Aug 222018

By KATE FITZSIMMONS |PUBLISHED: August 22, 2018| UPDATED: August 24, 2018, Marin Independent Journal

Aging is not for the faint of heart. Parts need replacing. Things you take for granted change. Life falls away, yet, opens up in unusual ways. So, where do seniors go to talk about these surprises, inevitabilities, delights and griefs? AgeSong Marin is a volunteer organization designed to give seniors the opportunity to share their thoughts, concerns and joys in facilitated groups.

“As we age, we face different challenges,” said Diana Shima, a member of the group that meets every Monday at the San Rafael Community Center. “Mobility is an issue for me which can create a loss of independence. It affects some more than for others. I can’t do the same things with my second grandchild that I did with my first. My children are more protective, so I can’t always talk to them about things. People here are very respectful and kind. And we laugh a lot, too.”

Jan Shaw, another participant, said, “This group is not really a support group, but it is a very supportive group.”

Ann Coffey and her husband, Mac, both retired clinical psychologists, serve as volunteer facilitators, along with 15 other facilitators. In 2005, Ann Coffey, now program director, founded AgeSong Marin with author Elizabeth Bugental, Ph.D., who died in 2009.

“We’ve served more than 650 people and have 10 groups in seven different locations, in Marin,” said Coffey. “Talking can be helpful for mental health and creating connections. Mac and I love facilitating groups, seeing people get out of their own way and grow.”

Mac Coffey adds, “After retirement, I missed the deeper connection I’d felt with people’s lives. Now, I have that connection again. While we aren’t here to fix anybody or change anyone, people do change, and they help each other.”

He turns and looks at Ann, “And, I really enjoy helping out the boss.”

John Robbin’s wife attended an eight-week group. He saw how much she was getting from it and, he said if AgeSong ever started a men’s group, he’d join. AgeSong Marin did, and while only two men showed up it was the beginning for Robbins who admitted, “Now, I look forward to this Monday group. All of our experiences are quite different. There is value in that. This is much different from having a bull session with your buddies.”

AgeSong Marin will offer a new group for couples in Terra Linda Sept. 26, as well as groups for individuals; call 415-234-5040.

Age friendly

Last month, the city of San Rafael received a letter designating it as a member of the World Health Organization’s Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. According to the letter, signed by Dr. John Beard, director of the Department of Aging and Life Course, World Health Organization, he indicated, “We ask that every member submits at least one ‘Age-friendly Practice’ per year.”

Since 25 percent of the population in Marin is 60 or older, San Rafael is preparing for the changes this will bring. An Age-Friendly Community adapts to become more accessible and inclusive to older adults as they age.

Jul 292016

Printed in the Marin Independent Journal Letters to the Editor Readers’ Forum, July 29, 2016

Why are few men involved with AgeSong Marin?

The Independent Journal has run several articles over the past year suggesting that aging presents men with a greater psychological challenge than it does women.

There is much in the literature to suggest that men are far more likely than women to either deny their aging or resign themselves to it. While women still live longer than men, men are closing the age gap. So how are men facing the challenge of a longer life? Or are they?

While we can’t stop the aging process we can prepare for it, and one of the best ways to prepare is to share one’s feelings, experiences and concerns (yes, even fears) with others at the same stage in life. AgeSong Marin ( is an eight-year-old program designed to assist its participants to prepare for the physical, emotional and personal challenges that come with life’s third act.

Yet only 15 percent of the hundreds of participants over the years have been male. One has to ask why.

Perhaps it’s because, until this past generation, men have been counted on to be their family’s bread-winners. Men persevered in spite of the doubts, fears and concerns about aging that might bother them internally. Aging often signaled the first step towards retirement and the eventual loss of one’s livelihood, often the most positive aspect of a man’s self-image.

Retirement too often turned a vital breadwinner into a passive couch potato augmented with occasional breakfasts at the corner diner with male peers to kibbutz sports, grandkids and days of yore.

This is unfortunate because men are no more immune from the challenges of aging than women even though Viagra might make us believe otherwise.

Sharing ideas and feelings with peers, be they men or women, is a source of strength, not a sign of weakness. In the face of aging we are all vulnerable.

As has been said before, aging is not for sissies. The best source of strength are your peers, many of whom are facing the same challenges as you. For almost a decade AgeSong Marin has facilitated positive and often light-hearted discussions among one’s peers. A number of women have taken advantage of this very worthwhile program in Marin. Why not men?

— Mark Hoffman, San Rafael; group facilitator, AgeSong Marin

Mar 282015

Printed in the Marin Independent Journal Letters to the Editor Readers’ Forum March 28, 2015.

