In 2015, award-winning journalist John Leland set out on behalf of The New York Times to meet members of America’s fastest growing age group: people age 85 and older, or what gerontologists often refer to as “the oldest old.” What John discovered during his deep dive into the world of elders upended his own ideas about old age. It also challenged the widespread notion that old age is nothing more than a grim period of physical and emotional decline. On the show John shares some of the lessons he learned from six elders profiled in his best-selling book, “Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old.” They include his own mother, Dorothy Leland, and the late Jonas Mekas, who hung out with Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg and was known as the godfather of American avant-garde cinema. He talks about his series “85 and Up” for the Times, which formed the basis for his book, and about the huge influence we all have over the quality of our lives as we age. Hint: research shows that a positive view of old age results in adding 7-1/2 years to your life.
A few of the elders profiled in the book:
JANA PANARITES (HOST): Reporter John Leland wrote, “so much of what we think we know about old age comes from people who have never been old, but what does it look like to the people living it?” In 2015, John set out to answer this question by following six New Yorkers for a year for a New York Times series called “85 and Up” — a reference to people aged 85 and older, or what gerontologists have called the “oldest old.” It’s one of the fastest growing age groups in America, having ballooned from 1 million people in 1960 to more than 6 million people in the US today. John’s reporting for the newspaper series laid the groundwork for his new book, “Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among the Oldest Old.” Besides this book, John Leland is the author of “Hip: The History,” and “Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On The Road.'” Before joining the New York Times, he was a Senior Editor at Newsweek, Editor in chief of Details, a reporter at Newsday and a Writer and Editor at Spin magazine. John Leland, I’m so happy to welcome you to the Agewyz Podcast.
JOHN LELAND: Jana, I’m so glad to be here. Thank you very much.
JANA: So when you were growing up, what were your views about older people, and did you know any?
JOHN: I didn’t know very many closely because my grandparents all were gone by the time I was three, so I never had a relationship with any them. There would be — sometimes there would be gatherings, family gatherings, where you would meet your distant, older relatives, sort of those wrinkled old ladies that want to kiss you. I didn’t have the sort of nourishing grandparental experience. And you know, I thought old age was just this terrible thing that happened to people if they weren’t careful and didn’t eat enough Kale and quinoa.
JANA: So to the extent that you thought about old age at all, how did you imagine it, besides what you just said?
JOHN: You know, all I thought about it was it, it was like being the age we are now but with decline. You know, I understand that — I’m just about 60 now — I understand my eyes are not as sharp as they were when I was 40 and when I was 40 they’re not as sharp as when I was 20. But I understand that I have all these other changes, and my life is actually better at 60 than it was at 40 or 20. It was harder for me to project the same way and say okay, 20 years from now when I’m just about 80, my eyes are going to be even worse, but other things are going to compensate for that and my life will be what my life is. It was hard for me to make that connection… and then starting in 2015, as you mentioned, first for The New York Times series and then for the book, I spent a year with six people age 85 and up and they just changed the way I looked at things.
JANA: And so why this subject? What was the inspiration behind the series and then the book?
JOHN: It really just began with that census number that this is one of the fastest growing age groups in the country, and we don’t see them on TV, we don’t read about them in the media so much, so I wanted to know like what is life day-to-day for people in that age group? And I wanted to know from the real experts: the people who were living it.
JANA: And when you started out, what did you hope to find? And maybe you could share what was going on in your own life. What was going on in your life is very much interwoven in the book.
JOHN: All of my frame of reference for this story begins with my mother, who’s 90 and she says, “if you want to know what old age is like, it stinks.” And about 10 years ago my mother had this life-threatening infection, and her doctors called my brother and me and they said, “will you authorize us to insert a feeding tube to keep her alive long enough so the antibiotics could work?” And I’m on assignment in Iraq at the time and my brother and I are talking over this terrible cell phone connection and we’re deciding whether our mother lives or dies, you know, if we say no to the feeding tube she never regains consciousness, and the infection takes her painlessly outta here. And if we say yes and the antibiotic works, she goes back to the life she had before. So we said yes, and she’s never quite forgiven us for it.
JOHN: So that’s kind of my starting point of reference. And my other starting point was I wanted to understand this body of research that sociologists call the paradox of aging: that as much as we worship youth, older people are more content than younger people. And that didn’t make any sense to me. How could these people whose minds are in decline, whose bodies are in decline — how can they be more content than younger people? What do they know that I didn’t know? That’s a good place to start a story, and over the course of the year the six people I followed showed me the answers to this.
JANA: What was your process for finding these folks and then how did you choose these six “teachers for a year” as you called them — the ones you ultimately focused on?
JOHN: Oh, that is the most fun part of any project — it’s just meeting people and the casting for characters. The woman I live with is a former actress and she says like 90 percent of directing is casting. So we got to do that and just– I just spent like a couple months, I guess meeting as many people as I could. I wanted diversity. The group that I followed is black and white and Asian. They’re gay and straight. They’re different economic classes and different levels of mobility, you know, different health stories… and they all have different life stories as well. I thought I was going to write about the toll that old age was taking on their lives, because I figured like — what else was there to say about getting old? And so every so often when I was meeting all these people, if I found somebody that was too happy or upbeat, I would just think, oh, that person’s in denial.
