In his book, subtitled “Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old”, journalist John Leland takes us on a journey into uncharted territory. Mr. Leland spent a year with six elderly New Yorkers, exploring their lives.
He divides the book into the first six chapters chronicling the years spent with each of the six — John, 97, living in the same Manhattan apartment for forty-six years, the last six of them alone after the death of his partner; Fred, 87, a World War II vet and retired civil servant living in a three-story walk up; Helen, 90, living in The Hebrew Home in the Bronx, dating Howie, living down the hall; Ping, 89, providing an Asian perspective, living in a rent-controlled apartment with a Medicaid paid home attendant for seven hours a day; Ruth, a feisty 90, in assisted living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn and, finally, Jonas, 92, an active filmmaker and writer.
Along with the author, we live the lives of these six people from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night. “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…” Further, says Mr. Leland “All had lost something: mobility, vision, spouses, children, peers, memory but few had lost everything.” What the author found was that the “oldest old” are not a different species, as so many people see them, but rather much the same as you and me — getting up each morning with wants and needs and doing the best they can with what they have. Nevertheless, older people report a greater sense of well-being and fewer negative emotions than younger people. “Experience helps older people moderate their expectations and makes them more resilient when things don’t go as hoped.” We learn the many ways his six seniors chose to be happy.
The final six chapters detail the lessons learned from each of the elders. These are worlds well worth exploring. As Ruth said to her daughter one day “I was your age, you were never my age.”