AgeSong Marin a good resource for seniors

I read with interest your March 20 article about the challenges facing Marin’s growing aging population, and would like to call people’s attention to another valuable resource available for seniors 65 years and older.

AgeSong Marin, sponsored by the Family Service Agency, has been providing small, weekly discussion groups for seniors to share their concerns, insights and experiences. Topics range from resource information, supportive

companionship of other seniors, dealing with loss, looking for new directions, and just plain coping with difficulties of aging.

The groups of seven to nine people are led by experienced facilitators (also seniors) and meet for one-and-a-half hours a week for eight weeks.

Beginning groups are all first-time members, but other ongoing groups are available for those who wish to continue their participation. Most of the groups meet at the Family Service Agency in Terra Linda, but there are now groups meeting at the Mill Valley Community Center, Whistlestop and San Rafael Community Center; a new group is planned at the Margaret Todd Senior Center in Novato.

As a 77-year-old semi-retired engineer and long-time Marin resident, I have personally benefited from several AgeSong groups, and have made many lasting friendships with fellow seniors as a result.

I can highly recommend them and encourage anyone interested in learning more to contact the Family Service Agency at 415-491-5726 or visit their website at

— Dennis Furby, Greenbrae

Mar 172015

AgeSong offers alternative aging perspectives

By Ann Mizel

From The Ark, January 28, 2015

View full article with photos here:  AgeSong_The Ark

Aging is often associated with loss, but it can also be a time of discovery.
Tiburon’s Ann Coffey, director and co-founder of AgeSong Marin, a volunteer-led program of small discussion groups for Marin seniors, believes “old age can be a privilege, and that attitude makes all the difference.”
Coffey, a retired clinical psychologist, says she gleaned her perspective from the program’s co-founder, author Elizabeth Bugental, who wrote “AgeSong: Meditations for Our Later Years.” A retired marriage and family counselor, Bugental came up with the idea for AgeSong Marin and Coffey offered to help.
“We took our proposal for an all-volunteer program where seniors could meet and discuss how best to live their later years to the director of the Family Service Agency of Marin, Margaret Hallett,” Coffey says.
Hallett liked the idea, and AgeSong Marin was born in 2005; Coffey became director after the death of Bugental in 2009. The program is now under the umbrella of the San Rafael-based nonprofits Buckelew Programs and the Family Service Agency of Marin, which merged in 2012.
The eight-person groups that meet for eight weeks are not therapy groups, but they are therapeutic, Coffey says.
The participants meet to share their insights and experiences and examine everything from dealing with loss, change and retirement, to forging new friendships and finding new fulfillment. New opportunities for joy and connections are discovered.
“As far as I know, we are the only program of its kind in the U.S.,” Coffey says.
When Coffey took over as director, there were 10 facilitators. There are now 17 facilitators leading groups and over 225 people from ages 65 to 95 who have participated in the program.
“AgeSong Marin wouldn’t exist without Ann Coffey’s leadership, her caring approach and exceptional warmth,” Hallett says. “She’s contributed so much to the organization and to the community, and has brought in and nurtured the very special people who are the group facilitators and who are so committed to AgeSong Marin.”
The facilitators are mostly retired mental health professionals, ages 65 and older, with some in their 80s. “They’re a great group of people who form the bedrock of the program,”
Coffey says.
Facilitator Rochelle Teising of Mill Valley, a semi-retired social worker, says in an email that AgeSong Marin participants are able to experience “a safe group in which they can discuss the challenges and opportunities of the aging process. Ann Coffey embodies the spirit and essence of AgeSong Marin. She is a joy to work with, is filled with intellectual curiosity, and is open to new experiences and people.
“Ann accepts the changes of aging with grace and is able to see the big picture. She is optimistic as well as being a realist,” Teising says.
“I love doing the groups,” Coffey says. “(They) are so much fun — there is lots of laughing and joking as well as poignant sharing of experiences. As facilitators, we get more than we give.”
Coffey used to spend 20-30 hours a week at the program until late last year, when the program hired its only paid part-time staff person; now, she spends 15-20 hours a week there.
Most of the group meetings are held at the Family Service Agency in San Rafael, but starting this month the program will offer meetings at the Mill Valley Community Center, which will be more convenient for Tiburon Peninsula locals, Coffey says.
Many participants make and stay friends. Retired nurse Sheila Ali, a Tiburon resident for over 40 years who recently moved to The Redwoods in Mill Valley, took an AgeSong Marin session and says she made friends with six people who still keep in touch. “I ended up being a facilitator,” Ali says.
Of Coffey, she says, “She’s the whole package — a very special lady. I have the utmost respect for her intelligence, her smartness and caring; I could go on and on. I’m speaking from the heart — AgeSong Marin’s success is because of her.”
Sydne Bortel, also of Tiburon, a former social worker who was the clinical director of the Family Service Agency for 20 years, says Coffey is “one of the most dedicated, generous, highly motivated women who always goes the extra mile.”
In addition to her work at AgeSong, Coffey served on the Board of Directors of Adopt a Family of Marin for many years and served as its board president.
Coffey says she often defers to her husband, Mac Coffey, who is also a retired clinical psychologist and who leads some of the program’s groups. “He’s just a huge, enormous help, my main supporter. He really should be the co-director.” Mac Coffey is also a sculptor whose medium is stone.
“I really believe that, as Elizabeth Bugental said, ‘Aging is the journey of losing and finding,’” Coffey says. “I’m proud of the sense of power AgeSong Marin gives the participants, the ability to figure out who they are, what they have and what they can do best at this stage of life.”

