Successful Ager in Action: Fred Hillhouse


BY JANE SAWYER

The sun rises over the Point Loma Peninsula each morning to greet longtime resident Fred Hillhouse. Fred has seen forty-two years come and go from his modest, stucco home and well-tended garden atop this peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the San Diego Bay. While Fred settled on this peninsula first explored by Europeans in 1542, his roots extend to New England. His ancestor, William Bradford, became the first governor of Plymouth after arriving on the Mayflower in 1620.

Fred is matter-of-fact about coordinating a visiting nurse, gardener, housekeeper, and a caregiver from a calendar and yellow-lined pad on his desk. He steadily manages his independence this way. His 2017 memoir, My Life Adds Up -- a play on words by the former bookkeeper, describes his East Coast youth and love for beer, dancing, theater, and nightlife in New York City and San Francisco. After a deeper look at late nights and bars, Fred calculated the exact six-figure sum he spent before he quit drinking forty years ago!

Fred’s memory for details is remarkable. His book describes his 1945 WWII landing at Okinawa, digging his foxhole, and repositioning himself as low as possible in the damp sand to sleep. His unit moved out at sunrise, under heavy clouds of smoke, released to obscure them from Japanese suicide bombers. His division built a government hospital, where he worked on a medical ward. After less than a year, Typhoon Louise destroyed much of the island, including the hospital, and drove both locals and navy personnel into hillside caves to survive.

Fred studied accounting before his Navy enlistment and has enjoyed a lifelong penchant for record keeping, both in professional positions at Chase Bank and Buffalo Solvent and Chemical in New York State, the San Francisco Giants baseball team and New Frontier Trading Company in San Diego and personally through his collections of memorabilia ranging from photos of family, to the music, film, and baseball greats he has met.

There are also hundreds of autographs from presidents, first ladies, actors, and comedians, and hundreds of Playbills that reflect his love for theater. Ballroom dance, his first passion, no doubt accounted for many willing dance partners and his agility in later life!

Hiring student caregivers from nearby Point Nazarene College has worked well for Fred for many years. Marco, his current caregiver, comes three or four times a week and checks in by phone on other days. They go to the grocery store, doctor’s office, pharmacy, and on other errands. Marco tries to encourage Fred to join him in calisthenics at the house, but Fred shrugs his shoulders and tells Marco that he’ll consider it.

A May 2018 heart attack and injuries from falling in 2012 were serious health events for Fred. The fall occurred when his shoe got caught on a garden hose, and he fell sustaining severe head and neck injuries. Luckily, he dialed 9-1-1 before he passed out. He has no memory of the next two months in the hospital room, a rehab facility, and a private care home, where he slowly regained his health and then moved back to Point Loma.

The day I visited, Fred rose from his chair, grabbed the adjacent walker, and showed me his home. He uses a laptop for email, internet surfing, and solitaire. There’s a large den, doubling as a gallery, with paintings and photos of his beloved cats and dogs. We also looked at the backyard, where neatly manicured grass, plants, and garden statuary show his years of care.

According to Fred, there is no great secret to his longevity. He rises early, receives a call from the neighbor lady checking in on him, sees his few weekly visitors, and speaks with his brother and two nieces and their families by phone. 

He had a book signing on June 30, and now he is resuming work on creating his annual Christmas card for 242 recipients, including Queen Elizabeth and the President. Next winter he’ll sit on his sofa and re-read his favorite replies. It’s all part of a steady and satisfying rhythm of life that Fred has pursued for years, and he will likely continue.

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Fred Hillhouse is a praticpant of the Successful AGing Evaluation Study (SAGE)