It’s no secret that I am a lifelong unabashed book addict. And when I come across a wonderfully written volume, there’s no way I can keep quiet about my discovery.
As a baby boomer, I’ve got a long way to go before I become a member of the fastest-growing age group in America — the “oldest old.” I do, however, have friends and neighbors who fit into this category, as well as a natural curiosity about what will (if we are lucky) be the next life stage for me and my peers.
I was fascinated by a series of articles by New York Times reporter John Leland that focused on the very old in New York City. He regularly interviewed six individuals who were over 85 and then gave readers a taste of what life is like during its waning years.
In the process, Leland acquired a unique perspective on his own life challenges being middle-aged and wound up turning his insights and research into a must-read book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old.
Leland began his project in early 2015 and credits it to changing his life.
He writes: “All (six individuals) had lost something: mobility, vision, hearing, spouses, children, peers, memory. … 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 55 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.”
Leland made it a point to learn about how his subjects lived — from the moment they got up until they went to bed. He wondered how they got through each day, and how they managed their children, their changing bodies, their medications and their incessantly diminishing capabilities.
And the most poignant question of all was the issue of whether there is a threshold at which life is no longer worth living.
Leland’s book is the perfect blend of characters and essential information. For example, did you know that more people are now living past the age of 85 than at any time in human history? In 1960, there were fewer than 1 million Americans in that age group, but today there are about nearly 6 million.
“An American who turns 85 in 2018 was born with a life expectancy of less than 60 years,” Leland said. “That’s a lot of time not planned for, and a lot of old people who know something about living long.”
Readers learn that there truly is such a thing as age discrimination. In fact, most people over 60 discuss “important matters” with people their own age; if you exclude relatives, only 6 percent of seniors regularly interact with people who are under 35 years old.
Gerontologist Karl Pillemer of Cornell University “found that Americans are more likely to have friends of another race than friends who are more than 10 years apart from them in age.”
Next week, I’ll discuss more of Leland’s discoveries, but today I’d like to leave you with this observation from his eye-opening book: “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 90 than at 20. 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.”
— Marilyn Murray Willison is a columnist, motivational speaker and journalist, and author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes. Click here to contact her, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.