Contributing writer Ann Mizel is a long-time Strawberry resident and has been with The Ark since 1987.

Apr 252014

AgeSong Marin Helps Navigate Journey of Losing and Finding

From Whistlestop Express, April 2014

AgeSong Marin is a small discussion and support group of Family Service Agency where older adults meet to talk about what’s really important at this stage of life. A new eight-week group will be forming at Whistlestop in May. Most of us have faced some loss by this age: retirement, the death of a close friend or spouse, physical disability, or simply a loss of power or a place in the world. By talking about it with others who have experienced similar issues, we feel more understood and can strategize about new connections and possibilities.


AgeSong Marin, which is an all-volunteer organization, was co-founded eight years ago by Elizabeth Bugental and Ann Coffey, both retired psychologists. When Elizabeth died four years ago in her 80’s, Ann became program director. Excerpts from Elizabeth’s book, Agesong: Meditations for Our Later Years, are often a springboard for discussion in the groups, helping people become more aware in making conscious, informed choices.


Each group of six to eight people (plus two facilitators) meets during the day for 90 minutes once weekly for eight weeks. At the first meeting, they might consider, “What surprises you about being this age?” All 17 facilitators are volunteers, mostly retired or semi-retired counseling and educational professionals experienced in leading groups. Ranging in age from late 60’s to mid-80’s, these leaders participate as an AgeSong group member before becoming a facilitator.


If you are interested in being part of the group, call 491-5726 or e-mail to arrange for a short interview. In the group, you can be as quiet as you like, active listening is what’s important.

Jun 012013

Great Age: Newsletter of the Marin County Commission on Aging

Spring-Summer 2013

AgeSong Marin by Ann Coffey, Ph.D.


Aging has become a hot topic as our generation continues to grow in number and importance. We are deluged with articles, research findings, documentaries, and even an Oscar winning movie. Gone are the days of sitting back in our rockers waiting for something to happen. Our future is today, and thus we look to explore new ways to enrich our lives, find new activities and develop new interests. But in the back of our minds we’re not sure how to do this since there are no mentors, no previous generations to guide us, no experienced souls to show us the way. We’re on our own, left to our own devices. So we must work it out amongst ourselves. Collectively, we have some answers, but what to do?

Well, there is something in Marin, which just might help and be fun at the same time. It’s called AgeSong Marin, a program for those 65 and older who come together in small groups to discuss and explore issues of aging, share life experiences, learn new activities, and make new connections. What sorts of topics are discussed? Well, take the issue of loss. We lose our car keys, names of people we know, our balance, hearing, loved ones, and lots more. Another is family relationships – caring for a spouse or worrying about our adult children and their families. As difficult as these are, we survive and try to develop a sense of humor about them. The wisdom that comes with aging helps us work it out amongst ourselves when we have the chance to interact with our peers. AgeSong Marin provides just such a setting to talk, listen, and laugh. The two Facilitators provide reading material prior to each meeting as a springboard for discussion.

The program has been in existence for 7 years. Groups meet for 1 1/2 hours once a week for eight weeks and consist of 6-8 participants and two facilitators. The fifteen volunteer facilitators are in their 70s and 80s and are experienced group leaders. What’s discussed in AgeSong Marin stays in AgeSong Marin. Confidentiality is respected. There is an $80 administrative fee paid to Family Service Agency. Scholarships are available.

For further information, visit or call Family Service Agency of Marin at 415-491-5726.

This article appeared in the Great Age newsletter.

Aug 052010

Marin Independent Journal
August 5, 2010
by Ruth Rakovsky

I’m a retired professional who is part of the Civic Engagement Leadership Team. The program, run by Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership, affords me the opportunity to happily volunteer my professional services with Marin County nonprofits.