JOHN: They’re not admitting it. That’s not a good person. And I would discard them. So I ended up with people who were not like la, la, la, everything’s great, but were really thoughtful about their lives, and it made a great difference because we’ve all read that story about the 102-year old woman who’s jumping out of airplanes and running marathons and drinking martinis and you read it and it gives you this momentary sugar high. You’re like, wow, that’s such a great story. What does that have to do with me? What does that have to do with my mother or my father or my grandfather? And the people that I spent my time with, they really had all the problems that I expected people to have, but the difference was, none of them defined themselves by their problems. Only other people did that — their healthcare providers, their doctors, their kids, they look at mom as that woman in the wheelchair. And the mother would look at herself as that person who has been the matriarch of the family, and now she doesn’t get around as well as she used to. And it was just that perspective. And the wonderful thing about doing this as a journalist as opposed to a professional in the field is I didn’t have to fix anybody’s problems.
JOHN: In fact, I couldn’t. I wasn’t there to do that, so I wasn’t trying to change anybody. I could just listen to them and just sort of gradually get rid of all my preconceptions and listened to what they were telling me in a way that I couldn’t with my own mother. And the beautiful thing about this is I gradually started to learn to listen to my mother in ways that I hadn’t been able to before.
JANA: One of the folks that you met with on the academic side, Karl Pillemer — I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing that right — of Cornell, distinguished between “happy in spite of” and “happy if only” — the former being “a benefit of old age and the latter being a vexation of youth,” as you wrote. I wonder if you could elaborate on that. That was so fascinating.
JOHN: It’s such a beautiful turn of phrase. Karl Pillemer was a big influence on me in doing this book. “Happy if only” means, if only my problems were solved I’d be happy. If only I had this money. If only lost 10 pounds. If only whatever. If we could only change the things that are making me unhappy, I’d be happy. And “happy in spite of” means, you know, I’m a little heavier than I thought I’d like to be, or I don’t have the money I would like, but I’m happy anyway. You know, I’m happy with what IS, not worried about what isn’t. Whereas “happy if only” means all of my happiness is put into what isn’t, not into what is. And what I found is that the elders that I spent time with did not expect all their problems to be solved. They knew that some of them were just going to get worse, and so if they were going to be happy, they were going to be happy with those problems. So they tended to move not all the time, but more towards that “happy in spite” of mindset.
JANA: So being “happy in spite of” seems to me to be a kind of acceptance of sorts. And along those same lines, I wonder if you could talk about the wisdom that you learned of accepting opposing views, even when you listen and aren’t persuaded. You wrote about this in the context of people who think they’re open minded, but often they’re not.
JOHN: Being open minded doesn’t mean being open to ideas that you agree with. Being open minded means seeing… Jana, you’re a smart person and you tell me this is the case: that it’s cold outside, but I thought it was warm out. I can think, oh Jana is wrong, or I can think, no, Jana’s kinda smart. She knows whether it’s cold outside or warm outside. Why is it that she thinks that way? What is it that I’m not seeing? What can I see in addition to what I’m seeing now? And it’s just understanding that that cliché, that two minds are better than one, actually is true. Two minds are better than one, and if they agree on everything then they’re not really two minds, they’re just one mind. So we are in a much richer situation when we are embracing ideas that we don’t necessarily agree with.
Jana: I thought it was interesting too that you’ve got three men and three women in this group of six. The men all lived on their own and the women all lived in facilities. Did you consider interviewing men who were in facilities?
JOHN: They were all in different circumstances. One of the women was in a senior building, but I wouldn’t really consider it a facility. It was subsidized for older people, but there were not a lot of services there. It wasn’t that kind of place.
JANA: Was that Ping?
JOHN: That’s Ping Wong, yeah. She’s really in an independent living building, which I think is very, very different from assisted living or skilled nursing or a CCRC. So her life, while it was a senior building, it was much more like it would have been in a regular housing. Uh, I would say that the turn is that the three women are still alive and three men now — Jonas Mekas was the third of the men to die, and he died on Wednesday.
JANA: Yeah. Jonas was– wow. They were all so interesting. But Jonas was very, very artsy. He almost seemed hip in the way that you described “Hip: The History.” In fact, I felt like some of these elders had an aspect of hipness. They had what you refer to as “the peculiar enlightenment of the outsider.” I read an interview where you described that main element of hip. So I think they were all hip in their own way, but Jonas was particularly hip.
JOHN: And Jonas literally was. I mean he was friends with the Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and he has — he has Allen Ginsberg’s beard and the scissors used to cut it off.
JANA: That’s incredible.
JOHN: That’s really deep. It’s in a little box that says “Allen’s beard”.
JANA: Who’s going to inherit that? I guess his son, Sebastian.
JOHN: I hope his son Sebastian does. His son is such a saintly character. I feel terrible for him now. He has a daughter as well, Oona, and they’re parting with this incredible figure.
