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Flunking Retirement

Yale Public Health Magazine, Focus: Spring 2023
by Jane E. Dee


Yale alumni Phil Moriarty, BA ’62, and Sam Waterston, BA ’62, are flunking retirement and working into their 80s. Moriarty is CEO at Moriarty/Fox, Inc., executive search consultants, and Waterston, an Academy Award-nominated actor, recently completed the final season of Grace and Frankie, and is a cast member on Law & Order. Both also advocate on behalf of the environment and issues related to climate change.

During the 2022 Yale alumni reunion, they participated on a panel discussion about working into your 80s with Yale Professor of Public Health Becca Levy, author of the book, Breaking the Age Code. We continued the conversation with Moriarty and Waterston on Zoom, discussing Levy’s findings about how positive age beliefs influence aging and how age beliefs have influenced their own lives, especially when it comes to working and staying active.

Sam: Well, I don't know what it would be like to not be working. Very fortunately, somebody's been willing to employ me right along. And so my experience today is very much like my experience 10 years ago or 20: one never knows in my business whether there's going to be another job after this one. And that's true now, and it was true before. Really, the surprise to me is that I thought that people would lose interest in employing me a long time ago. And I just think I'm very fortunate that they haven't.

Phil: I've not not worked, including working as a student at Yale. So I've been working for a long time, too, and I would say that it is addictive, and as long as the phone rings and people want whatever services I'm offering, I'll keep going until I find I can't.

In Breaking the Age Code, Professor Levy discusses the importance of positive models of aging. Who are your positive models of aging?

Phil: Well, certainly my dad, who lived to be just shy of 99. [Moriarty’s father, also Phil Moriarty, was Yale’s swimming and diving coach for 37 years, from 1939-1976, and coach of the U.S. diving team at the Rome Olympics in 1960.] He led a healthy life, an active life, but what surprised his family when he retired from Yale was that he just stopped, and then he started writing poetry. He published 10 volumes of poetry and whatever little bit of money came in from that he donated to Yale, and it was an interesting part of his life. So he retired from work-work, but kept very engaged.

Sam: Well, there are a lot of people in show business who go on working, so I suppose you could think of them as role models, but I didn't take them as role models, in fact, I didn't consciously imitate anybody in my career. My sister, who retired from teaching at 60 or 65, whatever the legal limit was, has been living in retirement ever since. She's four years older than I am, and happy as a clam. So find the path that suites you. That surely suited her and continues to suit her and like Phil’s father, she's been incredibly busy as a "retired person."

How did you two meet? Were you friends at Yale, or have you gotten to know each other at Yale reunions?

Phil: We really have come to know each other through reunions and then more recently through my contact with Dick Wolf, who is somebody that Sam has worked for and continues to work for. [Dick Wolf is executive producer of Law & Order.]

Sam: That raises an interesting issue. It matters who you are working for in your advanced years, just as much as it matters, in the same way, when you're younger. Dick Wolf is a wonderful employer. He doesn't casually dismiss people, and I'm not the only one to have been the beneficiary of that. I started out as the assistant district attorney on the show, which is a position that Hugh Dancy is now playing, and at a certain point, Dick Wolf said, "You know, you're not going to be able to do this forever. Would you care to take over as the district attorney?" This is not your usual show business story.

You both also work on behalf of public health issues such as climate change. Phil, you are a trustee for a college in Maine focused on human ecology, the College of the Atlantic.

Phil: The COA sort of grabbed my soul. It's a tiny new college with one major, human ecology, the relationship between people and two environments, the natural environment, and the man-made environment. My long trusteeship there, I'm the immediate past chairman, has been rewarding. It's been eye-opening and world-opening, that little college in Bar Harbor, Maine on Mount Desert Island. I'm glad to be a non-voting trustee emeritus, and I still attend meetings. It keeps you thinking, and challenged, and therefore I think in a younger frame of mind.

And Sam is chair of the Oceana Board of Directors, advocating for ocean conservation.

Sam: Work for me is not just about working in show business, although I've been really fortunate because of my work in show business. I'm chairman of the board of Oceana, which is a really extraordinary ocean advocacy organization.

Sam, are you still volunteering with Refugee International?

Sam: I'm on the emeritus board of Refugee International, but I am not an active participant in refugee issues anymore, although I got an enormous education about it from them. I was on their board for about a quarter of a century, and I came to the board because of an experience in show business. I made a movie called The Killing Fields, about Cambodia. And, I love telling this story, there were two women named Susan, one very short, and one very tall. And they came up to me at a promotional event in Boston for The Killing Fields, and Sue, the shorter of the two, sort of buttonholed me and said, “Now you know about this. What are you going to do about this?” And that was the beginning of my association with Refugees International.

So your advocacy on behalf of refugees stems from your work on the movie, The Killing Fields, for which you were nominated for an Academy Award, is that right?

Sam: This is true. And I don't mind you saying so. It was a gigantic education of a mind-expanding kind. And, and this is emphatically true of the parts I've played at Oceana, that this was foreign territory to me, not what I expected to be doing with myself, and I didn't know whether I had any competence. So it was a big surprise to me, and an enormous honor to be made chairman because of the fact that it was such foreign territory and I became chairman well after most people have retired. So, it's a great, big important chunk of my life, especially as we are all experiencing climate change. Phil, I bet you feel the same way, that although small as it may be, the fact that you're doing something about the obvious tidal waves that are breaking over us makes it easier to sleep at night. Makes it nicer to get up in the morning.

Phil: Very well said. I think the word “learning” is a big part of what we're getting out of these positions that are non-compensated, and it's just as important, if not more important, as paid work. I learned something from the faculty and the students at this little College of the Atlantic. Sam, it's amazing how similar our understanding of work is and how it's paired with both continuing to work for pay and giving back.