Quite by accident – although I suspect now it was not an accident at all – I was asked to meet with facilitators from AgeSong, a program of Family Service Agency of Marin. Since, in my former career I was very involved with nonprofits, and knew and respected FSA, my answer was a resounding, “Yes.”

Going in, I knew that AgeSong provides intimate discussion groups for those 65 and older. What I didn’t know is that AgeSong would also be an answer to my prayers.

I am 64 years old. My husband of eight years is a decade older and struggles with a myriad of health problems. While we are best friends, honeys and lovers, I also accept, but sometimes feel weary from, performing the less glamorous task of being his caregiver, chauffeur, and nurse practitioner.

With each passing day, I’ve needed to face the fact that my beloved husband may not be around much longer. I have spent many hours wondering what I’ll do if he dies, how I’ll be able to go on.

Before meeting the AgeSong facilitators, I had gotten to the point where, even though I enjoyed my children, grandchildren, volunteering and jewelry business, I had began to wonder how I could ever enjoy the time I have left with my husband, not without worrying all the time.

Initially, when meeting the AgeSong folks, I focused on developing marketing strategies to increase enrollment.  I didn’t really understand the heart of the program until I began the reading the book, “AgeSong,” by Elizabeth Bugental, the program’s co-founder.

Dr. Bugental had to have been looking into my own house when she wrote it. She saw the body limitations, the laughter, the childish play, the achy knees and limited vision – and yet, also how we were exploring new ways of looking at our limited world.

As I eagerly read the book and the facilitators’ lessons plans, I became captivated and motivated – almost on fire – to share the information with my husband. We had increasingly been fighting over his diet and activities, none of which were healthy for his congestive heart failure. We weren’t laughing the way we used to and weren’t playful enough even though we put on a good show. No wonder he wanted to snuggle in bed; it was the best place to recapture our sweetness and connection that couldn’t be marred by words or “bad” foods or “what ifs.”

Learning about AgeSong has helped me feel more hopeful about the future.

I’ve signed up to participate in the program, which aids older adults in dealing with the very issues my husband and I face. In discussion groups led by trained professionals, participants are able to draw greater meaning into their last phase of life; opening horizons to share their fears and joys, and to face denial and explore new possibilities.

Participants report that the groups make them feel more alive, capable of making a difference in our own lives (not always worrying about the others) and enriching their days.

My husband may die sooner than I want, but he is here with me now. We are learning to enjoy every day with open minds and hearts, and to discover new possibilities.

Thank you, AgeSong!

Aug 252009

Marin Independent Journal
August 25, 2009
by Paul Liberatore

“Aging is the journey of losing and finding.” That poetic insight is from the late Marin author Elizabeth Bugental’s book, “Agesong: Meditations For Our Later Years.” Passages from it and from its sequel, “Paradoxes,” are at the heart of a Marin Family Services Agency program called AgeSong, a series of peer groups for seniors 65 and older to share their concerns about issues like dealing with loss and looking to the future.

“A lot of the topics involve loss,” explained Ann Coffey, a retired psychotherapist who co-founded Agesong with Bugental four years ago. “People have lost a spouse, they’ve lost children, they’ve lost friends, they’ve lost their home. But more importantly, they’ve lost their power in the world. We talk about that, but we also talk about new connections and new possibilities.”

Bugental, who died in February at age 83, was a former nun turned snowy-haired hypnotherapist and masseuse.

“‘AgeSong’ offers a feast of ideas for living wisely and well, from a truly wise women of our time,” said Roger Walsh, a physician at the University of California.

“We would usually start each group with a short segment from Elizabeth’s book,” Coffey said. “That would be the jumping off platform for a discussion.”

Those discussions often come around to a concept called “the new old age,” which can be defined by asking questions such as, “What are the new possibilities? How do we live in the present? And how do we get the most out of the time we have left?” Coffey said.

At 65, she is one of the youngest in Agesong, but age differences haven’t been a problem for her.

“Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez says, ‘The old are younger in one another’s company,'” she said. “That’s what happens in these groups. The discussion are lively, animated, smart, insightful. It didn’t seem like what I thought it would be with a group of 80-year-olds.”

Since the first Agesong group in September 2005, 100 seniors have participated in 20 groups over four years.

“The part that makes me happy is that once people participate, over half of them want to continue,” Coffey said. “They say they have a much better sense of themselves and are more optimistic. They get new perspectives on what’s going on in their lives.”

She and Bugental were the original facilitators. Now there are nine. Two facilitators are assigned to each of the five groups – limited to eight participants each – starting in the fall.

