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For Seniors : Lillian Heuring Slows Just a Bit, but the Music Never Stops

Lillian Heuring is 95, plays a mean ragtime piano, has been married three times and stays up late.

This year, after more than 40 years of service, Heuring is retiring from her volunteer job as executive secretary of the Brentwood-Westwood Symphony Orchestra.

She is also part of a trend. Today, the fastest growing population are folks over 80. As people live longer, they are increasingly being cared for by elderly children.

In Heuring’s case the care comes from her son, Alvin Mills, 72, the conductor of the Brentwood-Westwood Orchestra.

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Not that she has slowed way down. Sure, she repeats herself a lot and might momentarily forget the names of her husbands, but then she’ll sit down at the piano and effortlessly hammer out “Ain’t She Sweet.”

“I play the piano every day. When I was growing up, playing the piano meant you were cultured,” she said.

Heuring is a Chicago native. She used to take turns with her sister playing at the local movie theater accompanying silent movies and still loves to play the same “villain music” she pounded out when the bad guy appeared on the screen.

She admits she’s a bit slow getting over to the piano nowadays in her modest Santa Monica home, but adds, “I have a right to be.”

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Her house is filled with pictures of her five grandchildren, her six great-grandchildren and her son.

Says Alvin: “She usually stands out in the lobby when we have a concert and greets everyone. She knows almost the entire audience.”

Mother and son visit three times a week and talk twice a day.

“We have words sometimes,” Mills says. “We don’t always agree. I have to make certain decisions now (concerning her health and well-being), ones she made gorgeously before. I’m the Supreme Court hearing appeals from mother’s court.”

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Though Heuring is agile and lives at home, there is a tender balance between the older parent’s autonomy and the adult child’s authority.

And so over her standard breakfast of oatmeal and grapefruit, mother and son lovingly spar.

“I don’t care much for medication,” Heuring says.

“The medication is important for your blood pressure,” Mills says.

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“I stay up until midnight every night,” she says, “and he doesn’t like that.”

“Habits are hard to break,” he responds.

As for Mills, his philosophy is “bless and forgive, the shorter we can be angry the better. It’s good for the heart.”

The one habit mother and son never want to break is the community orchestra they have been part of for such a long time and the classical music they love. Mills takes members of the orchestra to local schools, introducing students not only to music but to instruments as well.

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But, for Heuring, it’s the honky-tonk music of her youth that keeps her nimble fingers moving across the ivories.

Heuring has observed many changes during her lifetime but none so marked as the shifts in human behavior.

“People have changed. They’re more impersonal. And they don’t dance enough,” she said.

Like many who live a long time, she doesn’t have a magic formula for longevity. She gives a lot of credit to eating a baked potato every evening and never smoking or drinking.

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But she’s quick to add: “Older people must have some action or they die on the vine. Get into something is what I say, and keep in touch with people even if it’s only one person.”


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