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As if turning 65 wasn’t an occasion enough, Ian Brown lives through his first Seniors’ Bonus Day and learns that some trappings of consumerism have no age restrictions

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Ming Wong/The Globe and Mail

On Monday, our man turned 65, and became an official senior. On Tuesday, he received an e-mail of congratulation from a slightly older colleague advising him, not entirely ironically, of the only wisdom he, the elder, could pass along: that Thursday was Seniors’ Day at Shoppers Drug Mart. Two days later, the man joined the shopping throng of Canada’s 5.9 million seniors for the first time in his now officially dwindling span on the whizzing orb of Earth.

The man had been a customer of this particular location of the drugstore for years. But it had now been renovated and enlarged, part of a remodelling after the chain’s acquisition by Loblaw for $12.4-billion, which struck the man as a vast and lucky sum of money. What had been the cosmetics aisles of the original drugstore was now a grocery section, while the expanded makeup department – redubbed “the boutique” – had inhaled a Korean convenience store and reliable Thai restaurant to the east, expanding the footprint of the store down the block. The merger of fresh food and packaged hygiene made the man nervous: His world seemed to be shrinking to one easy-to-reach venue, as if the geniuses behind the merger knew something about the man’s future capacities that he did not know himself. He had always approached the purchase of personal-hygiene products on an ad hoc basis. He bought toothpaste when he remembered to buy toothpaste, which tended to be as he needed toothpaste. But the global one-stop drugs-and-grocery nexus rocketed personal hygiene to new status; henceforth, toothpaste would be purchased not as he needed it but when Seniors’ Bonus Day commanded him to buy it.

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“Seniors’ Bonus Day,” a large sign in the window of the drugstore announced. The man could save 20 per cent “on almost all regular priced merchandise.” There were restrictions – no gift cards or stamps, nothing that was already on sale (and a great deal is always on sale), and photo-finishing was discountable only if it was dropped off and picked up on successive Seniors’ days. There was nothing on the poster that said the sale was for seniors only, but the implication of the chain’s immense social generosity was unmistakable. That was the funny thing about the Seniors’ Bonus Day sale: It was advertised, but not heavily advertised, as if the drugstore didn’t want too many seniors to buy items on sale that they might buy anyway at regular price. The man knew marketing experts who claimed this wishy-washy enthusiasm for Seniors’ Bonus Day was emblematic of the fact that very few companies actually knew how to market effectively to older people – people such as our man.

“How many customers are seniors on a Seniors’ Bonus Day?” the man asked the cashier. She was a young woman in her 20s, with dark bangs and thick dark glasses that were all the rage a fashion cycle ago.

“At least 80 per cent,” she said, smiling at him warmly, as if proud he had managed to ask a question without wetting his pants.

The man was slightly alarmed to be as excited as he was at the prospect of his first Seniors’ Bonus Day. Products and savings beckoned from the crowded shelves like tiny cheering fans, reaching out to his now senior soul. A second regiment of posters re-announcing Seniors’ Bonus Day – in case he’d forgotten since entering the store – had been mounted at the head of each aisle, promoting conveniently located stacks of products seniors could reach without having to walk all the way down the aisle. A small mountain of exfoliating face wipes, for instance, were on sale for $9.99, alongside what looked like a $5.49 soap dish in which one might carry such wipes in one’s purse. Also for one’s purse, if in fact one carried a purse: Tresemmé Fresh Start Volumizing Hair Spray, $4.29, good for puffing out thinning hair; endless tubes of sanitizing lotion; and vats of Huggies One + Done Baby Wipes/lingettes/toallitas, 184 to a box, which seemed like a lot of wiping, regularly $10.99 but alas reduced to $7.49, and therefore not subject to the additional senior discount. But they still counted toward a $50 total which got him a free $10 coupon for next time – provided one lived long enough to experience another Seniors’ Bonus Day, the man thought but did not say out loud. President’s Choice Flushable Wipes, a different order of business, were a better deal at $3.70, but there was a limit of one to a customer.

The man found it bewildering to be faced by so many of his potential future physical needs at once.

“This is my first time at Seniors’ Bonus Thursday,” he said suddenly to the woman next to him, whom he judged to be roughly his own newly seniored age. “What are you buying?”

She had a nice smile and zestily highlighted hair, dark browns and golds and lighter blondes. It looked like a professional job.

“Hair shampoo and facial wipes,” the woman said, matter-of-factly. She did not seem surprised to be having a conversation with a male stranger at the end of Aisle 3 on Seniors’ Bonus Day. Her name was Joan. “How long have you been a senior?” the man asked. “Are you a first-timer like me?”

“Oh, no,” Joan said. “I’m 81.”

“Wow! Then I’m buying all the products you buy, because they obviously work,” the man said, instantly embarrassed by his unctuousness. He moved quickly down the deodorant aisle. It was alarmingly easy to become too intimate too quickly on Seniors’ Bonus Thursday.