Three groups are for eight-weeks, and two are ongoing and open-ended. They have become so popular that the fall session is filled and a waiting list has been started for groups beginning in January.

“Obviously, as the program grew we knew we needed more facilitators,” Coffey said. “They all came from the Agesong groups, most with backgrounds in counseling or psychotherapy.”

Claudette Josephson, 73, a former aide to Sen. Barbara Boxer, began as a participant in the first Agesong group and went on to become a facilitator. One of the issues that resonated with her was how older people become marginalized in a society that focuses so obsessively on youth.

“That’s a big issue,” she said. “It means you get discounted. Younger people don’t pursue getting to know you. You’re not consulted. You’re not invited to socialize. They don’t value age. I watched how I, as an older woman, became marginalized because of age. Until you feel it, it’s very hard to understand.”

Along with that are the physical effects of aging that are inescapable for everyone except, perhaps, Dorian Gray.

“The deterioration of physical beauty is particularly difficult for women,” Coffey said. “I don’t feel old on the inside. On the inside I still feel like a 20 or 30 year old. Then I look in the mirror and I see my mother or my grandmother.”

Many more women than men participate in the groups, but men have their concerns as well. Josephson remembers a man suffering from Parkinson’s disease and the effects of a stroke who wanted to talk about the most difficult subject of all: Death.

“He was pretty focused on death, but not in a morbid way,” she recalled. “He talked about having the power to terminate one’s life, and that isn’t something people normally talk about. It was unusual, but this group was articulate and talked about it. It was the first group that I had that was willing to broach that subject.”

For Coffey, Agesong has soothed her fears about aging.

“I’m much less fearful about getting old than I used to be,” she said, bringing up the positive aspects of being an older person.

“At this stage in life, creativity becomes more important, as does self reflection,” she noted. “We’re no longer running around working in our jobs and taking care of children and all the things we’ve done all our lives. Suddenly we have the time to reflect, and talk about what really matters.

“We talk about it being a privilege to reach old age,” she added. “I had never thought about it that way before, but it really is a privilege. A lot of what we talk about is appreciation, celebrating what we have and who we are and what we can still do.

“We can’t do a lot of the things we used to do, but we can still listen,” she concluded. “We can still observe and appreciate. Those are all important things for all of us to remember. They’re the riches that come out of these groups.”

Paul Liberatore is a staff writer for the Marin Independent Journal.

Oct 142005

Pacific Sun
October 14, 2005
by Jill Kramer

Each time Elizabeth Bugental begins a new chapter of her life, she takes it on with gusto. She entered a convent at age 21 with enthusiasm and certainty. Shortly after leaving 19 years later, she dove into a career as a psychotherapist and fell passionately in love. Now she’s embracing old age with equal relish.

Bugental is no Mary Sunshine. She’s grappled with plenty of hard times, and she expects more to come. But in nearly 79 years she has accumulated no regrets. And even though living long means living with loss, she’s found unexpected pleasures as well.

She’s compiled many of her musings on aging in a book published earlier this year, AgeSong: Meditations for Our Later Years. One of the lessons she’s learned is that being of use to others brings her joy. So she and another retired psychologist, Ann Coffey, have begun a new discussion group for seniors at Family Service Agency of Marin, where men and women over 65 can make connections, share concerns and, perhaps, gain a deeper appreciation of life. Her motive for volunteering her time, she says, is purely selfish.

Bugental grew up in Los Angeles during the Depression in a devout Catholic family, the oldest of four children spread 18 years apart. She caught the drama bug early on, attending Immaculate Heart High School and College in Hollywood, and managed to combine her love of theater with convent life, earning a doctorate in Speech and Drama and heading the theater arts department at her alma mater. As it turned out, her education, backed by the convent, led to her break with the Church. She spent a year in Rome, working on her dissertation and becoming increasingly disillusioned with Vatican policies. At the same time, she began longing for the parts of life she had denied herself for so many years.

She married James Bugental, one of the early leaders of the humanistic psychology movement, and became licensed as a marriage and family therapist. The two shared a private practice for more than 20 years, always making their services available to low-income clients. When she retired 12 years ago, Bugental’s dedication to serving the needy prompted her to volunteer at Family Service Agency, where she’s worked ever since. (The agency celebrates its 60th anniversary with a fund-raising gala October 21.)

