A Closer Look at Lessons From the Oldest Old

Published In Blog

May 3rd, 2018

When John Leland bounced onto the stage recently at The Institute on Aging, the crowd of mostly older seniors seemed to greet him with skepticism. He was there to talk about his new book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old.

“One year? You can’t learn much in that time,” sniffed one audience member.

“And he looks so young,” said her seatmate of the dark-haired 50-something author.

Leland, a former editor at Newsweek, was honing his craft as a reporter for The New York Times when he was assigned to write a series of articles, 85 & Up, focusing on how the “oldest old” lived and aged in New York City. The series, with some added research and embellishments, became the book. And the audience members seemed to soften some as Leland spoke, many of them leaving only after lining up to purchase one of the tomes on sale there.

Inside the Covers

Leland says he scoured Manhattan’s senior centers and nursing homes, contacted home care agencies and pored over personal Web pages before choosing six people to spotlight and follow, careful to pick them “from different backgrounds and social strata.”

The book’s strongest chapters focus on their lives and words.

Frederick Jones, 87: A teller of bawdy stories and former snappy dresser now embarrassed by his orthopedic shoes, Jones never married but had six children with four different women. As he aged, he had less and less contact with the outside world, but very good memories from it. And he kept an upbeat attitude. “My favorite part of the day is waking up in the morning and thanking God for another day,” he would say often, as well as: “In the moment, that’s the happiness. I think sadness is when you’re concentrated on one particular bad incident that’s happened.”

Helen Moses, 90: Profoundly deaf and in love for the second time around with another resident in her nursing home who was 21 years younger than she, Leland purposely sought her out because he was “particularly eager to meet someone who had found new love in old age.” Moses was high-spirited and seemed to crave attention, frequently getting in arguments with other residents — calling one woman “fat,” battling a man for a newspaper he thought was rightfully hers. “I hate some of them here,” she said. “Some of them don’t have their marbles and there’s no one to talk to that has any education.” Then she met Howie, who spoke haltingly and needed an attendant to work his wheelchair; his needs were part of the attraction for her. In taking stock of her happiness, she counted both a mate and a daughter who called and visited her regularly.

John Sorensen, 91: Saddened by the death of his partner of 60 years, he dabbled in knowing a little about a lot of things. He was now nearly blind and shunned the walker that would have helped him get around. “I hate the looks of a walker,” he said. “If you put the walker anyplace in this room it’d drive me crazy. I couldn’t stand it. It’d be so ugly.” Sorensen often said he wished to die — and the author, thinking Sorensen was “one of the most morbid people” he had ever met, tried to talk him out of thinking that way. But at 91, after experiencing the deaths of many of his close friends as well as his eyesight and limbs beginning to fail, he said: “Life doesn’t have much compensation for me. I’ll be glad to go.” Yet he still found some things that made him “feel very much alive:” a radio broadcast of an opera, reliving memories of many good times with his partner, occasional ventures out. His acceptance of death seemed to free him to enjoy what was left of his life.

Ping Wong: 89: The beneficiary of many Social Services including a weekly $50 stipend, free home attendant and social worker, and a subsidized apartment that rented for $200/month — she said that she found her own aging process to be a lot less stressful than it had been to care for her aging husband before he died. She now had daily mah-jongg games with three friends who lived in the same building, all of them from the same province in southern China to stave off loneliness. It was Wong’s wisdom the author tapped for the title of the book. “When you’re old, you have to make yourself happy,” she said. “Otherwise, you get older.” Still, her optimistic demeanor took a bit of a dive when she turned 90: “Sometimes I don’t want to live too long. The pain is too much, and my bones hurt me terribly,” she said. “So sometimes I want to die more than live. Ninety years old is long enough.”

Ruth Willig, 91: Branded by the author as a chronic complainer, the label doesn’t quite mesh with her own take on things: “When I think of my life, I think of it as a happy one.” Willig had recently relocated from one assisted living center to another she didn’t like after there were some setbacks in her own home: a broken smoke detector that couldn’t be fixed, a leak in the basement — then a fall off a stool, followed by other falls. She took the greatest pleasure in her family, especially her four grown children; she needed them and she felt they needed her — a kind of mutual support system. They threw her a party when she reached age 90 — when she pointedly noted she did not share others’ goal of reaching 100. “I felt that I had achieved a certain landmark,” she said. “The family came, we had a party. The rest is a bonus.”

Jonas Mekas, 92: A filmmaker and writer, he was still going strongly at both in his later years. “I don’t leave any space for depression to come in,” he said. Mekas spoke in a poetic voice about growing up in a Lithuanian farm village, where he had perfected the stunt of standing on his head while riding horseback — inspired by a 100-year-old man he saw doing headstands on a chimney when he was a boy. Into his 90s, he had few physical complaints — and a positive spirit: “It’s not normal not to sing, not to dance, not to like poetry, not to be interested in matters of spirit!” he said. “I am a very, very normal case. And I am happy. Happiness is a normal state.”

And it is Mekas that Leland eventually credits for any wisdom he might have gained during the year of following the elders, as he writes: “This may be the one-sentence essence of what I learned in my year among the oldest old: to shut down the noise and fears and desires and think about how amazing, really amazing, life is.”

What’s Not in the Pages

The book is well written, but readers hoping for an insightful or cohesive take on the seniors’ recollections and advice would be disappointed.

The book is less interesting when Leland tries to draw his own conclusions about what the elders tell him. And some of those conclusions stretch credibility. He writes, for example: “As much as we idealize adolescence and young adulthood, older people are more content, less anxious or fearful, less afraid of death, more likely to see the good side of things and accept the bad.”

And the book meanders. Copious studies and research on aging are thrown in almost haphazardly — from 44% or so nationwide weighing in positively on some aspect to correlations from Danish twins made years ago. Many of the conclusions conflict confusingly or simply parrot what the author could have gleaned from the empirical specimens within earshot. Sometimes the reader wants to box his ears as a reminder that he should listen.

That tunnel vision is the author’s biggest limitation. In his year with the elders, Leland says he was shocked that none of the six subjects spoke of their careers or professional accomplishments, which is a personal preoccupation for him. A middle-aged man who was recently divorced, he presses the six seniors for advice on his own relationships and applauds those who “cheer him up.” He also presses them for information about their own sex lives, which they mostly mercifully decline to discuss.

But finally, finally, in the last pages Leland writes something sounding sage: “It takes seventy or eighty or ninety years to learn the value of another sunrise or a visit from a surly grandchild — to appreciate how amazing, really amazing, life is.”

Endnote

For all of the people studied, Leland writes poetically: “Death had lost its abstraction.” And sure enough, within 18 months, two of his subjects had died.

Fred Jones died either of a heart attack or a broken heart after his daughter died of breast cancer, or perhaps, as an acquaintance said, he died “of a three-story unheated walk-up.” John Sorensen died on his own terms in a rehab center after refusing food, but openly receiving many visits and well wishes from friends and caregivers.

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