How the Oldest of the Old Taught Me to Choose Happiness
John Leland on Love, Sadness, and Stereotypes of Old Age
John, who was 91 at the time, was one of six strangers I began visiting at the start of 2015 who unexpectedly changed my life. I’m sure none of them intended to play that role. I met them while reporting a newspaper series called “85 and Up,” in which I set out to follow six older New Yorkers for a year.
It began, as all stories do, with a search for characters. I met them at senior centers and in nursing homes, through home care agencies or their personal web pages. Some were still working; some never left the house. I met abiding Communists and mah-jongg players and Holocaust survivors and working artists and a 96-year-old lesbian metalworker who still organized tea dances. All had lost something: mobility, vision, hearing, spouses, children, peers, memory. But few had lost everything. They belonged to one of the fastest-growing age groups in America, now so populous that they had their own name: the oldest old.
The six became my surrogate elders: warm, cranky, demanding, forgetful, funny, sage, repetitive, and sometimes just too weary to talk. They chided me for not visiting enough and fed me chocolates or sent me clippings to read. I changed lightbulbs in their apartments and nodded sympathetically about Israel and told them about my relationship with my mother. Often they were admirable. They held grudges and devised Rube Goldberg–type systems for remembering to take their medications—foolproof as long as they didn’t drop the little white heart pills, which were too small for their fingers and invisible on the floor.
With them I had to give up the idea that I knew about life. It was a humbling experience, but also an energizing one. I didn’t have to be the expert or critic, challenging the things they told me. Instead I let them guide me through the world as they saw it. I gained the most from accepting ideas that my instincts told me to reject. My instincts thought they knew what it was like to be 90, but they didn’t, and as soon as I quieted them, the learning got a lot easier. Being an expert is exhausting. Being a student—letting go of your ego—is like sitting for a banquet at the best restaurant you’ll ever visit.
Like all good literary characters, each of the elders wanted something—as did I, even if I didn’t know it at first.
The six I finally chose came from different backgrounds and social strata. Frederick Jones, who was 87 when I met him, was a World War II vet and retired civil servant with a dirty mind and a weak heart, which had kept him in a hospital or rehab center for much of the previous year. The first time we met, he told me about picking up a woman 30 years younger than he in a department store; he couldn’t remember which. Fred was a player, no less so now that the equipment was in retirement. Old photos in his apartment showed him in sharp suits and with a burly mustache, but by the time I met him he was embarrassed to go to church in his orthopedic shoes, so he spent most of his days in an unkempt apartment atop three flights of stairs that he could barely manage. Fred had his own ideas about what it meant to be old. He asked God for 110 years, and he never doubted that he would get them. He started every day, he said, by giving thanks for another sunrise. When I asked him what was the happiest period of his life, he did not hesitate. “Right now,” he said. He was the first to cheer me up.
Helen Moses, age 90, found the second love of her life in a Bronx nursing home, against gale-force resistance from her daughter. The romance had been going for six years by the time I met them.
“I love Howie,” she said, gazing at Howie Zeimer, who lived down the hall.
“Same goes for me, too,” Howie said. He was in a wheelchair by the side of her bed, holding her hand. “You’re the one woman in my lifetime, I mean it.”
“I can’t hear you,” she said, “but it better be good.”
John Sorensen lost most of his interest in life after the death of his lover of 60 years, a bookseller named Walter Caron. “You won’t get much wisdom from me,” John said the first time we met. “I know a little bit about a lot of things.” We talked about opera and Fire Island (price of his beach house in 1960: ten grand), and about John’s frustration that he couldn’t do the things he used to. He had gladly nursed Walter in his decline, but now he couldn’t forgive his own failing body. He refused to use a walker or wheelchair, because he found them unsightly, so he never went out. His knuckles, swollen from gout, resembled mismatched drawer knobs, and were about as pliant. Yet talking always cheered him up, even talking about his wish to die. He exercised every day and seemed to take morbid pride that his body insisted on keeping on. “Honey, I’m so much better than so many people, I know it,” he said. “Still, I’ve had it. I’m not unhappy, but I’ll be glad when it’s over.” The only bad thing about dying, John said, “is that I won’t be alive long enough to enjoy the fact that I finally died.”
“Over the year, I came to see Ruth’s complaints as a way of asserting some leverage on her life, rather than passively accepting what came her way.”
Ping Wong, 89, had lucked into the sweet spot in the social safety net: she paid $200 a month for a subsidized apartment near Gramercy Park, and had a home attendant seven days a week, for seven hours a day, paid for by Medicaid. Old age, she said, was less stressful than working or caring for her husband, which had worn her out. Yet she missed her late husband and the son who was murdered in China. “I try not to think about bad things,” she said. “It’s not good for old people to complain.”
Ruth Willig, by contrast, was quick to say she was unhappy with her life, but then upset to read that characterization in the paper—that wasn’t her. Over the year, I came to see Ruth’s complaints as a way of asserting some leverage on her life, rather than passively accepting what came her way. Shortly before I met her, she had been forced to move from her high-priced assisted living facility in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when the owner decided to sell it for higher-priced condos. She had given up her car, her privacy, her ability to keep her own schedule just to move there. Now, five years older and less mobile, she had lost that home as well, and the friends she had made there. So at 91 she was starting over at another assisted living center in a more remote part of Brooklyn, Sheepshead Bay. She was among strangers, in an unfamiliar neighborhood far from her nearest daughter.