Bugental’s husband suffered a stroke four years ago, wiping out most of his memory. On the day I visit he sits in the living room, his legs propped up in front of him and covered in a blanket, smiling as Bugental leads me out the back door to the garden. Their 15-year-old mutt, Dickens, follows us out. We sit at a green metal table shaded by an umbrella, surrounded by a riot of greenery and blossoms, as a fountain gurgles background music to our conversation. At one point, we hear her husband calling and Bugental bolts out of her chair, hurrying inside. Coming back, she tells me he’d heard someone at the door who was gone by the time she got there. She suspects it must have been the 5-year-old girl who lives across the street. “She likes to come over and play with me,” says Bugental. “See, that’s another thing that just arrives on my doorstep—seeing the world through the eyes of a 5-year-old. She’s full of wonderment. I find that gifts are all around us.”

• • • •

Why did you stop being a nun?

There are so many answers to that question. It was the ’60s, is one answer. I was in a wonderful community of women and they sent me to Stanford to get a doctorate in Speech and Drama. I went to Rome for a year to write my dissertation, which was on an Italian dramatist. And I didn’t like what I saw in terms of the separation between the Church and the people—the pomp and the ceremony. The Church didn’t respect women and didn’t seem to care for the poor. I just saw the dichotomy so much more strongly. And when I came home I felt I had to come to terms with it. But it wasn’t all idealism and disillusionment with the Church. I’d also tasted some real freedom living alone in Rome. I started out living in a convent and couldn’t bear the atmosphere, which was very different from everything I’d experienced here. It was very, very repressive. And the sisters that I lived with were like children. They had literally been collected from farms in Italy. It was such a different world. And my Superior actually gave me permission to move into a pensione right down the block from the Vatican. So I had a great deal of freedom.

Were there other reasons?

The other thing is that I wanted to live the part of my life I hadn’t lived. That’s the most basic reason. I just wanted to own my sexuality. I wanted an intimate relationship, a male partner, and maybe have children. And being free in the world. I loved walking into supermarkets when I first started doing that—having a credit card in my pocket and going into a store was a great experience! And having a sense of being a separate self, separate from the community, the church, so that I could find my own way—my own spirituality, my own personal belief system. That was sort of like growing up.

Was it a difficult decision?

I loved my community, so it was very hard. Because the women I was with really lived what I cared about, what I believed in. I wouldn’t have landed here without all that wonderful help and support and preparation and care and sisterhood—real sisterhood. So if I had my life to live over, I wouldn’t do it differently. I’ve sort of had everything. A lot of it was accidental, but nevertheless, I got it all.

Do you have children?

Jim and I have one daughter together. We’ve been married 37 years, but we didn’t start until I was 41 and he was 52. I tried to get pregnant and couldn’t. We adopted our daughter when she was 8-1/2. And we just had a grandson born. My husband has two children now in their 60s and two grown grandchildren who live on the East Coast, so we don’t see a lot of them. So it was a wonderful thing to have this baby come into our lives. I’m old for a first-time grandmother. I’m almost 79, and my friends have great-grandchildren. My daughter waited until she was 40 to have a baby, so we’re both late. But I’m glad that I’m this age for this because I have time to be completely in this experience. And because I’m at the other end of life and I know that I won’t see him grow up, I treasure this moment so much more. Listening to his heartbeat all the time my daughter was in labor was like being in touch with the universe. At the same time, I’m dealing with my husband, who’s 11 years older than I and had a stroke a few years ago.

How did you two meet?

I was in therapy with him before I had left the convent. My husband is a renowned therapist. My community paid for the therapy because I was so distraught when I came back from Rome and was going through all this upheaval. It was probably the hardest two years of my life. Then, after I left the convent and I was in therapy with someone else who worked in the same building as my husband, we met again. And we got married about two years later, in 1969. We were like 14-year-olds. It’s wonderful to be 14 when you’re 40. You know how to do it.

Much better than being 14 when you’re 14. Was he your first love?

No. Before I went in the convent, I was actually engaged. My decision to enter the convent had a lot to do with the teachings of the Church around sexuality. Sexuality is an obsession with the Catholic Church. And we were so warned about acting out sexually and I was a good girl and I think I was very frightened about being a sinner, about not being good enough. [My fiancé] was observing my codes, but it was hard. I also think he was not the right man. He had been in the service and, at the time, all these servicemen were coming home and getting married instantly. I was in a sorority and everybody was so eager to settle down and have children and put the war behind them. And I was swept up in that, but then I had second thoughts, that maybe this isn’t what I want to do.

But why join a convent?

I went to Immaculate Heart High School and College. I just loved this community of women who ran the high school and the college. I was very attached to them. And I was very idealistic and very Catholic. I associated spirituality with Catholicism. And as a high school student, I’d had several spiritual experiences that were very meaningful to me. It was during World War II and I was dating a lot of guys who were going off to war. And we were all very conscious of death. And Catholicism feeds into that because you learn that eternity is what it’s really all about—not this life, but preparing for eternal life. So I felt, if that’s the purpose of this life, I’d better do this one seriously. I also loved men, I can’t say I didn’t. But I was at that age when you want to put your whole self into something, and that seemed like the best place to do it. Until I was grown up, I associated everything that was good with Catholicism, because I was brought up in that world.

