, he gets out of bed and shuffles into the kitchen. He pours grinds into the coffeemaker to brew a pot for his wife Patti, and then pours kibble into a bowl for his dog, Ethel. He then begins his daily regime of medicines - six pills and two or three inhalers a day - to control his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and atrial fibrillation (AFib).
Next, Hank turns on the shower. When the couple downsized a decade ago and moved from a three-bedroom apartment on Park Avenue into their one-bedroom on 79th Street, they converted the bath tub into a shower stall because it was easier for Hank to get in and out of. A grip bar was installed a couple of weeks ago. He says the bar gives him peace of mind as he has become less stable and more afraid of falling.
After toweling off, Hank gets dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and walks back into kitchen. Patti has left to meet some friends for brunch, so he’s eating breakfast alone. He decides on a Cheerios-Fiber One mix topped with banana and skim milk, rejecting his other morning go-tos, eggs or a swiss cheese sandwich.
With the decision to retire finally made - a decision he waffled over for 15 years - he’s now figuring out how to structure his days.
After breakfast, Hanks gets dressed and walks to his desk in the living room where he pushes the power button on his desktop PC. As he waits for it to boot up, he turns the television to CNBC. He watches for a few minutes before returning to his desk.
Back at the computer, he logs onto Fidelity.com to check how the stock market and his investments are doing. Next he logs into his email, checks the daily forecast on weather.com and then reads a few articles on foxnews.com.
Lunchtime is approaching and Hank has to decide: will he make a baked bean omelet or sweet potato, the extent of his culinary repertoire (“I don’t cook”), or head out to one of his regular Upper East Side hangouts.
And so begins Hank’s new post-retirement life. For more than six decades Hank worked as an optometrist on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx serving tens of thousands of people. He loved his work deeply but decided at age 70 that it was time to retire. Bored and failing to come up with a new daily routine, he was back at the office within weeks.
Three more retirement attempts followed, the last being at the end of 2014. He really thought he was done for good, but last month, he couldn’t resist being pulled back into working a few days a month when his former boss, John Bonizio, called him.
After clocking in a few 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. days, though, he decided it was just physically too much.
“I just found lately a little bit of the edge being taken off,” he says. “This time I am not lying to myself. This time I am not doing it. I’ve seen my last patient.”
Hank still seems reluctant to close the door on his career permanently. This past Saturday, he had dinner with John.
“I said, ‘If you need me, you know I’ll be there for you but I have to be the last resort,’” Hank recalled. “If he calls I’m not going to do it. I’ll give him an excuse. I don’t want to do it anymore. 62 years is enough.”
But immediately, he waivers. “He’s been so nice to me. I don’t want to totally close the door.”
* * *
It’s past noon and Hank has decided to make his way over to one of his usual lunch spots, 40 Carrots, housed in Bloomingdale’s on Lexington and 59th Street. He discovered the cafe two or three years ago, but now with more time on his hands, he’s been spending most afternoons there, often meeting Patti for an afternoon frozen yogurt, in between tagging along on her frequent shopping excursions. It’s become a ritual of sorts for them and Hank loves it.
“Almost seven days a week I’m here for soup or yogurt,” he says.
He usually gets the coffee-flavored frozen yogurt, sometimes with a large dollop of chocolate yogurt on top, ironic because he had to give up both the drink and sweet because of his health issues. Occasionally he’ll mix it up and get coffee and butter pecan, or coffee and blueberry yogurt.
“When I get down to the end I get sad,” he says. “There is nothing you could say to convince me to give up yogurt.”
When Hank came in around his 85th birthday this winter, the staff surprised him a huge “cake” constructed out of yogurt, crowded around him and sang “Happy Birthday.” Hank loves the familiarity, particularly as he navigates the unknown waters of retirement. “I’m known,” he says.
When he enters the restaurant today, he looks around for his favorite waitress, Betty, before remembering that it’s her day off. Before he can be disappointed he’s greeted by another regular waitress, Anna. She quickly ushers him over to a table in the back as they exchange pleasantries. Without looking at the menu Hank orders a split pea soup, hold the bread.
Anna asks if he wants his usual for dessert. Hank says, of course, coffee frozen yogurt with a dollop of chocolate.
“What do you think of the Bruce [now Caitlin] Jenner news?” she asks.
“I wouldn’t want to date him. He’s not my type,” he says. But “whatever is going to make you happy, do it,” he advises.
In his later years Hank has grown increasingly mellow and less judgmental. He’s decided that he wants to spend the remainder of the time he has focusing on what makes him most happy - his family. Patti and Hank are parents to two adult children, along with Hank’s son and daughter from his previous marriage. Between them, there are five grandchildren, the center of his life.
Most weekends they travel to their daughter Randi’s house in Connecticut and spend time with their grandkids. They often babysit their young granddaughters Leah, 7 and Dylan, 2. “I couldn’t live without my grandkids,” he says.
Making his family happy makes him happy and that’s informed a recent decision that he made.