JANA: Tell the audience a little bit about him if you could, and some of the lessons of Jonas.
JOHN: Jonas was 96. He was a Lithuanian and he was a teenager in Lithuania when Stalin’s Soviet army came in and turned this world upside down. The next year the Nazis came in and Jonas and his brother ended up being put in a series of Nazi slave labor camps — not death camps because they weren’t Jewish, but slave labor camps. After the war he was in the United Nations displaced persons camps in Germany, and there he discovered cinema, really. And he fell in love with it. And he and his brother tried to go to Israel as the state of Israel was being founded, but there was not a quota for, like, Lithuanian gentiles. They weren’t able to do that. So they were eventually able to board a ship with papers to go to Chicago. They ended up in New York on the way to Chicago and fell in love with New York.
So they stayed there and Jonas became like a pioneer of avant-garde cinema in America. He started a couple of film publications, one called Film Comment, and he was the first film critic for the paper here, The Village Voice… and he’s made a number of movies that are in the Smithsonian Museum. I believe he takes credit for introducing Andy Warhol to sound, in movies. And he thought that was a mistake. He thought that kind of ruined Warhol’s movies. But, you know, he just ran in a very fancy crowd and he was never — he never had two cents in his pocket, and he never cared about that. If he ever did have two cents, he gave one of them to, like, a filmmaker who was more destitute than he was, and spent the other one getting somebody’s filmed distributed. He was just, he was really a servant of the arts and he gave himself to that and he loved it. You know, you want to live a useful life and a meaningful life. And I think Jonas lived that for probably every day of his 96 years.
JANA: So how does a positive view of old age — certainly Jonas fits into this category — how does a positive view of old age affect your health? You refer [in the book] to Yale psychiatrist Becca Levy and her findings.
JOHN: Yeah. It turns out that having a positive view about old age, even when you’re in middle age or a little bit younger, has a profound impact on you. People live seven and a half years longer, they recover more quickly from injuries or disabilities or illnesses. They walk a little faster, there’s even a body of research that people in middle age who have a positive view of old age are more interested in sex and they enjoy it more. So, ka-ching! You know this — if we had a pill that did that, people would clamor for it.
JANA: Yeah, and I don’t think we’re talking about a Pollyanna-ish view here. We’re talking about something really different, right?
JOHN: Right. I think it begins or involves, at least, an understanding of loss as something that we all experience, something we share with everybody that ever lived, instead of thinking of your losses as something that you and you alone are singled out for. Because everybody experiences loss. And I think one of the things that came with old age is understanding that you have the things that happened to you in life, and you have your reaction to those things that happened to you in life. And your quality of life is more in your reactions to them, and you have no control over a lot of things that happened to you, but you do have influence at least on your reaction to those things. And when I write that happiness is a choice you make, it doesn’t mean you can choose to have a life without loss or woe in it, but you have influence over how you react to the loss or woe that we all face just as part of being thinking, human beings on this planet.
JANA: I think one of the ways that I try to stay positive is by being really selective about the people in my life. This was something that– you described Ping Wong as, “she had her small circle of friends that were highly curated.” I loved that whole concept of curating your friends. She was really selective about how — and older folks in general tends to be really selective about how they spend their time and who they spend it with. You wrote, “focusing less on material things and recognizing what’s really valuable. We don’t think of this as growth,” you wrote, “but the reality is Ping and others are progressing in more profound ways.” I guess this gets at what you mean by why older means wiser. You want to talk a little bit about that? Being selective with your friends?
JOHN: It’s a wonderful idea, and there’s really good research on this by Laura Carstensen who runs the Longevity Center at Stanford University. She says we talk so much about social connection and social isolation, particularly about older people, but older people might not necessarily want to measure that by how many people they’re in contact with in the course of a day. They’re more likely to measure it in terms of the meaningfulness of those contacts. They do not need to go to networking events to try to meet more people. What they need to do is quality time with people that they really care about. So in Ping’s case, she had a circle of friends that she played Mahh-jong with every day. So it was not like a couple, where you’re only reliant on one other person and if something happens to that other person you are out at sea, but it was also not like trying to balance 20 friends and feeling you can’t get in touch with anybody and you don’t have time for meaningful conversations and whatever you were talking about last time you talked about. Last time you talked, you’ve forgotten about it because it was so long ago. So she had like a continuity and meaningful connections with just a few people, and that got her through the days and gave her– you know, every day she had something to look forward to. It was seeing those people and sometimes they talked about deep stuff and sometimes they just talked about the Mahh-jong tiles on the table.
JANA: She moved into a nursing home, right? Because she had a bunch of falls.
JOHN: That’s right. She had a couple of falls and really it was her dementia that was starting to present itself and she was no longer safe where she was in the building and so she moved first to one nursing home where she was really, really unhappy. There weren’t a lot of Chinese people. Ping does speak English, but she’s much more comfortable in speaking– she speaks Mandarin, Cantonese and Shanghainese (?), and probably like the polyglot languages of New York Chinatown.
