It's the ninth day of April, a Thursday, and after months of snow and ice, the promise of spring is just around the corner. Vibrant daffodils poke their heads out of the thawed soil and tiny leaves are appearing on trees. At 8:30 in the morning, Hank Blum, in his black MetroOptics button-down shirt and a mid-weight jacket leaves his apartment building on E. 79th Street and waits patiently for the M103 bus that will take him to the Bronx.
This time just a few months ago, Hank thought he'd spend an early spring day like this padding around his apartment, checking his stocks on the computer and leisurely watching Fox News. Instead he's headed back to his former office for a full day of seeing patients.
For six decades Hank worked as an optometrist on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx serving ten of thousands of people. After three failed retirement attempts over the years, and as many retirement parties, he was sure that the close of 2014 would mean putting away his phoropter for good. While he loved the work, the rigors of the job and commute were finally catching up to his aging body. He was managing Stage 2 Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which constricts his breathing on a daily basis and Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). He handed over his client files, said he goodbyes, and closed the book on that stage of his life.
Just weeks into his retirement, his former boss, John, call him up, saying he had an emergency. They were shorthanded and could Dr. Blum, possibly come in a couple of Saturdays in February to help?“I like the idea. I don't like the idea. I told myself I was going to retire, but for two days I can manage it,” he told himself.
A couple days turned into a few - Hank admits to having a hard time saying no - and Hank has now spent a few Saturdays and the occasional weekday working.
“He needs me more than I need him,” laughs Hank, yet he seems pleased to be back at work part-time. “I feel like I've accomplished something. I enjoy myself,” he says.
He enjoys seeing the patients he thought he'd left behind for good - many were his regular clients for years - but working a full day is more difficult than is used to be. “I enjoy it up to 3:30p,” he says.
“At the end of the day I'm 85 years old. I'm not a baby anymore. It catches up to you.”
Even through he's not in regularly, Hank's had to make adjustments to his daily schedule. Other employees take a 45-minute lunch break but Hank needs a full hour in order to recharge for the second half of his shift. He also has to be careful about overbooking his schedule.
“If I don't eat by 1 my blood sugar drops and I get a headache,” he says.
Hank is planning on telling John that he has to cut the day short and at least end at 5 p.m., but he's not sure if it will be enough to stave off the fatigue.
It's been a busy morning and Hank sits down in his office for a rest between patients. He's doing paperwork by hand as he always has. The other doctor completes his on a computer but Hank finds using the computer too time consuming.
Soon he hears the sounds of activity outside and his name being called. He steps outside to meet a walk-in patient. She's never been to Metro Optics before but had heard good things about Dr. Blum. She fidgets with her glasses as she sits down in the examination chair for her yearly eye checkup and a contact lens fitting. Hank puts her at ease with a joke.
Soon they're talking about the best places to get pizza in New York. He quickly and efficiently runs through the routine of typical tests, while devoting a full half an hour to her and her eye care.
He asks if she has any questions, as he sits back down in his chair. She asks about Lasik eye surgery and if she'd qualify as a candidate. Hank says yes, and explains what an eye surgeon would do. He swivels around to his desk and writes down the name of a local eye surgeon he recommends, Eric Mandel on 70th Street. “Only go to him,” he says. “He's the best.”
The appointment over, Hank walks down the hallway and hands over the contact lenses and glasses prescriptions to his colleague, Lucy. She mentions to Hank that she's found something of his and takes out an old photo of a barely 15-year-old Hank that's she found scattered around the office. He stares back at it, marveling how young he looks.
“I was a handsome devil, wasn't I?” he says. “Where the hell did the time go?”
The spell is broken by the sound of steps behind him. Snapping back to the present, Hank explains to the patient who has followed him out of the examination room that she'll come back to see another doctor for her eyeglass adjustment in a few days. “It won't be you?” she asks with hesitation. “No, I'm only here sometimes,” says Hank but he assures her that she will be in good hands. They say goodbye and and Hank hurries back to his office to get his jacket.
It's past 1 p.m. and Hank is getting hungry and tired. With a quick wave he exists the office and heads directly over to his favorite Mexican restaurant where he'll get his usual order of “chicken in a pot.” He says it's the best chicken soup in the world, but more importantly is eases the difficulty he has breathing from his COPD. “You don't have to say make it hot. The steam is in your face,” he says. He eats soup for this reason, practically daily.