What were your parents like?

They were so wonderful. During the Depression, we took in relatives and everybody helped everybody. When I started out teaching elementary school, there was this little girl who basically told me she was being molested at home—and my mother took her in! She lived with my family for several years. And when I was teaching drama in college, there was a student who was Taiwanese who had lost her sponsor and would have had to go home—and my family took her in, too. And when she left, her brother came. He was a teenager at the time. He now lives in Los Angeles and he’s married and has two grown sons and he’s like my younger brother. So we have this whole branch of the family that is part Chinese.

Tell me about your father.

My father had studied to be a priest and he was very religious. My mother was, too, although not as obviously so as my father. He was a sales manager for a furnace company. We barely survived during the Depression. My mother worked as a secretary for $2 a day to support us. My father was ill the first 10 years of my life, so my mother kept food on the table. She had insisted on going to business school before they were married in case she ever had to go to work.

That was farsighted.

Especially in those days. Women didn’t do that then, they just got married. She was a smart lady. She lived to be 86. She died 10 years ago.

What was your father’s illness?

He had a goiter, a serious growth on his thyroid, and it took a long time to remove and heal. He found work, but it was way below his talents. He’d been classically educated in a seminary in Canada. He knew French and German and was very well-read. And he was painting furnaces in the basement of this company. But they were getting correspondence from abroad and he could translate it. So eventually he graduated to being vice president of the company.

Do you have siblings?

I have a sister 18 months younger, one brother 10 years younger and another brother 18 years younger. My mother was 38 and, at that time, it was kind of shocking. Because that meant everyone knew what you were doing! But we were all ecstatic about it.

I would imagine, though, that at least the first son, born right in the middle of the Depression, would have been a financial hardship.

We counted our pennies, and we lived in rented houses and we moved a lot. Every time they decided to sell the house, we had to move. So we lived in a lot of different homes until I was in 8th grade, when we finally had a house of our own, and that was in Hollywood. Before that, we lived in West Los Angeles, more toward Beverly Hills. It sounds much more upscale than it was. But we always went to Catholic schools. Somehow my parents eked out the money for tuition, because they thought it was very important that we be in Catholic schools. But now everybody in my family has left the church. When my mom died, she was the only one who was still Catholic.

You no longer consider yourself Catholic?

No. I’m still very attached to the Gospel and the story of the life of Jesus. In its pure form. Who he was, what he did, what he felt, how he lived is still very important to me, and it’s been a guiding factor in my life. I’m talking about “love your neighbor,” the Sermon on the Mount. The only sins that Jesus ever talked about were hypocrisy and greed, and I go with that. The other one was not using your talents, and I go with that. But all the rest that gets attributed to Christianity is not in Jesus’ Gospel. So I have to say I parted with the Catholic Church because I no longer could adhere to some of the its teachings. Adhering to the teachings of Jesus is not hard for me. But I cannot adhere to the place of women in the Church, the prescriptions against homosexuality, the terrible condemnation of birth control and planned parenting. Going to Third World countries and preaching against contraception feels to me like a terrible thing to do. And I could no longer be associated with that in any way. That had a lot to do with my leaving the convent. I could no longer represent something that I couldn’t agree with.

Did you ever consider having a career in theater?

I really wanted to be a teacher, but I did enjoy performing. And I grew up in Hollywood, so how could you not think about it? The high school and college I went to were right in the middle of Hollywood, and a lot of the people I went to school with were performers’ children or associated with movies in some way, so of course it was in our blood. We were all kind of theater-crazy. It was part of growing up.

After you left the convent, with all your background in drama, how did you make the transition to psychology?

There is a natural progression from drama to therapy because both are process-oriented. They both depend on looking inside to see what’s going on and expressing yourself from there. So I was used to facilitating that process. While I was getting my master’s degree I minored in speech therapy, which is almost all psychology, so that was a help. And I went back to school and got enough units for my MFT license, Marriage and Family Therapy. My husband was my mentor.

And now your relationship has turned upside down. How do you cope?

Jim and I have always fit perfectly. We always have been on the same wavelength. When I married him, I said it was because I would never be bored and that’s been true, even to this day when he has no memory. He doesn’t remember our life together, which is hard. [starts to tear up] But he knows me. And he can be in the moment. And if I went in right now and said I was upset about something, he would be there.

