HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE YOU MAKE
Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old
An extraordinary look at what it means to grow old and a heartening guide to well-being, Happiness Is a Choice You Make weaves together the stories and wisdom of six New Yorkers who number among the “oldest old”—those eighty-five and up.
In 2015, when the award-winning journalist John Leland set out on behalf of The New York Times to meet members of America’s fastest-growing age group, he anticipated learning of challenges, of loneliness, and of the deterioration of body, mind, and quality of life. But the elders he met took him in an entirely different direction.
An extraordinary look at what it means to grow old and a heartening guide to well-being, Happiness Is a Choice You Make weaves together the stories and wisdom of six New Yorkers who number among the “oldest old”—those eighty-five and up.
In 2015, when the award-winning journalist John Leland set out on behalf of The New York Times to meet members of America’s fastest-growing age group, he anticipated learning of challenges, of loneliness, and of the deterioration of body, mind, and quality of life. But the elders he met took him in an entirely different direction. Despite disparate backgrounds and circumstances, they each lived with a surprising lightness and contentment. The reality Leland encountered upended contemporary notions of aging, revealing the late stages of life as unexpectedly rich and the elderly as incomparably wise.
Happiness Is a Choice You Make is an enduring collection of lessons that emphasizes, above all, the extraordinary influence we wield over the quality of our lives. With humility, heart, and wit, Leland has crafted a sophisticated and necessary reflection on how to “live better”—informed by those who have mastered the art.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- January 2019
- 272 Pages
A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice
A People magazine “Best New Book”
“Inspired and inspiring.” —Jane E. Brody, The New York Times
“John Leland’s practical, powerful insights into the rich experiences of the ‘oldest old’ can guide all of us to lead happier lives—no matter what our age.” —Gretchen Rubin, author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project
“Uplifting and wise.” —AARP The Magazine
“An uplifting and inspirational guide on how to be present and embrace life at any age.” —The Asheville Citizen Times
“This charming, enlightening, and goodhearted nonfiction study will make you feel a little more grateful for your own life, however long it lasts.” —Sarah Smith, Omnivoracious
“Loaded with charm, wisdom, and decades’ worth of personal anecdotes, it explores the ‘paradox of old age’ and offers a startlingly simple solution: ‘If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.'” —Furthermore
“Engrossing . . . Few books about aging show such clarity and purpose or so deftly blend clear-eyed examinations of social issues with a realistic but hopeful cast of mind. In this edifying and often quite moving book, Leland presents the “lessons” taught by his subjects even as they themselves are learning them, and he does so with an empathy and thoroughness that deserve our gratitude.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“Engaging . . . This is not a record of the daily routines of this diverse socioeconomic group but rather of answers to questions regarding happiness, life, and death. . . Leland entertains and intrigues readers as six unique personalities emerge, sharing their reminiscences about love, heartache, aches and pains, and joy. This is a sympathetic and honest look at growing old.” —Kathleen McBroom, Booklist
“Leland skillfully weaves the wisdom gleaned from their experiences into a fascinating chronicle of the joys and difficulties of living into one’s 80s and beyond. . . Leland lends credence to his heartening story of how six seniors have nonetheless made the best of it. He also movingly shows, through his own example, how interacting with those much older than oneself can lead to seeing life in a new light.” —Publishers Weekly
1. Is there one character you related to more strongly than the others?
2. Did the book change the way you think about old age?
3. The author said he envied the closeness of the Willigs, and wished his mother approached her life with Fred’s positive outlook. Are there traits among the elders you’d like to model in your life? What part of Ping’s character do you wish you had more of? How about John’s?
4. Love and sex are of widely different levels of concern to the various elders. Why do you think Helen puts such a premium on her attractiveness and her relationship with Howie, while some of the others are content to put that behind them?
5. Did the book make you reconsider at what point a life is no longer worth living?
6. The “paradox of aging”—that older people are more content than younger ones—seems contrary
to our cultural assumptions. How do you explain this contentment? Why do you think it isn’t more widely recognized?
7. Did Fred’s example inspire you to practice gratitude in a more concentrated way? If so, what were the results? If not, why not?
8. Did you find the author’s personal story relevant to the account of the six elders?
9. How much influence do you think we have over our levels of satisfaction as we age? Are some people just born to be happy, others not?
10. What do you think about the idea of “gerotranscendence”—that as people get older, they give up less important concerns and focus on what really matters?
