Rob: The company of others

Stories / Rob: The company of others

Rob Calder is strongly connected with a number of communities. As a gay man he’s been a long-time volunteer for the OUTLine telephone counselling service and the NZ AIDS Foundation.

He’s involved in two men’s groups, sings with the Auckland gay and lesbian choir GALS, is a regular gym-goer and a marriage celebrant.

At 81, Rob looks more like 60. He’s outgoing; happily taking part in the Auckland Pride Parade clad only in towel and wig, and has worn even less as a regular life model for a drawing class. It’s hard to believe that he’s recovered from a major stroke. He says he is grateful for each day and his favourite words, attributed to Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, are: “Yesterday is already a dream and tomorrow is only a vision, but today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”

“I don’t have a plan, but I have a diary – which I remember to look at mostly! I hop up and have a very simple breakfast, I then chat to my sister on Skype. I check the internet every morning, I don’t do much stuff on the internet but I do like to keep in contact with friends. I usually go the gym where I do yoga or gym stuff, go up to K Road in the Link bus and have a meal, and then flop down the hill and have a grandpa nap and prepare for whatever’s happening in the evening.” Wayne audio

Until recently Rob Calder has shared his attractively decorated city apartment with a flatmate. However, the vacant room is about to be occupied by his visiting aunt from Australia – a mere 85 years old. Longevity rules! Rob has an older uncle as well.

Being in communities

Family, friends, and staying connected to a number of communities are extremely important to him. One of his men’s groups has been going for 30 years. They meet regularly and Rob describes them as “a lot of good brothers.” His choir, which does a number of public performances, provides another opportunity for regularly enjoying the company of others.

“Even here in this building, although it’s surprising how little we see of each other, I feel as though I’m in a community because we all know each other and all the people on this floor I can ask to water my plants when I’m away and I can water their plants and that feels good.”

A long-term volunteer

Rob’s history as a volunteer dates back to the 1980s when he became a Youthline counsellor. That was around the time his 12-year marriage broke up.

“It became my family, and I still have lot of affection for the people I was with in those days,” he says.

“We used to laugh among ourselves because we thought we got more help ourselves than we helped others – but it was a very useful and efficient service, despite the fact that in those days it was quite small. Now it’s a fantastic organisation.”

He also went through the darkest days of the AIDS Foundation, when the HIV virus was rife in the gay community. “That was pretty grim. We did a lot of practical stuff there – we used to take meals to people, take their dogs for a walk, cut their grass and go to a funeral every month. It was a very sad time, but there was a lot of love between the people who were helping.”

Ageing and sexuality

“Sexuality,” says Rob, with a trace of a sigh, “is not something that just goes out the door with age. Just because people are old, it doesn’t mean that they don’t want to be held. I have to have touch.

“In the gay world it’s possible to be intimate and I find men are very generous and kind because we all understand our feelings. I think we do better than straight men because we’ve had to struggle to come to terms with our feelings, and I think we understand other peoples’ needs quite well.”

Like many gay men of his generation, Rob says he didn’t really know he was gay when he got married.

“I did tell my wife that I’d had experience with men but nobody knew anything about gay then. I thought when I got married that it would all go away. Sadly it didn’t go away, now you would know that it doesn’t go away. Then nobody talked about it. You didn’t go to counsellors. I still feel sad about that.” Saddest of all was losing out on family life when the marriage ended. His wife had two children when they married and they had a son together.

“Having children, that’s the best thing in my life,” he says. “I’m so lucky. But it was really hard not being with my youngest son. Later on, when he went to uni, he came to stay with me and he seemed to cope well with having a gay dad. He’s a very wise young fellow I think.”

After his marriage ended, Rob did fall in love with a man – and says it was like first love. They were only together for three years, and it took some time for him to recover from the break-up.

Rob agrees that while there is some perceived fear of ageing in the gay community, he also thinks it is fading. “That’s also where I can be useful. I can show others – by looking as if I’m enjoying life – which I mostly do – that ageing is not all scary and horrible.”

Earlier years

Rob grew up in a well-established New Plymouth family, in a “pretty loving household” with very caring parents and three younger siblings.

“We weren’t religious but we went to St Mary’s. The Anglican Church in those days was very mild. Going to church was a social occasion. I realised why we went to Sunday school – our parents needed a bit of time together!”