So he doesn’t remember his own life, either?

He remembers a lot of things from his early years, but nothing from about 30 on. He says things to me like, “I’d like to write a book.” And I tell him, “You’ve written seven books.” And I get the books and I show them to him and he says, “Oh, well, I’m glad I didn’t just think about it.” [laughs] He’s very funny. And he’s very present. I take him three mornings a week to a senior group and they love him and he loves being there. He’s very social. And at one time, that would have been a waste of time to him. He was more of an introvert, writing and thinking all the time and being a therapist and teaching therapists. That was his life. Always producing, creating a new workshop, a new this, a new that. He would not have ever sat for three hours with a bunch of people he had nothing in common with and talk or play games. He does now. And it’s really beautiful. That’s why I’m so devoted to the notion of peers for elders now. Because we’re all in the same boat, in a way, even though we haven’t had the same lives. We’re dealing with so many of the same issues. We’re dealing with deep, existential issues, and you can’t avoid that when you get old. Not if you stay awake.

Did he recognize you immediately after the stroke?

Yes, but I don’t know if he could have told you my name. But he knew who I was, and depended on me, deeply. I’m writing a chapter now for a book on caretaking, about how to take care of yourself while you’re taking care of someone else. A whole component of care is waiting and watching and not being able to do much. Waiting to see who’s going to emerge after this crisis.

Waiting to see who’s going to emerge from him or from you?

Both, actually. That’s a good question. Because one of the things we did well was converse. We traveled a lot. We lived in Spain for a year and we went to India and we had lots to talk about and ideas to exchange. And that person isn’t there. Something else is, and that’s my job, to find who is there, and make my peace with who he is now. It sounds much harder than it is, as it turns out.

It sounds awful.

I know. I don’t know why I’m perfectly happy doing this. I love him, obviously. But it seems like the person I love is really the essence of him, who’s still here. And when I really think of things being tragic, it’s when he dies. Which he probably will do before me. Then talk to me—I might be a basket case. I don’t know.

Tell me about the support group you’re starting.

The idea is to build a network of peers, going through the same things. I’ve been having a wonderful time meeting new people my age because, when you start talking about the real things, the internal things, it’s as if you know each other. One of the problems is that people get isolated at this age. Maybe they move to be near a son or daughter, but the son or daughter has a very busy life and they end up spending a lot of time alone—through nobody’s fault, it’s just the way it works. Or they lose a spouse and during the grieving process they withdraw. It’s very easy to withdraw when you’re feeling sad all the time. Or they have a physical disability which makes it harder to get around, and pretty soon it seems like it’s not worth the effort.

So this purpose of the group is to help older people form new friendships.

And to give people a place to talk about what really matters. Everybody who’s older is dealing with loss. There’s no way that you can get older without dealing with loss. You’re losing your friends, maybe you’ve lost a spouse, you’ve lost your parents. And every day there’s something that happens that reminds you of the end of life. So we carry around the awareness that life is short.

Can you say what is the most surprising thing about growing older?

[long pause] The discovery of other parts of myself that I hadn’t paid enough attention to, that I’d been too busy to acknowledge. Like what really makes me happy, in the moment, not in the global sense. What I want in this moment, right now. Because time is limited. Because I live with a man without a memory, I’m aware that this moment is all I have. And I am talking to you from my heart because that’s what I like. I don’t like chitchat. I would much rather tell you the truth about what’s going on. That gives me joy. And I’ve heard a lot of older people say they have more choice. Even though the body is giving out, you’re more in touch with yourself and who you are and you make better choices. You don’t have all the pulls of a job and children and keeping up and achieving and competing and winning and being beautiful. You have to let go of all those things and it leaves a lot of space. And it’s just so beautiful to sit and look at the flowers or enjoy whatever’s happening, whatever is here, now. It’s a luxury.

What prompted you to write the book?

The thing that made me write the book is that I feel sad for people who don’t get to have this life phase, who don’t get to be old. It seems like a loss. This is such a wonderful time of life. And people who die young don’t get to see it. I’m surprised that it’s so good. I thought it would be awful to be old. And it turns out to be really good! And the world is in such as mess. Don’t get me started on that. Sometimes I feel helpless, but you can always write a letter or make a phone call. That’s the other part about being old, is that I can do that.

With authority.

Exactly! I can say, damn it, I know something, and this is wrong!

You can get away with a lot more when you’re old.

You can, that’s true! People are intimidated, and that’s good! [laughs] I never was able to intimidate anybody and now I can, and I’m so glad! Who would hit an old lady?

Jill Kramer is a staff writer for the Pacific Sun.