JOHN: Which aren’t found anywhere else on earth. But she had to move out to this nursing home near her daughter, and when she got to the second one, there was a large Chinese population there and Ping has always said, you know, “when you’re old you have to make yourself happy, otherwise you get older.” And she’d always maintained that all the time, any time I would visit her. And then when she first got to the nursing home, the transition was really hard for and she said she didn’t think she could do it anymore. And then I went back a little while later and she’d made a close friend and she found her groove there. So even though she had this dementia that was progressive, she was in much better shape at that point than she’d been a couple months before or a couple months before that.
JANA: It speaks a lot to the resiliency of the human spirit, even in older age. I thought about this as well when I read about Ruth and how her kids persuaded her to leave her townhouse in New Jersey and move into that high-priced ALF in Park Slope. But then market forces — which hits older people especially hard, right? — she was forced to leave that building because the owner decided to sell it for higher-price condos. I thought she was a great lady.
JOHN: Ruth Willig was probably the most like my mother. So I was always talking about my mother with her.
JANA: In what way?
JOHN: Well, they were both professional women. My mother had worked for the New York Herald Tribune and then they’d given up their careers to raise their kids. They’d been city people who sort of moved a little bit away from the city and you know, college educated, married to professional men. So they had a lot in common in that sense. And Ruth was not a sunny disposition, either. I asked Ruth about the research that said older people are more content than younger people and she said, “Not me! Not I!”
But when you, when you sort of drill down a little bit, Ruth really felt that her life is good. I mean, she had the things she needed. She had these four kids who really had turned out well. You know, she could feel proud of that. They’d managed to send them all to college and you know, they’d all gone out into the world and made lives for themselves and they were all still in her life. They all still lived in the area… her daughters would come every weekend and take her on vacation in the summer. So if there were things that she missed from her old life — and she hated having to move out of her old building because she had a group of friends there, and now in the new place — you know, it was one thing to start all over once when she went into the first building, but then to have to do it again, five years later, she’s a little more fragile, less sociable maybe, and she just didn’t want to do that another time. So she doesn’t have the same kind of friends that she’d had in the old building.
And she resents that. And I think that’ll always be a part of her. But as the time has gone on, she’s worried less about that resentment, you know, it’s still there, but it’s just like, that’s not what my life is. My life is this kind of world with my kids. They want me to depend on them a little bit. I don’t want to depend on them, but it feels good when I lean on their arm, so she’s just kind of finding her way to that. You know, we’re all taught that we should be independent and self-reliant and stand on our own two feet, and it doesn’t work at the beginning of life and it doesn’t work all that well at the end of life. And it’s not even the best thing in the middle. You know, teamwork and collaboration are much more productive than you know, the lone hero. So Ruth and her kids are working their way to that interdependence, which I think is a much stronger and more sustainable system than independence. Not just for older people, but at any age. And it’s one of the great things I learned from her is that I can accept help from people. I don’t have to try to always go it alone, and I’m not diminished when I let somebody help me. And you build much better relationships with the people that help you, you’re in better shape to help other people. That’s just a much better way to go about your life. And it’s easier!
JANA: It sure is.
JOHN: How many things we do to make our lives easier?
JANA: Exactly. It’s not really endemic to the American character is it? Going it alone is a very American concept, but there is a middle ground and I love how you wrote that Ruth’s family did more for her by making room for her to do things for them. It’s tricky, right? It’s a fine balance. Especially with strong– because I’m Greek, my family is Greek and I was raised to be very independent and yet there was this… we almost have this pathological closeness that people don’t understand unless you’re from a culture like that and, in fact, the way that Ruth related to her family was very different from how you grew up, right? I wonder if you could share a little bit about your growing up.
JOHN: Well, we’re all a bit distant in my house and my parents both left their families. My father was from Alabama and he sort of lied about his age to go to World War II– or he got his parents to sign a waiver for him to go early to World War II– and then after the war he didn’t go back to Alabama. And my mother’s from a sort of close-knit Pennsylvania Dutch community in central Pennsylvania and she left there to go to New York City and be in one of those hotels for women like that Tom Hanks sitcom from a million years ago. And they met in Greenwich Village in this sort of Bohemian world of Greenwich Village to which neither of them belonged. So they raised us to be, they raised us to be very, very independent and you know, they would never pry into our lives. They would be there to support us if we needed it. But it was always best if we could do things on our own. And we really learned to do that and I think we gained a lot from it. But then we need to sort of see beyond that and start to allow people to help — you know, allow ourselves that interdependence that the Willig family are battling and squabbling and loving their way towards. It doesn’t come without bruises.
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JANA: So… all of these oldest, old, they sort of had these qualities common to New Yorkers. They were shrewd. They were curious. In fact, New York is really a place where, as you wrote, “individuals were autonomous and self-invented.” I wondered at first whether these folks were really representative of the larger demographic in America, but then it seemed like the research that you found supported the idea that they are representative. Did you get that sense?