11. The book cites research showing that people with negative attitudes toward aging die earlier than people with positive views. Yet negative views of aging are all around us. What examples have you observed in the last week? How can people resist absorbing these views?
12. The book talks about the value of accepting our mortality. Do you think it’s really possible to do this?
13. Is there someone in your life who you think needs this book?
Surprise of a Lifetime
“Get me a gin!”
“Do you know what you want to do when you get old?”
After a year of answering questions, John Sorensen asked one of his own. We were in the kitchen of his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he had lived for forty-eight years, the last six of them alone, since the death of his longtime partner. Around him was a mural of trees he had painted years earlier, with branches stretching up to the ceiling. Thanksgiving was approaching, John’s favorite day of the year, when he left the apartment to be among friends. But this year, 2015, he didn’t think he would be well enough to go. The kitchen looked exactly as it had on my last visit and the one before, because John made sure nothing was ever changed—he was losing his eyesight, and he feared that if anything was moved he wouldn’t be able to find it. On the small TV and VCR by the refrigerator he was getting ready to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which always cheered him up. He knew the movie so well that he didn’t need to see the screen.
We were talking about the things in John’s life that gave him pleasure. It took a little prompting, because John always began on the dark side, and it wasn’t a visit unless he said he wanted to die. Yet once he got going, his mood always brightened.
“I played the second act of Parsifal recently, with Jonas Kaufmann,” he said, wrapping himself in the memory. “The most beautiful tenor I’ve ever heard. Very romantic-looking. The first time I saw him was after Walter died. He was singing and my God he was good.”
John, who was ninety-one 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 & 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 ninety-six-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.
I, too, had lost some things. My marriage had come apart after nearly three decades, and I was living alone for the first time. I was fifty-five years old, with a new girlfriend and new questions about my place in the world: about age, about love and sex and fatherhood, about work and satisfaction.
I was also the main caregiver for my eighty-six-year-old mother, who moved from her ranch house in New Jersey to an apartment building for seniors in Lower Manhattan after my father’s death. It was not a role I performed with much distinction. I did my best to have dinner with her every couple of weeks and accompanied her on the occasional night in the ER. I pretended not to notice that she might want more than that—best to honor her independence, I told myself—and so did she. Neither of us was well equipped for the stage of life we had stumbled into together: she, at eighty-six, without an idea of where to find meaning, and me without an idea of how to help. But there we were.
One of the first people I interviewed for the series was a woman named Jean Goldberg, 101, a former secretary at Crayola, who began our conversation by shouting “Get me a gin!” and then proceeded to tell the story of the man who did her wrong—seventy years in the past, but still as near as anything in her life. She was in a wheelchair in a nursing home, but she had lived in her own apartment until she was 100, when she had a series of falls and no longer felt safe on her own. After a great first meeting, she asked to postpone our second interview because she was not feeling well; by the time the new date arrived, she was gone. Whatever strategies she had devised to take her to age 101—humor, I think, but also a stubborn refusal to yield, even when it cost her—were gone with her.
Each person had a story to tell—about their family lives during the Great Depression or their sex lives during the Second World War, about participating in the civil rights movement or being told by their parents that they weren’t “college material.” But mainly I was interested in what their lives were like now, from the moment they got up until they went to bed. How did they get through the day, and what were their hopes for the morrow? How did they manage their medications, their children, and their changing bodies, which were now reversing the trajectory of childhood, losing capabilities as fast as they had once gained them? Was there a threshold at which life was no longer worth living?
Their qualifications as experts were simply that they were living it. As the British novelist Penelope Lively, then eighty, put it, “One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.… Our experience is one unknown to most of humanity, over time. We are the pioneers.” I joined them in their homes, on trips to the doctor, in the hospital, in jazz clubs and bars and a beach house on the Jersey shore. I met their children, their lovers, doctors, home attendants, friends, and a former district attorney who had prosecuted one for obscenity long ago, and who now wanted to apologize. When one suddenly disappeared, his phone disconnected, I tracked him through Brooklyn’s hospital system, where he was having parts of two toes amputated. I listened and learned.
Gradually I noticed something quite unexpected happening. Every visit, no matter how dark the conversation got—and some days it got quite morbid—raised my spirits like no other work I have ever done. I expected the year to bring great changes in them. I didn’t expect it to change me.
