Jimmy Carter writes about 'Virtues of Aging' Former president, at 74, is busy writing, doing good around the world

November 26, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- Former President Jimmy Carter remembers clearly when reality struck, when he knew he had reached senior citizen-dom, a state he had until then rejected as only for older folks.

He and his wife, Rosalynn, and friends had ordered identical breakfasts at a cafe in Georgia, but when the bills came, Carter's was less. An honest man, Carter "called the waitress over and said, 'You made a mistake,' " he recalls. " 'You didn't charge me enough.' "

Whereupon, a farmer of a certain age sitting at the next table said: "That ain't no mistake, Mr. President. They give free coffee to senior citizens."

Trim and vigorous at 74, Carter deals more in dreams than in regrets. Sure, he wishes he "could have had four more years in the White House. I wish I could have made a lot of progress on Mideast peace."

When "retired" involuntarily at 56 after a single term, he was, he admits, devastated.

"We went back to our tiny town [Plains, Ga.]. I didn't have a job. We were deeply in debt. We thought the best time of our life was over," a feeling that millions of Americans share upon getting the handshake and the gold watch.

Things looked grim, he says, until "we finally had the courage to do what everybody needs to do: to sit down in a time of quiet contemplation and say, 'OK, what is there that I have? What are my talents? What are my abilities?' "

The Carters asked themselves, too, what interesting experiences might await them.

"Out of that analysis," Carter says, "has come almost everything that we do now," none of which has to do with politics.

One thing they do is write books. Carter, who has turned out 14 since leaving office, was in Los Angeles recently promoting "The Virtues of Aging" (Ballantine Books, $18.95), his newest, in which he extols the joys of the golden years and addresses such challenges as dying with dignity.

Chapter headings, borrowed from a mountain philosopher who was a Carter friend, include such nuggets as "Anybody who can do at 60 what he was doing at 20 wasn't doing much at 20" and "When you're pushing 70, that's exercise enough."

Carter wrote of himself and his wife: "Our primary purpose in our golden years is not just to stay alive as long as we can, but to savor every opportunity for pleasure, excitement, adventure and fulfillment."

Carter is a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, a deacon of the Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains and a dedicated and visible volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit organization that helps the needy build homes for themselves.

He also heads the Carter Center in Atlanta, whose programs worldwide include monitoring democratic elections in developing countries, attempting to eradicate disease, helping African farmers improve crop yields and mediating conflict in countries from Haiti to North Korea.

Volunteerism has played a major role in the Carters' later years, and he laments the reluctance of other seniors to volunteer.

He asked rhetorically what most people would do, given only two months to live.

"Would we go out and try to earn more money to build up our bank account or would we try to move into a larger house or would we buy a fancy car or would we try to get our name in the paper?"

More likely, "We would say, 'OK, what are the important things in my life?' It would be the highly personal things -- probably in our own home or our own back yard or visiting our friends or cementing relationships with members of our family, or reaching out to someone against whom we have a grudge."

In choosing "The Virtues of Aging" as his title, Carter says, he was interpreting virtues as blessings, the kind that come with age:

"We have a chance to heal wounds that might have existed between us and other people. We have an opportunity to expand the ties of understanding with the people we love most."

Despite the upbeat tone of his book, and his discussion of such joys of aging as having grandchildren, Carter is no Pollyanna and didn't shrink from addressing nitty-gritty issues.

One is money -- specifically, the Social Security crunch. In the next 20 years or so, he predicts, Social Security will be the catalyst for "the biggest and most divisive and bitter debate that our country has ever seen on a domestic issue."

The most difficult chapter to write, Carter said, was the one dealing with death. He spoke of how "we can approach that inevitable end of our life on Earth with a degree of equanimity and without the painful and excruciating feeling of sorrow, how we can minimize the burdens, both psychologically and financially, on the people we love most."

The Carters have living wills that preclude artificial measures to keep them alive should there be no hope for recovery.

Does he fear death?

"No, not at all. I can't say, in good conscience, that I look forward to death, but I don't have any fear of death. I guess for one thing I'm grateful for my religious faith, which provides great comfort" and a belief in life after death.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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