Sam: I am almost ready to say, do we need to call this work? Life is very interesting. And to be engaged in life Is just great. So wherever the opportunity comes -- whatever you call it -- that chance to be engaged is invaluable.

Are there moments that stand out in your careers, things that you would do differently?

Sam: Oh, regrets and rewrites. That just seems to me to be generally a waste of time.


Phil: Here here! Just keep putting one foot in front of the other and not always looking back.

Sam: I was taking the cross-town bus on 57th Street, and in the old days in New York they used to put quotes on advertising. And there was one from Satchel Paige that stuck in my mind: "Keep on running and don't look back because someone may be gaining on you." Maybe that's a good thing to have over your desk if you're thinking about not retiring. It's just, you know, one foot in front of the other. They'll let you know when it's time to lie down, you don't really think that up for yourself.

If you had to describe aging in three words, what would the three words be?

Phil: I would have to say it would start with respect. Sort of veneration of seniors, knowing that someone who's ahead of you in the chronology of life can still impart something to you.

Sam: I don't know how to answer that. What came into my mind as you were asking the question was the experience that I have had, and a lot of my contemporaries have all the time, which is that the self that they know is not 82 or 80 or 75, nor 15, nor 20, but more or less the same person that they became at some point when they started thinking for themselves, but with more experience, some of it useless, some of it invaluable.

I went to a Harvard-Yale game to join with other environmentalists to interrupt at halftime, which was appreciated by some and not appreciated by others, both having completely legitimate points of view. But I went there and most of the people getting ready to participate were Yale students. And I'll never forget the look on this young man's face when he said to me, "You went to Yale?" because obviously what he couldn't believe was that there could be anybody that old who'd actually gone to the college that he was going to. So what do people think of when they think of old age? It's the whole range, isn't it?

In her book, Dr. Levy mentions the infantilizing language that some people use with older people. How do you respond to infantilizing or ageist language?

Sam: Grace and Frankie had an enormous amount to say about all this and figured out how to laugh at it. Being ignored in the cash-out line at a store because you are old and dismissed and all that stuff happens -- that's real. Laughing in its face is really, I think, the best answer.

I’m wondering, have your age beliefs shifted over time?

Sam: I think the big surprise is the durability of this self that you develop at a much earlier stage in life, so you may be looking prospectively at age. I would've thought that older people had -- I wouldn't know how you would characterize them in detail -- but that they had older people's thoughts. And the surprise is that you think very much the same way you did when you were younger. Your visible aspect changes how it is perceived, but your inner nature remains rather steadily what it was. The surprise is to get old and meet yourself there.

Phil: I was going to interrupt you and say the surprise is that here we are ­­– we are that older generation. And you experience that in a lot of different ways when you lose your parents and you step up and you know that within the family dynamic, you're it.

Sam is absolutely right. You finally do get to some point when that frontal cortex and your behavior and your ambitions and your spirituality and your life is determined. And it's not that you coast, we're not coasting, but we are who we are. And I don't look in the mirror when I shave every morning and say, "Oh my God, am I old?" I don't, I never have, I don't do that at all. Every once in a while, I must admit to saying, gee, I really look like my dad. But that's with respect, not with anything else. And thank God for the next generation, for those grandkids who stay in touch with grandpa and grandma.

I think also Yale played a role in how we look at life. I go back to learning and keeping those neurons going. We haven't talked about the importance of diet, and of physical exercise. We've talked about mental exercise, but all of that I think is set partially because of how we were educated. Your dad was a teacher, right?

Sam: Yes.

Phil: And my dad was a teacher. He was teaching swimming, not history or philosophy, but you keep learning. You take what you're given, and you expand on it and grow from it. But you never stop. I don't think my 99-year-old dad stopped learning. You are who you are at a certain point. And I'm blessed and I'm comfortable with who I am. And happy. I'm not regretting a lot, I'll tell you that, at all.

Sam: I think maybe as you get older, you do figure out how to say what you mean, and you may have meant it for years and not known how to articulate it, even to yourself.

An issue we're sure to be hearing about in the next two years is President Biden's age: he's 80. Do you have an opinion about whether somebody who is 80 should be President of the United States?

Sam: I think there's a subject maybe out of sensitivity to our tender feelings that you haven't brought up, which is that health is a gigantic determinant of what age feels like, is like. So I think the material question about Biden is, is he healthy enough? Not how old he is. Because you could be 40 and be incapable of meeting the demands of being President of the United States.

So far, his experience seems, to me at least, to have been enormously helpful with the situation in Ukraine. It seems to me that it's very valuable experience and it's of the kind that you can't get from a book, that you only learn by spending years in Washington, D.C. and understanding how that works.

Phil: It's the living education, the living experience. You're living it, and you can share it and hopefully share it wisely. Yeah, I agree. I don't think the age should matter a hoot.

Final thoughts?

Phil: I was amazed at all the people in our class, most of us are 82 right now, and how much we've really learned. Look at what the complexity of a class at Yale is now. First of all, our class, we were 1,025 when we entered. We were all male and all but two of us were white. It's astonishing how far we've grown and how much we've learned, and I'm thrilled to be still participating in playing the game.

We did have fun getting to know each other at the reunion. I mean, it's amazing because Sam and I were not buddies at Yale, and we didn't cross paths.

Sam: Well, one of the things that Yale probably doesn't know as it cultivates their alumni is that they're doing us all an enormous favor by keeping the links up and opening old pathways that haven't been explored before.

Did you know?

Participants with the most positive views of aging were living, on average, 7.5 years longer than those with the most negative views.

90%: the percentage of centenarians who were functionally independent in their 90's.

People who live long lives can teach us how to live healthy lives.

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