JOHN: I think that in a lot of ways they are, and there are some ways that they aren’t. What was interesting about this work is usually when we write about older people, what we’ll do is we’ll start with a new piece of research and it’ll show something new about the progression of a certain kind of dementia. And then what we’ll do is we’ll find people who illustrate the research findings. And so the research findings will be the dog and the people will be the tail. And what I did instead was I went the other way. I began with the people and I just followed their lives and if they did something I would look to see, hmm… what does the research say about this? Is this rare? Is this common? And in a lot of cases or in almost all cases, really, I would find that what they were doing was representative of large numbers of their peers.
I think one way they’re not representative– or two ways really– one is that they were, because they’re in New York City they’re not dependent on automobiles, so there’s not that really dividing line in their lives between the time that they’re driving and not driving. And that sense of isolation and dependency changes in an automobile culture when you can’t drive. So they didn’t go through that. And then the other thing is, some of them were observant religiously, but it didn’t play a huge role in anybody’s life. And so I think that were I to do it outside of New York, I might find that faith played a bigger role in more people’s lives than it did in the group that I did. Uh, one of the men, Fred Jones was a regular churchgoer, but I think if he weren’t able to meet chicks there he would have been less inclined to go.
JANA: Yeah, he was a real player, huh?
JOHN: You know, for him that church was a great place to put on your best suit and your best handkerchief and just get out there, and look good and have some sweets, you know?
JANA: Yeah, and that purple suit that he ended up getting was really rocking. Man, I wish I could have seen that.
JOHN: Oh, it’s a wonderful story. These articles, when they came out — and we hadn’t expected that much of them, but they just built an audience over time, and one of the readers read Fred’s story. And Fred was becoming isolated. He lived in a two-floor walkup apartment and he was losing two toes to gangrene, so he couldn’t get out much and he was such a sociable guy. There were a number of people that wrote in, and they wanted to get in touch with him and Fred was open to that. There was a man who was a retired, like, telecom executive and he got in touch with Fred and they went out to lunch, and Fred wanted to go to the Burger King near him. And afterwards he said, Fred, “If you found a couple of hundred dollars on the street, what would you do with it?” And Fred said, “I’d buy a new suit.” And so he said, “okay, let’s go.” And he was going to take him and buy a new suit. And Fred said he wanted something in purple. So that’s a little challenge. And Jim, the guy who was the reader, he didn’t know where to find a purple suit in that part of Brooklyn. Fred did. So he got him this beautiful plaid, double-breasted purple suit and Fred just looked fantastic in it.
JANA: You said Fred was the first to cheer you up.
JOHN: He was always in a great mood and it didn’t matter. You know, I mentioned he’s got these hardships. He’s losing his two toes, he’s socially isolated, his daughter’s dying of breast cancer. So I asked him what the happiest period of time of his life was and he said “right now,” and he said, “my favorite part of the day is waking up in the morning and saying thank God for another day on my way to a 110.” And it was such a beautiful thing, to be going through what he’s going through and to be thankful for another day. And to want another 20 years of that? I thought, I need to really rethink my attitude on things because I have so much more to be grateful for than Fred, and I’m not doing it, and I’m seeing the effect it has on him. Why aren’t I doing it? And so, I gradually figured out like, okay, you want to be more grateful? First you have to choose to do it. It’s got to be a conscious thing. You can’t like — just wait till someone gave you a cookie to say thank you, because life doesn’t always give us a cookie. And then you had to choose it, and you have to practice it.
You know, you had to take time out to recognize that there’s all these forces outside yourself that bring you almost all of the good in your life. And then you had to turn it into a habit, which is what Fred did. So he didn’t have to think about it anymore. He just did it. And you know, that works with everything. You want to lose weight? Choose it, practice it, and turn it into a habit. You want to be a better caregiver to your mother? Choose to do it, practice it until turns to habit. You know, it works on so many different things. And Fred helped me see it through gratitude and then once I had that I was kind of off to the races.
JANA: I want to talk with you for a moment about, “Love in the Time of Lipitor.” That was a great chapter. Listeners might be cringing at this point, but we’re going to go there. What’s courtship like for these folks?
JOHN: First of all, if you were cringing get over it. This is the story of Helen Moses and Howie Zeimer, who met in a nursing home in the Bronx and had the courage to love each other. And even knowing that given their circumstances they probably couldn’t do so for a long time and one would watch the other decline. So my hat is off to them for the courage in doing that. But they’re also in a classic love triangle involving Helen’s daughter who doesn’t think that Howie he is really a great match for her mother.
JOHN: So– yes. So it never ends, right? At some point in our lives our mother doesn’t like our girlfriend, and at a later point in life we don’t like mom’s boyfriend.
JANA: I never thought about that. That’s so funny.
JOHN: I think that there’s a basic karmic principle on there. But Howie… Howie’s got sort of a severe brain injury that made him a lot slower than Helen, and I think that’s why Zoe didn’t think he was a good match for her mother. But you know, I wondered– because Howie was so slow– I said like, “what’s Helen getting out of this?” And what I realized eventually, what Howie gave her was that he needed her. You know, she’d been needed by her kids and by her husband and by her job and she got to a point where she gets to the nursing home and no one needs her, and not only that they’re going to take care of all her needs. But then Howie comes along and he makes her [feel] needed again. And you know, I began this by talking about my mother.