“Someone here called me a feisty old lady,” she said one morning. “She didn’t say ‘old lady.’ She said ‘feisty lady.’ I’m putting in the ‘old.’ I don’t give up easily. Maybe that’s what it is. I really push.”
A March snow had blanketed the streets outside, which meant another day she wouldn’t be going out. “I know what I am, I’m 91, I tell everyone,” she said. “I’m not afraid of it. I’m kind of proud of it, compared to some of the others who have so many disabilities. I’m very lucky. I try to be healthy. I think about how I’ll die. But I just keep myself busy with reading books and reading the paper. Try to make myself happy, but that’s not so easy. I wish I’d be happier.”
And Jonas Mekas, the filmmaker and writer, at 92 had the energy and urgency of three 30-year-olds. He was still making movies, compiling memoirs and scrapbooks, raising money for his nonprofit organization, and running his website.
One day he sent me an unpublished poem he had written in 2005.
I worked all my life to become young
no, you can’t persuade me to get old
I will die twenty-seven
His friends were younger than I. Far from slowing down, he was speeding up, he said, because now he could work exclusively on his own projects.
Those were my six teachers for a year. They were dying, of course, as we all are, and they were close enough to the end to consider not just the fact of death but the form it would take. Death had lost its abstraction. Would they keep their cognitive faculties? Would their last days drag out? Tomorrow might bring a fall, a broken hip, a stroke, a black hole where they once stored the name of the person they were talking to. Every time a phone call went unanswered I worried. Within 18 months, two of them had died.
Discussions about the elderly tend to focus on the very real problems of old age, like the declines in the body and mind, or the billions of dollars spent on end-of-life medical care. Or else they single out that remarkable old lady who seems to defy aging altogether, drinking martinis and running marathons in her 90s. This vision is particularly seductive to baby boomers, with its promise that “you, too, can master the secrets of “successful aging.” All you have to do is basically extend late middle age—join a club, volunteer, exercise, fall in love, learn Italian, don’t get sick. Did I mention don’t get sick? Good luck with that, hope it works out for you.
The elders I spent time with, like the vast majority of older people, didn’t fit either of these story lines. They lived with loss and disability but did not define themselves by it, and got up each morning with wants and needs, no less so because their knees hurt or they couldn’t do the crossword puzzle like they used to. Old age wasn’t something that hit them one day when they weren’t careful. It also wasn’t a problem to be fixed. It was a stage of life like any other, one in which they were still making decisions about how they wanted to live, still learning about themselves and the world.
“The same technology that made it possible for more people to survive to old age has also devalued their knowledge of the world.”
Until recently, relatively few people experienced this stage, and even fewer reached it in good health. But that has changed. More people are living past age 85 than at any time in human history (nearly six million in America, up from under a million in 1960), and they are living longer once they get there. Which means that your parents are the vanguard that your kids think they are. An American who turns 85 in 2018 was born with a life expectancy of less than 60 years. That’s a lot of time not planned for, and a lot of old people who know something about living long.
Mostly we think of this as a cause for worry rather than a resource to be tapped. So much loneliness and isolation, so many wrinkles. In movies, beauty is always young, and amorous elders are dirty old men. We like people to ride into the sunset when their mission is complete. How much more exciting if Thelma and Louise, instead of driving off a cliff, got old and started a mentoring program in downtown Denver, sometimes taking male companions, raising heck along with their home attendants? But old people don’t get to tell these stories. As May Sarton wrote, in her novel As We Are Now, published when she was 61, “The trouble is, old age is not interesting until one gets there. It’s a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged.” Pretty smart for someone only 61.
Consider how we address old people: sweetie, dear, good girl, young man. Aren’t they cute? And how are we today, Mrs. Johnson? Ninety-two years young? Bless your heart. A wise old person is someone who uses Instagram like a teenager. For most of history, societies turned to their oldest members for wisdom. Children watched their grandparents get old and die in the family home. But the same technology that made it possible for more people to survive to old age has also devalued their knowledge of the world. Old people often inhabit a world of their own, not particularly pleasant to visit. In one study, people over 60 said fewer than one-quarter of the people with whom they discussed “important matters” were under 36; if you exclude relatives, it dropped to 6 percent. An analysis by the gerontologist Karl Pillemer of Cornell found that Americans are more likely to have friends of another race than friends who are more than ten years apart from them in age.
Pillemer said his life was changed when he stopped thinking about old people as a problem and started to think of them as an asset, a repository of wisdom and experience. The title of my book—Happiness is a Choice You Make—comes from one of the first lessons the elders taught me: that even as our various faculties decline, we still wield extraordinary influence over the quality of our lives. As Ping put it, “When you’re old, you have to make yourself happy. Otherwise you get older.” The six all found a level of happiness not in their external circumstances, but in something they carried with them. No one wants to lose his partner of 60 years, or to give up walking because it hurts too much, but we have some choice in how we process the loss and the life left to us. We can focus on what we’ve lost or on the life we have now. Health factors, as shattering as they can be, are only part of the story.
So there’s a choice, maybe. Take the blue pill and you’re bemoaning life without the sharp memory or the job that once made you special; take the red pill and you’re giving thanks for a life that still includes people you love. You can go to a museum and think, I’m confined to a wheelchair in a group of half-deaf old people. Or you can think, Matisse!
The more time I spent with the elders, the more I thought about how to get there now—how to choose happiness amid all the other options. The answer, I began to realize, was one that ran counter to all my expectations. If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.
From the introduction to Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by John Leland.