Rob Calder features in the documentary about gay life in New Zealand, Men Like Us.
As you read this sentence, Rob Calder is living the worst nightmare of many gay men. He is 78 years old and single.
This is precisely why I was drawn to meet him. Not just because he is single, but because he is single and flourishing.
Coping successfully with older age is something Rob does remarkably well, although he laughs that he still has days when he wants to lie in bed with the blankets over his head.
Some gay men reaching retirement age are in long-term relationships, and that’s their built-in support system. What if you’re on your own in a world where you’re gay and there doesn’t appear to be anything that reflects your experience?
As I was delighted to discover by talking to Rob, there is actually a lot more than you think there is. Older gay men have found and created their own social and support networks, but you have to look in order to find them. You have to be active and put yourself out there, and Rob Calder is a man with a full diary.
“I think it’s extremely important to have a sense of control over your life, whatever age it is,” he says.
Rob has a tanned and healthy complexion, so it comes as little surprise when he says he’s been a naturist for a good part of his life. “All my life I’ve liked to be naked in the sun, and I still do.”
Having only had my first experience of this recently, the idea is one I find personally horrifying. I suggest that Rob must have always been comfortable with his body.
“No,” he says firmly, “I used to think it was awful and I was ugly.”
In Rob’s case at least, growing older has meant that those neuroses have fallen away. He now does life modeling.
“I used to do it as a student to earn money, without my trousers off,” he laughs. “Then more recently I had friends who were artists, and they wanted a model, so I was it. And these folk became my friends. I just liked going along and being with them.”
He pulls out a folio to show me the drawings. The lines and contours of his body are beautifully rendered, and I can see the attraction in giving yourself as a subject in this way. If you’ve ever harboured feelings that you don’t measure up physically, seeing yourself the way that others do in the form of art can be very empowering.
Seeing drawings of Rob naked brings up the inevitable question of sex. Sexual and romantic desires do not go away as we age, although there’s a perception that such things turn off like a tap at sixty.
Rob laughs that “the plumbing doesn’t work as well as it used to, but you’ve got be very philosophical about that.” However, he adds, “I think I’ve got much more attracted to other men as I’ve got older.”
The idea – or hope – that older people are asexual does not line up with reality at all.
“I’ve had friends who’ve worked in old folks’ homes and they say that many old folk are just desperate to be touched,” he says. “I think intimacy is something that everybody needs, and it’s quite hard as you get older to get intimacy. And that’s more being close to somebody than being sexual.”
When Rob retired, he set himself a series of goals, and steadily ticked them off. He joined the gym and stayed active physically. He taught himself to type. He joined the gay and lesbian choir. He’s recently taken up Tai Chi. He reads a lot and attends lectures that interest him at universities.
He also likes holidays, but in a move that would seem unthinkable to the Facebook generation, he doesn’t take photos. He keeps a journal, but it is reserved for postcards and bits of paraphernalia he finds interesting. He doesn’t write a diary or keep a narrative.
It’s something I find intriguing and horrifying in equal measure. Memories, like good wine, can mature over time, and as we get older they become more important to us. While aging has never frightened me – forgetting terrifies me utterly.
“I went away overseas as all young Kiwis did, a long time ago, and I took photographs which were slides in those days. I’ve looked at them twice since 1960,” he says. “They’re down at my son’s place because he wants to look at them sometime, but he’s not going to look at them. They’ll just have to be thrown away. I can’t see any point in having a whole lot of stuff.”
I felt profoundly sad when he said that to me; as if he didn’t see any value in the record of his life. But I realised with his next sentence that it’s not an outlook borne out of depression, but of mindfulness and living in the present.
“I like to be in today, really,” he says, before paraphrasing one of his favourite quotes from the Sanskrit: “Yesterday is only 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.”
It’s said with such a deep sense of satisfaction that I envy his peacefulness.
“I’m very lucky,” he says. “I’ve got good friends, I’ve got enough money, I’ve got good health. I think I’m pretty optimistic, with the proviso that I’m allowed to get grumpy or sad every now and then.
“Mainly because I would really like to have a partner, I think,” he adds. “But that’s ok.”
Rob accepts that life doesn’t have to be perfect in order for you to be happy. “I’m about a million times more in touch with my feelings than I was as a young person. I can express them, have people listen and accept them.
“And the other good thing about being older is that you’ve been through crap times and you’ve got through them. So when a crap time comes along, I go with it, and know I’ll come out the other side. You know you can, and you know you will.”
Rob’s full story can be found in the feature-length documentary Men Like Us, now available on DVD on digital download.
This article first appeared on Christopher’s own blog bipolarbear here.