Don Rickles

The burgeoning demographics of aging, which is transforming cites and suburbia alike, recently prompted me to attend the UCLA Conference on Technology and Aging, held at the lovely Skirball Center, cultural hub of LA’s older Jewish community. The following are unedited excerpts from my diary:

9:00 am: Arrive, following hour on freeway. Write down number of parking lot space on back of hand. Will be accused of being 13-year-old girl.

9:15 am: Enter main conference room where Gary Small, conference coordinator and UCLA creator of “Mind Games” method of healthy brain aging, is speaking. Huge best-selling books. Scientific essence:  concentrated mental exercise registers as heightened metabolism in brain segment dedicated to short-term memory.  Better memory results.

Note portrait of Small, projected on auditorium wall. Is not…small.  Many in audience doing Sudoku and passing gas. From “iffy” lox at breakfast?

930 am: Pee/coffee/pee/coffee/pee  break. Stampede to the john. Then: Book signing of Gary Small latest book.  Coffee weak, but does job--urinary tract job.

9:45 am: Crowd forms at entrance to most popular seminar, “Mind Technology,” moderated by… Gary Small. Everyone wants to remember something they forgot. But how do they know they forgot it? Existential.  

Consult Heidegger? No. Troubling post-Weimar issues.

 Note: nowhere is posted the one highly discouraging fact that every Small-ische consumer should really remember: All recent research shows Sudoku etc does not prevent or delay onset of dementia, Alzheimer’s, etc.

This is why Herr Small has repositioned and repackaged “mind games” theory. Now claim is that doing crosswords, etc., “can decrease the acceleration of cognitive decline.” 

Decreased…acceleration…of decline. Think of car. Hmm. How would that work?  Go to bathroom pondering.

9:55: Thinking practically, choose “Urban and Home Design for the Elderly” despite premonition of major Swedish-ness and possible IKEA-lingonberry issues.

10:00 am: First speaker commences. Is “too thin,” according to woman behind me.”Shush Sadie!” whispers lady next to her. “Gay. Nobody cooks for him.” Topic: universal design.

10:15 am: Powerpoint, nice presentation. Smart fellow.  Idea is that certain primary shapes and layouts suit almost all human needs, and can be altered easily to suit the young, singles, families, the elderly.

Danish, Japanese examples beautiful—but so stone cold modern!--and no rugs etc to cushion universally inevitable falls by elderly—the universally leading cause of alterkockker* death. Why?

10:30 am: Questions. Immediately: “But where’s the grab-bars in the can?” Another: “Yeah. Everybody here—that’s the big problem—lifting your tuchas off the toilet. If that’s so universal, where’s the lift-up bars?

All day I’m in there without one!” Speaker tries to deflect, saying that the “mounting blocks” for later installation of tuchas-bars can be designed in.

Always with the excuses, these gayim goyim.

10:35: New presentation, this by v. sincere lady from Bay Area w/huge hair. Lady, not Bay. Her hair. Not…Oh the hell with it it!  Anyway, major riff is that homes of elderly can be retrofitted with just about anything one can imagine to make life easier, safer. If elderly and rich as  Croesus.  Example:  Hydraulic lifts can be installed in backyard so burglars can’t see that elderly live there.

Alternative of gun turrets not discussed.

 Also:  conversion of bathrooms into safer “barrier-free” environments. This, in Smallian vernacular, is done to decrease acceleration of falls. “Also,” she says, “notice the highly contrasting colors of the walls and ceilings.” Makes airy circles with hands. “That’s to avoid confusion and provide points of reference.” 

Hmm. Can’t help but note:  “Highly contrasting” colors are beige and spleege yellow.  And: in middle of bathroom stands large, clear plexi-glass shower stall. Isn’t that kind of… dangerous? One could easily walk into, no? I wake the fellow next to me and ask. 

“Yes, that’s bad,” he says.

Me: “Then transparent is not a good idea for the elderly?”

He: “I agree. Transparent is best.”


10:45: Questions on way out. Ask redesign lady about beige-spleege yellow issue. Mini-lecture ensues. “Those are highly contrasting colors—and people want transparency!“she says, her one hand squeezing unfortunate  piece of paper like sponge. 

 Yes, I want to reply, but it’s in international financial transactions that they want transpa… “You should look at my website. Who’s next?”

Decide not to press issue. Extended interior design discussion may be entered into evidence at any future gay-straight tribunal. 

All the time I’m thinking!

11:00: P/c/p/c/p   break. Herr Doktor Small, chipper, glides among admirers. Impossible to buttonhole. V. fast, that Herr Doktor Professor  fellow.

11:15 am: Last morning session. Pick topic: “Driving and the Elderly.” After all, by 2050 will be one million centenarians in the US, and many will want to continue driving at least until their spring chicken nineties.

