Joe Schlesinger: The full-time job of growing old

Joe Schlesinger, the master storyteller, has been a journalist for 65 years and now, he says, his main job is being a patient patient. He is on his third hip replacement and takes oodles of pills, but no 'mewling' for him. When you've witnessed history, you always have a stake in the future.

When you witness history, you have a stake in its future

Joe Schlesinger's new full-time job, he says, is growing old. But the master storyteller can still charm the camera. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

I have a new job. I've been a journalist for 65 years. Nowadays, though, my main job is being a patient, seeing doctors and other medical practitioners.

Boy, do I ever see doctors!

First, there is my GP, of course. Behind him, an army of specialists: a rheumatologist, a cardiologist, several orthopedists and neurologists, a dermatologist, periodontist, as well as a dentist, an optometrist, audiologist, pharmacist, naturopath and physiotherapist, to say nothing of the trainer who tries to keep mobile what Shakespeare called the "shrunk shank" of old age.

The patient patient

Watch Adrienne Arsenault's documentary on Joe Schlesinger as he talks about the challenges of aging.

In my case, though, not all that mobile. I've worn out two hip replacements. (Number 3, I'm happy to report, is doing just fine.)

I've been held together by slings, stitches and plaster casts, treated with acupuncture needles, ultrasound devices and had traction devices yanking at my spine and a leg.

The New Retirement: Seniors in Canada

This week, CBC News presents a series on life for people 60 years and older. Canadians are living longer than ever before, a fact that is radically changing the meaning of retirement. Many people see it as a time of reinvention, a time to try new things.

CBC News is publishing stories on seniors who are doing remarkable things in the so-called twilight years.

I also take oodles of pills. Not surprisingly, even as they keep me going these meds can have serious results that are benignly called "side-effects."

But I put up with them because I know that without some of these medicaments I would not be alive today.

Had I been born 30 years earlier I would have been dead at a much earlier age because some of the meds I use had not yet been developed.

No mewling and puking here

Also part of my regime are the old standbys such as the Aspirin pill I take daily to reduce the risk of life-threatening blood clots.

Not any Aspirin, mind you, but low-dose baby Aspirin!

That dose of baby Aspirin in a way closes the full circle of life as Shakespeare foresaw it some 500 years ago when he wrote about the first and last stages of life in The Seven Ages of Man:

"At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms… Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."


OK, so I have some false teeth and wear eyeglasses. Yup, I've needed the care of nurses at times. But I assure you, no later-life mewling or puking from this quarter.

Still, it takes patience to be a patient.

Googling the memory gaps

For starters, of course, there is the waiting for appointments and for distant dates for operations, and just twiddling your thumbs in doctors' or hospital waiting rooms.

Foreign correspondent emeritus

Joe Schlesinger was a foreign correspondent for CBC for 28 years, covering natural disasters, political upheavals and conflicts from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. Shown here while doing a special report for the CBC in Beijing in 2008 during the Olympic Games, he was based in Hong Kong for CBC-TV in the early 1970s.

In 2009, the Canadian Journalism Foundation honoured Schlesinger for his body of work. You can watch the video tribute of that here.

What requires even more patience is coping with the everyday chores of your debilities.

Many of the routines of plain living, from putting on your socks in the morning, as your joints protest, to preparing for bed at night can suddenly take a lot of doing.

But I refuse to let any of this affect my taste for life. If anything, I have a greater appreciation of its joys large and small.

Above all, what sustains me is the love of my family. And that makes everything else tolerable and worthwhile.

The rest? Well, I do have occasional memory lapses but Google and other IT crutches fill in the holes.

The throne of Thebes

Mainly, I have trouble walking and staying upright.

The remedy for that has been clear for thousands of years ever since in Greek mythology the monstrous Sphinx that devoured those who could not answer its riddle challenged Oedipus to name a creature with three legs.

His answer — an old man with a cane — won him the throne of Thebes.

These days, we've gone beyond canes, we have wheels.

For me, a cane is fine for short distances. For longer walks, there is the walker; you can push it along and use it as a seat if you need a rest. It even has a basket to go shopping with.

Somewhere down the road I'll probably need a wheelchair. I may even get to drive one of those snazzy electric carts I keep seeing barrelling down sidewalks.

That and painkillers should keep me going until, one day, the inevitable moment of oblivion comes along.

Witness to history

In the meantime, there is still much to engross the heart and brain.

In my case, a loving family, cherished friends and the treasures of nice dinners, music and reading. Those are the elixirs that make life worth living.

No mewling and puking from this quarter. (Evan Mitsui / CBC)

But there is one more thing that occupies my mind, and that is keeping up as best I can with the turbulence of the world I've inhabited these 85 years.

I have spent my whole life as a witness to history.

First, as a boy who, during the Second World War, lost his parents in the Holocaust and was pushed from pillar to post, from country to country, a refugee first from Nazism, then from Communism.

That experience led me into journalism and a career of travelling the world and reporting, at times, on its triumphs — such as the fall of the Berlin Wall — though more often on the travails of wars, revolutions and other disasters.

Once upon a time I used to do things like jumping out of a helicopter in Vietnam as it hovered over a landing pad under enemy fire, climbing a sacred mountain in North Korea, crossing the famed Khyber Pass on foot from Pakistan into Afghanistan, and riding an elephant with an army patrol chasing Khmer Rouge troops through rice paddies in Cambodia. (I fell off the elephant, but never mind.)

I can no longer do these things, but, thanks to the internet, I can get around to distant places and events by letting my fingers do the walking. And I do.

Whether it's my old homeland, the Czech Republic, or Chile or China, I feel a need to keep up with what's happening there.

That need is fed in part by a sense of belonging, a feeling that since I was there at turning points in the history of these places I have a stake in their future.

What's more, I fear that if I let them drop into the memory hole I would diminish myself to a teller of old irrelevant tales. Besides, the mind needs exercising as much the rest of the body does.

One of the best ways to give the brain a thorough workout is to try to unravel the complexities of the politics of countries such as Israel, Iran and Italy.

So I keep on exploring what's happening in distant parts of the world, often saddened by the turn of events and outraged by outbursts of brutality, but now and then also delighted by the triumphs of the human spirit.

I have, in a way, the whole world in my hands, the world of all that is near and dear to me as well as much of what lies far beyond the horizon.

All this thanks to a lot of doctors and all those pills I swallow. 


Joe Schlesinger

Foreign Correspondent Emeritus

Joe Schlesinger was a foreign correspondent for CBC for 28 years, covering natural disasters, political upheavals and conflicts from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. In 2009, the Canadian Journalism Foundation honoured Schlesinger for his body of work.