The men’s deodorant section was bracing. The selection was vast. A fragrance called Axe Oud Wood and Dark Vanilla competed for his attention alongside Dark Temptation. He feared Old Spice Stronger Swagger Sweat Defence Anti-Perspirant Deodorant might be too strong for his now officially aging senior body. He felt more at ease among the tubes of toothpaste stacked log-like further down the aisle: Whiteness of the teeth was something a senior needed to consider. Smelling like Dark Temptation, whatever that was, not so much.

The walking sticks, adjustable, $29.99, had been picked over. The foot-care rack, an entire neighbourhood of corn plasters and anti-fungal agents and plantar fasciitis supports, had been ransacked. Heating pads were obviously a steady seller, along with heated shawls.

But it was as he wheeled the corner into Aisle 8 that the man finally felt the existential chill of his new official agedness. To a new senior, Aisle 8 was the most terrifying row, the narrow strait threading the canyon between the Scylla of life and the Charybdis of care, between the receding shore of health and the looming cliffs of – he could barely say the word, even in his head – dependency.

Because there, past the 4x Daily 7 Day Pill Planners that looked like a tiny apartment buildings, was the adult diaper department. It was there that the man was finally seized by the drugstore’s dark vision of the horror that lay in wait for him as a senior. He felt appalled, and then embarrassed, and then ashamed for being appalled by something as … natural, yes, human, yes, but still off-putting… as his own potential future incontinence. And yet, he was certain this was the section where he would eventually, in twenty years, spend most of his money, because that’s the kind of joke fate favours. The euphemistic product names only drove the point home: Here were boldly branded Depend Guards for men in size Maximum “for larger surges.” What on Earth was a “larger surge,” he asked himself, and immediately did not want to know. And the Guards holding back the extra-surging were just a beach head: There were briefs and full-on pants beyond them. The women’s section was larger and even more euphemistic. Here lived the Silhouettes and the Poise Packs, sitting demurely under the cruel aisle sign that declared this to be the land of INCONTINENCE.

And yet, right there, directly across the aisle from the incontinence products that made the man shrivel in fear, were the vitamins and nutritional supplements that promised to extend his life – and hence his shame. First came the liquid meal supplements with sadly zippy names such as Boost and Ensure. Beyond them were the long shots, the unconsolidated and unscientific hopes, the vitamins and supplements: oregano in pill form (allegedly an antibacterial anti-oxidant that prevented osteoporosis), apple cider vinegar extract (lower blood sugar and treat vaginitis), magnesium citrate (constipation), glucosamine chondroitin (for dried-up joints). And not cheap: conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, whose bottle declared it “may help to support a modest improvement in body composition,” whatever the hell body composition was, was $13.79 for 50 810-milligram pills.

All this was in Aisle 8, the darkest of the Seniors’ Bonus alleys, where the fear of aging and death smacked into the hope of health and everlasting life, all under the banner of Seniors’ Bonus Days. Or as the man was beginning to think of them, Come and See What Hell Awaits You Days.

And then it happened. Rounding the top of Aisle 8, desperate for the exit, the man noticed Professor Oatley. Keith, he reminded himself: His name is Keith. Our man had once lived a few doors from the professor, a world-renowned scholar and writer and novelist. His specialty had been the psychology of emotion. Now, he was well into his 70s. Now he was here, at the Seniors’ Bonus Day sale.

“Professor Oatley!” our man said and shook the professor’s hand vigorously. Never in his life had the man been so grateful to encounter another thinking, sensate human being over 70. “What are you up to?”

A lot, as it turned out. The professor was emeritus in name only. He had just finished writing a book about literary pilgrimages. He was at work on another with his partner, a psychologist, about human personality.

“And what are you reading?” That, too, was a full list: Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, Toni Morrison’s Jazz, “which I liked very much,” he said. It was not a conversation the man expected to have in the drugstore on Seniors’ Bonus Day. Their chat felt like an antidote to the day, real life as opposed to ideas being sold to him about what senior life would require.

The two men made to depart. “What’s the worst part about being a senior?” our man blurted as an afterthought.

The professor thought for a minute. “You know, every part of the human system tends to have a backup system, or systems. So when something starts to go, usually the backup system kicks in. It’s when the last backups start to fail: That’s when you go down. That’s a bit alarming.”

They said goodbye. The entire conversation had taken place in front of a rack of Diabetic Dress Socks, $10.99 a pair in white, black or tan, although the professor’s jaunty optimism had rendered them momentarily invisible.

The man paid for his purchases: mouthwash, toothpaste, sunblock, hair gel (ha), two boxes of protein bars and a magazine, all for $64 and a $10 discount toward a future Seniors’ Bonus Day. He noticed that the kind young woman in the dark glasses behind the cash never asked for proof that he was 65.

“How do you know customers claiming the senior discount are actually seniors?” he asked.

She looked at him. “Well, the cutoff is officially 65, but some stores say 60 and some even say 55.” There was a store in Quebec where the cutoff was rumored to be 50.

“And in this store?” the man said.

She lowered her voice, conspiratorially. “We’ll give it to pretty much anyone who asks.”

The drug mart didn’t really care if he was 65 or not. It just wanted his money, which made him no different from anyone of any age. He felt a little miffed. Then relieved. Then he set about living the rest of his life.

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