I flashed back to my mother who says, you know, she spent the first quarter of her life growing up and getting an education. And then the next half of her life working and raising a family, and then the last quarter she felt useless. She didn’t feel like anyone needed her anymore. And that’s her great complaint about old age. But Helen in her relationship with Howie was needed again, and she said “I take care of him. He’s an only child. And he had nobody. And then when his mother and father died, he really had nobody except me. I try to be everything to him. I think that I am.” And my gosh, isn’t that a definition of a life that’s worth living?
JOHN: Being everything to another human being and feeling that you accomplish that? Wow.
JANA: And that’s another area where over 85s are pioneers. I mean there’s no guidebook.
JOHN: Their mothers did not teach them what dating after 90 is like. And you know, and they’re exploring that. They really are this, this vanguard. And we can learn from them. But we don’t listen. This is like such a problem in the culture that we’d say, oh, we have nothing to learn from them. They can’t do Instagram like us. And it’s like, what are all these things that we’re missing? Somebody goes and travels to the top of Kilimanjaro, we want to know what it’s like up there. Someone travels to 90, we say, “Oh, I don’t want to hear about that.” And it’s such a mistake, because we actually aren’t going to need that information about Kilimanjaro. But if we find out what it’s like to be 90, we’ll hopefully need that information.
JANA: Yeah. I was the primary caregiver for my mom after my father died and I lived with my mom for three years and she was 80 when my father died, and she now lives my youngest sister and my mom is now 89, so we say we’re co-parenting mom, but really she is teaching us a lot about getting older. And being around her has taught me so much about being older and her perspective is so amazing. It’s such a privilege for me to have this experience with my mother at her age and to just absorb. In some ways I relate to Helen’s daughter Zoe, wanting to spend time alone with her mother. I thought that was really cute. Helen was quite wily.
JOHN: Helen was such a great piece of work. She had impeccable comic timing. And Helen and Howie were so amazing together. Howie would say, something like — he goes, “You’re the one woman in my lifetime, I mean it.” And Helen– it’s perfect– waits a beat and goes, “I can’t hear you, but it better be good.” And you just, you couldn’t write it any better. But she absolutely adored Howie and you know, you’d ask Helen, like what makes her life worthwhile at this point? And she would just say Howie. Unless Zoe was there and then she would say Zoe, because they were both true. The friction was that she wanted Zoe to be a little bit nicer to Howie, but you know, they had each other, and they were– the three of them, they really cared about each other. And Helen needed both of those. She was a big personality. She needed two big loves in her life and she had them in Zoe and Howie. And she’s the one who made that happen. So she probably couldn’t have done that when she was 29, but she could do it at 92.
JANA: So did they get hitched yet, as Howie said? Or did they have the commitment ceremony yet?
JOHN: They haven’t. They were going to do one. Zoe had finally agreed that they could get hitched, and they had set a couple of different dates in October and then Helen’s health– she’s had too many health problems, and so they weren’t able to do it. And then the rabbi got sick and they’re hoping to do it this year. But Helen’s 94 now. So health is always going to be a question mark.
JANA: John, was it hard for you to stop visiting with these elders? And the three that are still living, are they in your life?
JOHN: Oh, this is kind of where the book came from. I did the yearlong series in the New York Times in 2015. The year ends, and I don’t have any excuses to have them in my life anymore. And I’m like, what am I gonna do without these guys? And so I thought well, I could do a book about them. And that got me to thinking, you know, what sort of book do I want to do? And also like, why is it– I’m really good at detaching myself from stories while I’m doing them and when I’m done– why is it that with this group of people, I still want to be in touch with them? And it’s not because of what I was doing for them but what they were doing for me, and the ways I was changed just by being around them and learning from them. And so that’s how the book sort of starts to take shape from my thinking about why I’m so attached to them. So the newspaper series is about my attempt to get at what life after 85 looks like to the people who are living it, and the book is about what that life looks like and what I learned from spending all this time with people who were so generous with their time.
JANA: Well, after this experience, what advice would you give to your younger self?
JOHN: A couple things. I go back to Fred all the time, and Fred said, “happiness is what’s happening now.” And so it’s that kind of really learned, that we’re told every day we should live in the moment, live every day as if it’s your last, and you never know what that looks like, but getting to spend time with people who really did see concretely the finiteness of their days helped me see what that was like and that these days really do have a lot of meaning and they’re ours to use well or to squander, and we have a choice in that. So that would be it. I think just that, you know, whatever hardships we have, we’re not defined by them.
JANA: I love what Jonas said about “shutting down the noise and the fears and desires,” you wrote, “that buffet our days… and think about how amazing, really amazing life is.” Wow. That really stuck with me.