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 ninety, 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 eighty-seven 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 thirty 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 ninety, 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 sixty 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 off 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.”
Ping Wong, eighty-nine, had lucked into the sweet spot in the social safety net: she paid two hundred dollars 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 ninety-one 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 ninety-one, 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 ninety-two had the energy and urgency of three thirty-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 eighteen 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 nineties. 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.
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 eighty-five 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 eighty-five in 2018 was born with a life expectancy of less than sixty 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 sixty-one, “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 sixty-one.
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 sixty said fewer than one-quarter of the people with whom they discussed “important matters” were under thirty-six; 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 this book 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 sixty 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.
* * *
The good news about getting old is that there is good news. Older people report a greater sense of well-being and fewer negative emotions than younger people. That sense of well-being rises until sometime in the seventh decade, then begins a gradual decline, but still remains higher at ninety than at twenty. 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, than young adults. As Henry Miller—nobody’s idea of a Pollyanna—wrote, “At eighty I believe I am a far more cheerful person than I was at twenty or thirty. I most definitely would not want to be a teenager again. Youth may be glorious, but it is also painful to endure.” Experience helps older people moderate their expectations and makes them more resilient when things don’t go as hoped. When they do have negative experiences, they don’t dwell on them as much as younger people do. Researchers call this the positivity effect. It’s a puzzle: How can people whose minds and bodies are in decline—whose best years, as we have come to think of them, are receding into the past—feel better about their lives than people with the world in front of them? Don’t they know their lives are shot?
Or: What do they know that the rest of us don’t?
The six elders all developed their own mechanisms for getting through the day, but their strategies often boiled down to the same thing: spend your dwindling time and energy on the things you can still do that give you satisfaction, not on lamenting those you once did but now can’t. Gerontologists call this “selective optimization with compensation”: older people make the most of what they have left and compensate for what they have lost. (James Brown called this “She Got to Use What She Got to Get What She Wants.”) If you have 30 percent of your former capacity, use it on things you love. An arrogance of youth, perhaps, is to think that life isn’t worth living once you can’t do the things you do now.
In chess, players sometimes use a technique called retrograde analysis to strengthen their midgame play. Instead of working forward from the beginning of a game, they work backward from an endgame, figuring out the sequence of moves that led to a particular arrangement of pieces. If white has a slight edge, what move did he or she make to get there, and what move before that one? And so on. The idea is that at the start of a game, each player has so many pieces on the board and potential ways to move them that it is very difficult to see which moves might lead to a desired result, but if you work backward from a destination, the choices become fewer and less opaque. You can ignore the moves that don’t get you where you want to go and focus on the ones that do.
As an exercise, imagine what it means to have a good life at seventy-five, eighty, or eighty-five. An American man turning eighty-five has a life expectancy of six years; a woman can expect to live another seven. That’s almost as long as adolescence. What do you want your life to be like then—what pleasures, what rewards, what daily activities and human connections? Now work your way backward to see what moves will lead you there—which pieces and positions are important, which can be sacrificed along the way.
The first step is to imagine what a good life is at that age. This may not be easy. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time with very old people, and when we do, it’s usually about trying to help with their problems, not asking them what makes them happy or fulfilled. But if you start with the idea that you will someday be old, and not broken down from a life of physical labor, what do you want those years to look like? Chances are you’ll be in better shape than your ancestors, who were lucky to live past seventy—better educated, with more money and better health. You might want to be intellectually stimulated or emotionally supported by family members. You might want a loving life partner, or memories of a happy marriage. You might want music or art, or contact with young people, or to be productive and useful even as your body declines. There will be limits, of course. At age eighty-five and older, 72 percent of people have at least one disability, and 55 percent have more than one. So you might not want to make love in the pounding surf at Waikiki or go live off the grid. How do you imagine a good life with a body that doesn’t do all the things it used to?
Now think of the steps that will get you there. Fortunately, most are things that make us happier and more fulfilled throughout our lives. If you want close, supportive relationships with friends and family members when you’re eighty-five, trace a series of moves leading up to that, all the way back to the present time. Pleasant, right? That’s the universe telling you to spend more time with people you care about. If you want a life of purpose, don’t you think you’d better start finding your purpose now? You may not get there by working more hours, coming home late, putting off time with your friends and family. Maybe you want a different job, a long talk with your son, a move to a different part of the country. Maybe the answer is ending a marriage in which you’re no longer helping each other grow. I never said this was going to be easy.