First presenter gives myth-shattering traffic accident data, showing that, for the most part, older drivers are better, safer drivers than younger ones. Until, that is, they become demented, or even mildly cognitively impaired. That’s when things get messy, a psychiatrist at the UCLA-VA medical center, tells.

Shows experiment he did comparing two older subjects—one normal, the other with what is termed mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. 

Professor wanted to compare reaction times in a driving test. He filmed them with an installed rear-seat camera as they traversed the small streets inside the verdant VA compound in West Los Angeles.  Near troublingly huge cemetery.

Driver one, Normal, was presented with variety of “situations” along the way: an intersection where the oncoming street is declared “no entrance” and the left hand street is labeled “One Way.” Right turn is only possible turn, which Normal navigates, albeit a little jerkily. Video looks like early Internet video. 

Next, as if to truly make the test LA-specific, comes  a family of Mexicans—I am not kidding—who begin to rush out into the street.  

Think:  those freeway signs down in San Diego that warn drivers to watch out for illegals fleeing INS. Except this with real people!  Herr Normal swerves.

Close to end of the course, again not kidding, a young black man appears to hurl himself into the street. “Ooosh!” But again, Normal swerves. 

Now comes subject two, MCI Man (for mild cognitive impairment.) Car starts off jerky. (Accordion music appropriate?) MCI man comes to the intersection and turns…right into oncoming traffic. “That’s not good,” she says. “Damn.” Researcher uses instructor wheel to turn car around. 

Visual effect not fun. Nausea.

Like being in car with mildly cognitively impaired driver. 

Mexican Test next ? Of course.  Fortunately, MCI swerves.

Unfortunately, when he comes to young African-American man Subject Two just keeps on rolling. Researcher seizes controls and deftly avoids instigating new LA Riots. Boom muthu-*^%$ gangstah!


Remainder of session boldly plods along. Big Hair—and big hair I mean!—from Automobile Club comes up. Is eyeball-rolling huffy because professor took too much of her time, like it’s our fault!  Presents basically the same statistics as the others. (As in: by 2020, 68 percent of drivers in  California will be above age of 68.)

Then goes on to discuss Automobile Club efforts for improving safety among elderly drivers. 

Imagine discussion of better driving hygiene, better awareness techniques, etc. Maybe “driver fitness?” 


Automobile Club lady shows—what else?—way to expensively refit car for elderly. Official effed-up brand name: “CarFit.”


Powerpointische presentation…

 “We’ve got a lot of new tools for you, you know,” she says. “We have these new head restraints that… tilt around.” Apparent market niche: seniors with head-spinning Exorcist-type disabilities.

“’n’ we’ve got easier ignition keys for those with arthritis.” Want one. Because nice design butdon’ttellbecauseofthatpossibleTribunal.

She goes on: there’s raised-up brake and gas peddles (“because [with cloying semi-cynical lilt] we dooo get shorter, don’t we!”); boosted seats to improve line of sight (but macular degeneration not considered); and airbags that, when deployed, don’t pin frail elderly to rear  window like those “funny” splayed-out Heathcliff the Cat window dolls. 

“With us, the car is the issue!”

Ohhyeah. That goddamn car.

Last: Entrepreneur named Skip, who is selling—“for $800, cheap”—an on-dash warning system for driving errors, like unconsciously wandering between lanes, following too closely behind, going too fast, going to slow. 

Has nothing for deciding to go in first place.

System beeps and flashes warning light.

Personal flashback to light-prompted Andromeda Strain epilepsy scene but nevermindthat.

Like Skip. But like Skippy peanut butter too.

1:45 PM: Depart after lunch proclaimed by Gary Small to be “brain healthy food.” Dry salmon and usual anti-oxidant omega gag-fest.

Sunight over Sepuveda Pass golden, lovely. Autumn finally here. Love LA. Am swirling in accelerated sea of universal wisdom.

Recall joke by my retired mother:

 “Two seniors, Herb and Joe, were driving down the road. They go along and along. Then Herb, the driver, goes right through a red light, like nothing happened. Joe, the passenger thinks, `Ooosh, what the hell  was that?’ but decides to let it pass.

 “Then the driver does it again, floosh!, right through the light! Joe now thinks, `I better say something or I’m dead,” but holds off. A few miles pass, then, zoom, right through another red light. OK, Joe thinks, that’s it.

“Herb, “ he says, “did you know you went right through that red light just now?”

Herb turns to him and says: “I’m driving?”                           


*Yiddish for “old farts”

Greg Critser is the author, most recently, of Eternity Soup: Inside the Quest to End Aging (Harmony), to be published in January.