“I'm getting older quicker,” he says. A few weeks ago, he noticed that his hands have begun to shake. He recently babysat his young granddaughter and the shaking made him afraid to pick her up. His thumbs have been stiffer than normal, as has his neck.
The prospect of not being able to play with his grandkids bothers him. At this stage of his life, as his body and career has slowed down, family is unequivocally the most important thing to him.
Hank meet his wife Patti at an Upper East Side bar, Pembles, 40-something years ago and won her over with the line “You have gorgeous eyes, let's dance.” He says he trusts her with his life. More than a decade and a half younger than Hank, they are parents to two adult children, along with Hank's son and daughter from a previous marriage. There are five grandchildren between them. Hank adores them all. “I'm so fucking lucky.”
Hank turned 85 on February 7 and has lived past life expectancy in New York City, currently 81. He's still coming to terms with the milestone. “85 is a big number and I'm aware of it. My age never bothered me at 70, 75, 80,” he says. This is the first time in my life I've thought of how long I'm going to be here.”
He had plans of celebrating locally but ended up traveling to his daughter Randi's house in Connecticut on the Sunday of his birthday weekend. He and Patti took the train in the morning. Hank doesn't drive long distances anymore because he gets tired.
He knew some family members would be there but did not expect his older kids to make the trip.
When he got there he walked directly to the kitchen to get settled in. “I came in and sat down at the kitchen island. My wife called, 'Come in for a minute.' I walked in and saw them.”
Assembled in the living room were his four children, their spouses and all five of his grandchildren.
“I just looked up and my mouth dropped,” he says.
He hugged them all, before settling in to a brunch of eggs, bacon, ham and potatoes. His daughter Randi made pecan pie, her specialty. Hank opened presents from his kids: train tickets for their next few trips to Connecticut from his youngest daughter, Randi; a jacket from his oldest daughter, Bonnie; reservations at a favorite restaurant from his youngest son, Marc, and a polo shirt from his oldest son, Barry.
“That was a hell of a surprise,” he says. “I've got a hell of a family.”
Hanks says the years have mellowed him. “It's amazing - my old age and how I've changed. My outlook on life has changed. When you are 45 and 85 you see things differently. I am more aware of life now because it's coming to an end.”
Just last night he left evidence of a midnight cookie binge on the piece of paper the milk rests on in his fridge. Patti was irritated when she saw the crumbles. He refused to get into an argument and asked her if it was really worth getting upset over. “Don't stress the small stuff and you have to be able to differentiate the small stuff,” he says.
Randi has noticed changes in her father as well. “There's been a progression from who he was with my half brother and sister and who he was with me and my brother and who he is for my kids,” she says.
She says he's been an exceptional grandfather. “Nobody on this planet loves my kids even close to how much I do beside them.”
In June, Hank is taking his younger kids and their children on a week-long family vacation to Jamaica. He just booked the trip. “I'm very excited. Extremely excited. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'm a 40,” he says.
“I don't have to see the Taj Mahal. I would rather sit in the pool with my grandkids,” he says. Especially because he considers it to likely be his last international trip.
“Next year I don't think I'll be as well as this year and I don't want to be stuck in another country and be sick… at 86 I'll be vulnerable.”
He worries about something serious happening and being far away from a good hospital. Before the trip he'll make a visit to his pulmonologist, Dr. David Posner.
Before Jamaica he is considering adding another family member. In December Hank and Patti's beloved Havanese passed away. “I'd come home. She's jump on me. Wag her tail. Lucy was a wonderful puppy.”
Patti has been inconsolable. She wants to get a new dog but Hank has been on the fence. He doesn't really want one and besides, the average life expectancy of a Havanese is 14 years.
“I don't think I'm going to make it. I don't think I'm going to be here in 10 years. I'll live to 90 if I'm lucky.”
Even if he does, he's realistic about what he body will be like at that age. When he looks at his grandkids, he's amazed at their development. Their bodies and minds changed so rapidly within the timespan of just a few years. He says he's much different than he was at 80 and expects things to deteriorate exponentially.
“It's reversing” he say of his body. “What am I going to look like in 5 years?”
His lunch hour is up and the soup's grown cold. It's time for Hank to return to the office and finish his day. He is hoping he'll have enough energy to get through it. His feet are already hurting him. He gets up with a labored push off his chair, waves goodbye to the counterman, and walks slowly but deliberately back to the office.
“All my life I have not thought of my age. Right now I think of my age. It's definitely a little scary. I still do what I have to do. I still live life.”
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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