A benefit of trying to imagine a good life at eighty-five is that it means viewing old age not as a postscript tacked onto an already complete story but as a continuation. It means seeing your life course differently: not as a series of milestones you pass at different ages—finding a job, moving into your first home, et cetera—but as a long composition in which motifs repeat and develop over decades. Instead of assigning education, work, or romance to particular times of our lives, we might keep revisiting them in different variations throughout that span. They add up, first as experiences, later as memories. By the end you’re living in all of that music at once.
Each of the six elders practiced happiness differently, some more habitually than others. Fred gave thanks for each day, even though objectively those days looked pretty hard. Ruth had her children and extended family, for whom she had become the glue holding the others together. Jonas had his work, which he never distinguished from his life. He didn’t take vacations or knock off work at the end of a hard day. He sought good company and good food and wine, onscreen and in his life. “I don’t leave any space for depression to come in,” he said. “I gravitate more to neutral areas or to positive activities. I’m not interested to film some dark, depressive aspects. I’m more interested in where people come together, they’re singing and dancing, more happy aspects. Why? It’s my nature. I consider that maybe unconsciously I’m thinking that’s what humanity needs more.”
Ping had daily games of mah-jongg with women in her building, and Helen had Howie. Even John, despite his wish to die, spent most of his time reliving memories of a happy life. Nearly blind and barely able to feed himself, he willed himself back to better times, in vivid color and detail. Often he surprised me. “It was one of those God-given days, where everything just glowed,” he said one day. “I remember the ocean was calm, and it just glittered like diamonds out there. At the end of the day my brother was visiting me, and I have pictures of the last time I saw him alive.” Each of the six was showing me ways to stop stewing in life’s problems. But first they had to teach me to pay attention.
My seventh teacher in this master class was my mother, Dorothy, who lives in a senior building in Lower Manhattan and gets around in a motorized wheelchair. “If you want to know what it’s like to get old,” she said recently, “it stinks.” When my father died in 2004, she realized that she didn’t own a pair of boots, because he had always driven her to the door of wherever they went. Preparing for eventualities—for example, being eighty-six—was never her first priority. “I never thought about it,” she said. “I’m not giving you very good answers.” Since 2011, when she nearly died following an operation on her spine, she has expressed only one strong wish in life, and that is to die. She still blames my younger brother, Joe, for not letting her die.
I was on assignment in Iraq at the time, so Joe, who lives in North Carolina, was the one on the front lines. The operation was to fuse two vertebrae, and we had discouraged it or asked her to delay it until I was back in New York. She’d already had one spinal fusion operation, a few years earlier, and it had knocked her out for months and brought little relief. But she was in a lot of pain and decided to go forward.
For the second operation she was older and weaker, and when an infection flared up her body put up little resistance. The doctors wanted approval to insert a feeding tube to get her through the infection. She had left us a Do Not Resuscitate order, so my brother and I consulted over a garbled cell phone connection, losing each other in midsentence. This was a terrible way to decide the life or death of your mother. Her DNR said to withhold care if she had no reasonable chance of regaining a meaningful life. But this was more like bringing in a hose if the drapes in her room caught fire. Afterward she would return to the life she had in her neat apartment. She had friends and grandchildren she loved; she had matinee concerts at the Philharmonic. People with much less enjoy great lives. It seemed ungrateful to reject that life as not worth living. If she wanted to starve to death, she could do it without our help. We approved the tube.
What do you say when your mother tells you she has no productive role left to play, or scolds her children for not having let her die? I mostly avoided this question for years, until I met John Sorensen. It was easier with someone who wasn’t my parent. In our early meetings, when John said he hoped to die soon, I always said I hoped he wouldn’t. The world would be a duller place without him. But over the year, John invited me to see his life from a different perspective. He had taken stock of the things he still enjoyed and weighed them against the effort it took to keep going. The rewards were becoming fewer and redundant; the effort was increasing. Surely they were his to weigh, not mine. By midyear I stopped saying I hoped he wouldn’t die, and by winter I stopped thinking it. None of us really wants immortality on other people’s terms; it’s no kindness to wish a scaled-down version of it on the people who want it least.
