John Leland spent a year following the lives of six people over 85 years old in New York City for a series in The New York Times. The subsequent book features interviews and insights about growing old and the way people approach it. If I were going to write a book about gerontology, it would look like this one.
“Old 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.”
His subjects did not speak much about their work accomplishments but focused on relationships, something we see working with elders. Sometimes people will tell us about their careers, especially if they were in the military or worked at NASA, but the conversation quickly turns to family.
Ping, an 89-year-old woman living alone in her apartment, taught him to be flexible and “to recalibrate goals or what made a life worth living.” Ping chose happiness for her life with its ups and downs. Ruth, a 91-year-old living in Brooklyn, often said she was unhappy but was appalled at that characterization when reading the story. Watching Ruth’s family drama gave him insights into his own relationship with his aging mother. 87-year-old World War II veteran, Fred Jones, described happiness as “what’s happening now.” Although he had health problems, he appreciated what was good at the moment.
One of the women had a boyfriend that she met in her senior community. As often happens, her family did not approve of their relationship but seemed to tolerate him. I’ve seen this as a long-term care ombudsman. It’s especially difficult when the loved one has dementia.
Two of the elders passed away before he finished the book but his reaction was different than it would have been before spending time with them. He missed them but is grateful for his time with them.
“The elders were all proof that you could live a full and fulfilling life even when the weather turned stormy. So why worry about clouds in the forecast?”
Leland includes stories from his own family and his thoughts about aging. He consulted several gerontologists, like Laura L. Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, and discussed theory and research in the field. He participated in an aging simulation, familiar to gerontology students, where you put on cotton balls in your ears and wear glasses and gloves. This book is an excellent introduction to gerontology and I highly recommend it for those interested in learning about aging.
Update: I met the author John Leland at the International Council on Active Aging conference in Long Beach in October (and he signed my copy of the book). I asked him if it was scary to include personal information in the book. He was definitely worried about it but felt it was necessary to show his own growth and a new understanding of aging and his relationship with his mother. It was interesting to see more photos of the people I had come to know in his book.
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