In December their beloved Havanese, Lucy, named after Patti’s favorite comedic actress, passed away at age 13. Patty has been inconsolable and wanted to get another dog.
“I said to Patti, ‘no more dogs,’” he says.
He wasn’t keen on the responsibility or the fact that he will likely die before the dog - a Havanese’s life span averages 14 years - but the more he reflected on the reality of his life winding down and leaving his family behind, the more he liked the idea.
“I’m going to be gone. She’s going to be alone,” he said of Patti.
A dog, he thought, would provide her with companionship, and that comforted him greatly, even if she doesn’t want to face the thought of losing him yet.
“She thinks it’s going to be the same but it’s not. Life is nothing but a series of transitions.”
Besides, he learned along time ago that it’s best to concede to Patti’s wishes.
“I had two kids. I said no more. I had another. I said no more, and then another. I had a dog, you see how this goes?” he laughs.
Two months later, on a sweltering day in August, Hank has new company lapping at his feet.
He has the air conditioning cranked high in his apartment. Hank follows his morning routine, once again pouring a bowl of half Cheerios, half Fiber One cereal topped with sliced bananas and skim milk, showered, and changed into a grey T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans.
“At this stage of my life, if I can’t wear denim, I don’t go.”
As he washes his breakfast bowl, a small nine-month-old black puppy with a white belly, toes and tail weaves in and out of his legs, yipping for food.
Ethel - almost named Dezi, but Hank’s idea was squashed - has been part of the family for a few months now. Patti had found an internet listing for the Washington State-based pup and after arranging the cross-country travel, they took a taxi to pick her up from Delta cargo at JFK airport.
While Patti and Hank love their new addition, training has not gone entirely smoothly.
“I’m not sure I was ready. She’s a handful,” says Patti. “It will be worth it if we don’t throw her out the window,” she jokes. “[But] It’s been fun.”
Last night Ethel had an accident. After successfully going to the bathroom, Patti and Hank saw no harm in playing with Ethel on their bed. Before they knew it she had peed on the mattress.
“She thinks the bedroom is her bathroom. We were up in the middle of the night washing. Lucy learned quicker. I was younger then. I just had more patience with her.”
Hank’s already plopped down $1,500 on multiple trainers and says they’ve not been successful.
“Hell no. It cost me a fortune of money for nothing,” he says. “The only this she can do is sit.”
Still, they haven’t given up and hired yet another trainer to come tomorrow.
“I’m addicted to her,” he says. “I think she’s one of the prettiest dogs I’ve ever seen. She’s very affectionate.”
Hank says a women recently stopped him on the street and offered to give him a large amount of money for the Havanese, but Hank immediately declined. “My wife would go crazy,” he says.
He has jokingly encouraged his brother-in-law to borrow Ethel for walks. “I tell him, ‘You’d meet a lot of girls,” Hank says, laughing.
Most importantly Patti has deeply bonded with her.
“This is her dog and I think it is important I took into consideration the fact that when I’m gone instead of being alone she’ll have a companion.”
Hank takes the bag of Eukanuba puppy chow out of the cupboard before pouring a few kibbles into the brown and pink ceramic bowl. Ethel yaps and yips in anticipation as Hank bends down slowly to place the bowl on the floor. Ethel demolishes her meal in a matter of seconds.
Later, Patti will walk her. Hank rarely does so because it is too taxing on his breathing. Today, at 90 degrees, it’s way too hot.
In the living room, Patti is looking through old photos. Ethel tries makes her way into the living room to join her but her attempt is thwarted by the baby gate Hank and Patti installed to keep her out.
The albums Patti flips through contain hundreds of photos documenting the beginnings of their marriage and years raising their kids. Hank has taken many of them. “He was fantastic,” she says.
Once an avid photographer, he would travel around the city on his time off and spend hours snapping photos with his Minolta. His framed photos line the walls of the apartment.
As the technology changed from film to digital, it was the beginning of the end. Hank says the digital format stifled creativity, the new technology was too difficult to learn and physically, photography became too taxing. Commuting down to Chinatown, a past favorite neighborhood of his to shoot in, was too much. He hasn’t picked up a camera in years.
“I’m not picking it up again. Nope. nope. nope. I’m not happy with digital.”
Patti wishes he would. She’s supportive of Hank’s retirement and the timing - “there was no question, physically it’s just too much” - but is eager to figure out new daily routines for both of them now that they’re both home. She’s still adjusting to leaving behind the convertible three bedroom they raised their kids in on 85th Street and says it’s tight in their one bedroom.
“Having him home was just as much as a change for me,” she says.
She suggests they join a local swimming pool.
With a look at her watch, Patti realizes it’s time to leave to meet her friends for lunch. She says goodbye, grabs her pocketbook and hurries out. Alone today at lunch time, Hank decides to head to one of his nearby hangouts, the Highlands Cafe Restaurant, another place where he is “known.” Tomorrow, he’ll make the same decisions, all over again.
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.nyc
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