Then just before Christmas of 2015, near the end of my year among the elders, my mother was back in the hospital with chest pains and high levels of the enzyme troponin in her blood, evidence of a heart attack. My brother was due up from North Carolina in a day or two. Visions of DNRs danced in my head. Those first days, propped up in the hospital bed under the ghostly fluorescents, she was more at peace than I had seen her in years, telling me whom she wanted to perform the eulogy after her death. I should check out the minister’s Facebook page, she said; it’s all about sermons and jazz. Hooked up to beeping electronic monitors and tubes, she drifted in and out of consciousness, eyes placid behind smudged glasses. She mused about a recent bout with pneumonia, how pleasant it would have been to have just let it take her gently away. Now she was back at the threshold, or so she thought. It was the kind of exit she always said she wanted, nothing fancy or too painful, and with lots of nurses at her call.
So what had I learned? To see my mother through John’s eyes was to see a life that had once had value to its owner but no longer did. She wanted to be relieved of it; she had carried it long enough. I wouldn’t make her keep a scarf she no longer cared about. Isn’t part of appreciating the value of a life being able to acknowledge when that value drops?
By the time my brother arrived from North Carolina, it was clear she was going to survive. No heroic measures necessary, no need for the DNR. The serenity she had shown in the face of death gave way to irritation at the hospital routine. When my brother and I compared notes, it was as if we had sat with different women. I believe the woman I visited was the happier one. Did I ever join her in wishing she would die? I think not, any more than I did with John. But I had begun to accept death as a natural element of old age—something we do, not something that happens to us. Quitting is no less noble than fighting; in the end, both turn out the same way.
I’m learning. I still have a ways to go. Wine helps. Get me a gin!
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Growing up, I had little contact with older people. My grandparents had all died by the time I was three, and though my mother’s aunt Dorothy came to visit every Christmas, she stopped when her health declined, so I never saw her as anything but the somewhat crusty former nurse who played a spirited “Alley Cat” on our upright piano. Later on I got to know my wife’s grandfather, Al, a cigar smoker and former truck driver, whom I think of as the guy who broke his hip at age ninety jumping over the net after a tennis game, then ran away with a woman from the hospital and made it as far as St. Louis, where the car and the relationship broke down. I’m sure some of this is accurate. As for the rest, I don’t want to know. He lived to be over one hundred, and died in an advanced state of dementia. Everybody had an Al story. At his memorial, a cousin said that Al thought the words “bar mitzvah” meant “the bar is open.” The rabbi’s theme was “Who knows what the morrow will bring?” which seemed ill-suited to the death of a frail centenarian in a nursing home. Everyone knew what his morrow would bring. My wife, who cared for him in his last years, said she hoped to get cancer and die before getting old. She considered taking up smoking.
At a recent dinner, my mother lamented that she’d never thought about a productive coda to her working years. “I spent one-quarter of my life as a student, learning,” she said. “Then you spend half of your life in a productive capacity. Then you spend another twenty-five years doing nothing, being useless. A useless eater. I think our society must find something for these people to do.”
Maybe the time to learn old age’s lessons is in advance. The lessons are out there. Six million teachers are in it now. John Sorensen said he promised himself that when he got old he would shave every day and not drool, but at ninety-one he shaved occasionally and the muscles in his mouth were too slack to keep the saliva from running down his chin. A lesson of old age is that it’s not what you think, and the debilities you thought defined people are often just more things you live with. We’d do ourselves a big favor not to be scared of growing old, but to embrace the mixed bag that the years have to offer, however severe the losses. A long-term survey of people in Ohio found that those who had positive perceptions of aging, measured by whether they agreed or disagreed with statements like “As you get older, you are less useful,” went on to live an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger boost than that associated with exercising or not smoking.
The elders all knew something you can’t get on the Internet, which is how to be old, and how the world looks from the perspective of someone who has lived in it for a while, and who will soon be leaving it. As Helen Moses often tells her daughter, “I was your age, but you were never my age.” They are not, as they are often described these days, an “age tsunami”—something gathering out at sea that will soon wreak devastation on “our” shores. They are us—if not now, then someday. And if we are not willing to learn from them, we will miss important lessons about what it means to be human. Old age is the last thing we’ll ever do, and it might teach us about how to live now.
* * *
I didn’t know any of this when I started dropping in on the lives of the six elders. Mainly I hoped to show the pains and hardships of old age. Journalism loves problems. What else, I reasoned, was old age made of?
All I knew was that my life had been turned upside down, and the things I thought were solid had proved temporary. At least I wasn’t old, I thought.
Copyright © 2018 by John Leland