He studied dentistry at Otago and admits that he struggled to get through the course.

“We had a saying in our family, ‘you don’t give up, you keep going’. I’m very glad I did. I ended up having to work for the government because I had a Health Department bursary. To my horror I was put in the school for dental nurses, which I thought was pretty strange, having not been a very good student myself!

“Then I went to London for a couple of years to see if private practice would be for me, and found that it wasn’t really. I came back to the Health Department which I thoroughly enjoyed. I liked being part of a team and I really enjoyed the students. I was at the Willis Street Dental Clinic, the first earthquake-proofed building in Wellington apparently, but it’s now apartments. I can’t believe that someone is now living in the basement where we used to practise soap carving!”

Beyond retirement

Rob moved to Auckland and continued to enjoy his work until a major restructuring of the dental service saw him take early retirement in 1990. It was a slow break from his career though, because for some time after that he was involved in a number of interesting oral health projects.

He also continued his Youthline counselling and had joined what was then Gayline as well. Financially he’d been prudent.

“Having been in the government you had to belong to superannuation and there was an opportunity to pay a little bit more and get your pension index-linked. So that’s been wonderful… I’m really lucky to be satisfactorily financed.”

There’s no secret to successful ageing

Rob reckons he’s inherited pretty good genes, but is quick to point out that information about how to live healthily as you age is available everywhere.

“It’s boring really because you know it! You need constant activity, to cultivate good friendships, eat sensibly. You’ve got to have exercise, you’ve got to have rest. You’ve got to have quiet times, you’ve got to have rowdy times, you’ve got to have times with people, times without. Very little alcohol – I’ve seen too much harm from alcohol. And I’ve never ever smoked.”

It hasn’t all gone swimmingly though as in 2001 he had an incapacitating stroke, and has experienced a couple of TIAs (transient ischaemic attacks) since.

“I was really angry with my body. I lay there thinking, ‘Bugger I won’t be able to go to Bali!’ But I was very lucky. I had to go out to Waitakere Hospital, where I blundered into this stroke rehabilitation group and I was absolutely horrified. It’s really daunting when you see people who haven’t recovered. I struggled along at home but my family got one of my friends to keep an eye on me because I couldn’t write a cheque! Gradually I got better and better.”

Nowadays he takes his medication, keeps doctor’s appointments and says there isn’t much more he can do. But at the time it was a shock.

A good time of life

“Now I’m really glad to say that for me being older is a really nice time because I have got reasonable health, I’ve got very good health really. I don’t even feel old. I don’t ache. I don’t have to worry about the power bill. And I don’t need anything – that’s an interesting thing. I don’t need any more stuff and I’m unloading it.

“I think I’ll probably stay here [in his apartment]. A lot of times people can’t afford to stay where they are. But I don’t think that will happen to me. There are people bumping around in the rest of the building, the bus is at the end of the street – it is in the valley here so I’ve got to saunter up the hill, and while my legs still go that’s good for me. Even if I became housebound – you can call in meals now. And there are only 12 steps to get down.”

Joy in small things

“We were encouraged to enjoy small things, and this may sound a bit soppy, but I can still remember my mum looking at a dew-covered cobweb. So I enjoy things like that. When I see parrots out in the garden here I’m really pleased. I love looking at little kid’s faces – seeing little ones laugh really makes my heart sing. My granddaughter’s got a new baby, and my nephew and his partner have just had a baby so that pleases the whole family.

“I think you’ve got to be really open to being loving. I love being with the people that I love. I’m just so happy when I’m with my family and with my friends.”

When is a person old?

“I don’t know when a person’s old. It doesn’t bother me about dying. What bothers me is being dependent, as it bothers everybody. But actually dying, I’ll be pissed off that I won’t be around to see what’s happening and I won’t be at my own funeral. I will encourage my friends to say nice things about me while I can hear them!”

“I’m enjoying a book called Travels with Epicurus at the moment, which is about being a contented older person. Enjoying sitting with your friends, not needing to talk, and looking at the sunset, having a few wines and being happy, not trying to be forever young. I think it’s incredibly important to accept where you are and make the most of it. And I think I make the most of my life as far as I can.”

This story is part of a series exploring retirement wellbeing. The series is one way the Mental Health Foundation helps people prepare for a later life that has meaning, purpose and joy.