JOHN: It’s how I begin my talks. I’ve been speaking a lot about the book and I come out and I say, “Have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing life is?” And it comes from an unpublished novella that Jonas wrote called “Requiem for a Manual Typewriter,” and I heard him read it one day in a jazz club and I just thought, wow, have you ever thought about how amazing, really amazing life is? And it’s just how Jonas thought of the world every day. And so if he can do it, I don’t know if I can do it every day, but I can do it sometimes. And I can do it more than I do it. So that’s my goal for the day.
JANA: Well, I want to let you go. Do you have any last thoughts before we close?
JOHN: We did not mention John Sorensen, so I would feel remiss if I didn’t mentioned John. John was a gay man who missed his partner of 60 years and he said every time we got together that he wanted to die. You know, these are the kind of people that were in the book. And yet I would ask John, “Do you really wish you were dead right now?” And he’d say, “Well no, because we’re having this conversation.” And it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to leave in a little bit. Do you want to die, then?” And he’d go, “Well no, because Anne is coming tomorrow” — Anne was this partner’s neice – “there’s the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast on Saturday,” and he didn’t want to miss that. So even though John missed his partner so much and had so many regrets about still being alive, he knew what the pleasures of his day were right then and he was able to savor them, and that’s kind of a laboratory view of what living each day as if it’s your last is: God, I hope tomorrow never comes, but right now I’m really enjoying the Met Opera broadcast.
JANA: Yeah, his perspective was really interesting in that he did talk a lot about wanting to die, and yet clearly he was still enjoying the life that he had. That was very unique, that perspective. And you wrote that you had a hard time seeing your mother’s perspective when she wished that you and your brother had let her die, but that perspective changed through the experience of knowing John.
JOHN: Yeah, John [Sorensen] really changed my view on that, and I now would make that decision differently with my mother. I understood her feelings about it better. And not only that, I accept her feelings and I think, well actually my mother knows more about how to be my mother than I know how to be my mother. You know, she knows what’s right for her. I don’t know what’s right for her, so she’s correct about this by being the person who’s living it. And so I can be a little more humble and say no, I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know what’s better for her. I can give up that idea that I have to be right. And that has made my relationship her so much better.
JANA: Was that the first time you really sort of thought twice about that period where she did want to die? After you met John? Because I met somebody a while ago– she was 90 years old when I met her– and she did not want to live past 94. She made that very clear. She died in October of 2000, just after her 93rd birthday, and on the phone she– in our last conversation she told me she was going to vote for Ralph Nadar– and she was very clear that she did not want to live past 94, and that was really shocking to me. That was like the first time anyone in her age group, or anyone even older than me, had said something like that so convincingly.
JOHN: Interesting. You know, we’re all familiar with that Ezekiel Emanuel essay about not wanting to live past 75, from a couple of years ago, and I always think that, well maybe when it gets there it’ll look a little different. It’s easy to say, I hope I die before I get old, you know? You get there– it looks a little bit different. I might think, gosh, if I lost this I wouldn’t want to live anymore. But then you look around you and there’s people that can’t– you know, if I lost my eyesight, I wouldn’t want to live anymore– but there’s people who are blind who are living incredibly meaningful lives. And you can look at any other loss in exactly the same way. I met a man who had suffered really serious, debilitating aneurysm and I think he’d lost some of his limbs as well. I didn’t meet him in person but we talked on the phone, and his name was Lucky because this aneurysm, this medical setback had taught him what was important in life, and so now he went by the name Lucky and I just thought, wow, that is an amazing perspective, and one you can never get to until you’re there.
JANA: I’m glad that you brought up John because the other thing that I was so glad that you wrote about was Anne, his former partner Walter’s niece, who took on the role of caregiver in his life. And she really had her hands full. I’m glad that you wrote about her caregiving. It’s actually an epidemic in my view, this caregiving crisis, but thank God she was there.
JOHN: She had it easy. She was only taking care of four people. Her mother, both her in-laws and John. And they were in three different states– geographic states– and four different physical states, you know, medical conditions and with different needs. And her in-laws, one of them had dementia and the other was his 92 year old caregiver. And so, you know, something would happen to the caregiver and everything would be on Anne. And she was such a hero. We should all have an Anne Kornblum in our life, or a couple. If science wants to work on anything let’s work on cloning Anne Kornblum.
JANA: Well, ironically one of the folks you interviewed who didn’t make it into the book in terms of the six that you profiled was someone who was Chinese, and I think the son said that in China children are expected to take care of their parents, but in the US the government is expected to do it. But Anne wasn’t the government, and a lot of people, you know, are taking care of other folks and the government isn’t stepping in. So I’m really glad you profiled that issue because it’s really important.
JOHN: Well, it’s important to me too, you know, because I– to the extent that there’s a caregiver for my mother, and she’s really independent, it’s me. I’m the closest person here. And she also has home attendants who are heroic. Heroic. Without Oma and Cynthia there’s no Dorothy, my mother. But it’s a different task than any other task we’ll ever do. And I would always meet these caregivers and they would say, “Oh, it’s a blessing.” And I’d be like, “okay, what’s your life like?” “Oh yeah, I slept two hours last night and I’m going to sleep one hour tonight and,” you know, “my mother is getting worse and my father’s [unintelligible], but it’s a blessing to have them.” And I never understood that. And now I think through the people I’ve spent time with, I really do see that. I understand why that time with people, even people who are suffering from real serious medical conditions– it can be such a redemptive experience. My life has meaning. I don’t need to worry about whether my life has meaning or not because I’m doing this.
