Kirk Douglas: Old Age Can Be the Best Time of Life

"Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be,/ The last of life, for which the first was made." The poet Robert Browning wrote that when he was young. I am old and better qualified to vouch for the truth of those words. Old age, if you're lucky enough to reach it, is a unique experience in life. You have to find the key to dealing with old age.

One way is to not hesitate to laugh at yourself. I am almost 92 years old. When I tell people that I'm "living on the house's money," they laugh, and then I add, "I don't buy green bananas, they take too long to ripen." Humor helps longevity.

Years ago I was at the bedside of my dying mother, an illiterate Russian peasant. Terrified, I held her hand. She opened her eyes and looked at me. The last thing she said to me was "Don't be afraid, son, it happens to everyone." As I got older, I became comforted by those words. Death happens to everyone. But I always thought death happens to everyone else.

As you get older you lose so many friends, you feel lonely, you get depressed. Depression is the greatest obstacle of old age. In my case, a deep depression set in when I had a stroke 12 years ago and my speech was affected. The thought that I would never make another movie echoed in my brain. I was constantly beset with passivity. I just wanted to lie in bed and do nothing. Fortunately, my wife believes in tough love. When I lay there feeling sorry for myself, Anne would say, "Get your ass out of bed and work on your speech therapy." That helped.

Depression is caused by thinking too much about yourself. Try to think of others, try to help them. You will be amazed how that lessens your depression. That satisfaction is priceless.

The ticking of a clock makes you aware of and appreciate the time you have with your children and grandchildren. You wonder how they will deal with the problems they face after you are gone. You want to do what you can to make it easier for them and for younger generations.

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas in a promotional portrait for 'Champion', directed by Mark Robson, 1949. Silver Screen Collection/Getty

My wife and I just finished our campaign to build 400 safe playgrounds for the children of Los Angeles. This was sorely needed to replace the decrepit and dangerous play apparatuses that existed. We attended every inauguration—400 of them. It was gratifying to see the happy, smiling faces of our growing citizens.

We established the Anne Douglas Center for Homeless Women, a recovery center for women addicted to alcohol and drugs. The letters of gratitude from so many of them—many of them who slept in boxes in the street—are overwhelming.

Twice a year I visit the Kirk Douglas High School and talk to the students. The school is a continuing-education program that helps kids who had been considering ending their education. I give a $500 check to each graduating student. We started the program with four graduates; now there are 30.

I established the Kirk Douglas Theatre to develop the talents of young artists. My joke is: "I didn't want to be a film star, I wanted to be a star on the stage. In my 90s I discovered how to accomplish that—build your own theater."

But I don't list my projects to declare what a good guy I am. In fact, I am a very selfish guy, because helping others has its rewards. It makes you feel good.

The greatest dividend to old age is the discovery of the true meaning of love. When I was younger my sense of love was not very deep. I was too involved with my career. Growing older brought me closer to my wife. It was like looking at her for the first time. I got to know who she was, and she really got to know me. Now I am much more romantic than I was years ago, when so much of my life was spent portraying other characters on the screen.

But I am not the hero of my life story. The heroes are my mother and father. They scraped together enough money to sail steerage class to America to give their family a better life. All my life I heard my mother say, "America, such a wonderful land." When she saw me work my way through college and go into the field that I love, acting, I would constantly hear that phrase. Finally, after years of being so wrapped up in myself and my career, I realized what my mother was saying: America is a land of opportunity and promise. A place where everyone has a chance.

Robert Browning was incredibly wise for his years. At 91, I agree completely: "The best is yet to be."