JANA: Yeah, I think respite is important, but I would agree with you on that. For sure.
JOHN: We need respite. We need days off. We need all these — I mean, not we meaning me, because I have more days off the days on. But I know there are people that aren’t like that, and I accept that maybe I won’t be like that at a certain point either. But we would like our caregivers to understand the value of what they’re getting out of it. The ones that I meet for the most part, do. The ones that are afraid to do it are the ones that don’t.
JANA: How did the talk go, at your mom’s? You gave a talk in front of your– at your mom’s building. How did that go?
JOHN: It was so– it was wonderful. You know, that’s a scary audience, right? Your mom and her friends? To talk about–
JANA: Tough crowd.
JOHN: –the good news about old age. And they’re like, “What? You?” But no, they were so wonderful because, I can’t speak for all of them but many of their peers feel they’re just ignored now. You know, they’re not seeing themselves in the media. They’re not seeing themselves as the experts on anything. No one consults them about what to do in their romantic life, what to do in their professional life. They’ve just been, you know, sort of pushed aside. And somebody came in and said, “You know, what you’re going through and what your experience and what you feel about it is as important as anything else that’s in the New York Times today. It’s just as valuable.” And so, you know, I think that generated some goodwill and boy were they up to it, and I was absolutely right in saying that it was as valuable as anything that else was in the New York Times.
JANA: Yeah. I wonder if you could speak really quickly about your reader feedback — some more about your readers.
JOHN: Oh, I want to tell you a little bit about that. I’m glad you asked that. The reader comments have been wonderful and have really enriched me and especially — I’ve been doing a lot of speaking and it’s just been a delight, and I’m almost at the point where I’ll show up for the opening of an envelope. But it’s a little bit, it’s like the little project that could. When I started the project here at the Times there wasn’t that much interest in it, which is what enabled it to kind of take off. But as a series, there’s really, really smart editors in this and if you want to do a series, usually they’ll have really, really good ideas to add to it and at the end of the day you’ve got 17 people giving you really, really good ideas and you can just pull your hair out and die. But this kind of went under the radar because it didn’t generate that much interest, so the stories came out and they just started — because we’re an online publication now, you know, we can tell how many people are reading it– and the readership just kind of grew and grew and grew with each story.
I think in part it was the soap opera of Helen and Howie, but also there was just an audience in this, that you’re not seeing these stories. And then I thought, okay, now we have this huge readership for it. Everybody’s going to want to buy this as a book. You know, the publishers. And then most of the publishers didn’t. They turned it down, including the New York Times books, they were not interested in it. And so the book comes out, you know, it’s a small advanced I get and, you know, no big push when it comes out, and it goes right onto the bestseller list. And you know, not because I did such a great job writing it, because no one had read it at that point. But it’s because there was just this void that it was– it wasn’t even filling it, it was just filling part of it. It was just out there.
It’s like, what is it that millions and millions of us are going through that we’re just ignoring as an experience? We’re not honoring that experience. And so I don’t know how well I honored it, but I was there to show up. And I think that makes a bit of a difference, or maybe even a big difference. And I encourage people to check this out and see, wow, what is that experience like? And I got great feedback from the peer group of the people that are in the book as– you know, they’re trying to figure out how to be 90. And so getting a look at how six other people are doing it, you know, they think– oh, that one’s doing it wrong, that one’s doing it right, I can use that. You know, I don’t like that… in the same way that when you’re just finding out about dating, reading about people and their romantic lives is exciting. So there was that. And then there’s the people that are in my category where it’s your parents that are older and they’re not seeing other older people. So they feel kind of isolated in that. And this brought us all into a community together.
JANA: It was shocking to me to read– this was either in one of the articles you wrote or in the book– that when these people were born, their life expectancy hovered around 60 years old. Which is really amazing when you think about it. Somebody who’s 85 today was not expected to live longer than about 60. So what do you do with all those extra years? And they really are pioneers in that sense. That really floored me.
JOHN: They totally are. They’re the vanguard, you know, we think about the baby boom and how that changed everything. But there being six times as many people over age 85 as there were when I was born? That is a huge, huge, huge demographic bump. And they’re just exploring it on their own. And they’ve got statins that their parents didn’t have, and they’ve got laser surgery and titanium hips and knees. And I think that– you know, we got my mother a voice recognition thing, a smart speaker for Christmas and I can see that technology is being just at the very beginning now and it could really change things.
JANA: Well John, you’ve been so gracious with your time. Is there anything else you want to say before we close?
JOHN: Thank you for having me. I gain so much from all the conversations I have about this, and especially the opportunity to say thank you, because we all know that the key to being happy is being grateful. […] Thank you, and thanks everybody who listened.