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5 lessons from the oldest old

By Robert DiGiacomo

New York Times reporter John Leland thought he knew how to write about the “oldest old” — people 85 and up. For a proposed year-long series, he figured he would chronicle a laundry list of their issues: things like the dangers of falling, financial pressures and family conflict.

As Leland delved deeper, however, he realized the people in this age group were more than the sum of their problems. And he saw how much he didn’t know about the realities of aging. The resulting “85 & Up” series took a more holistic view of their lives. “I thought aging was about decline and loss,” he told Next Avenue. “I found the problems, but none of the people defined themselves by that.”

John Leland, author [Photo credit: Erica Berger][/caption]In his new book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old, Leland expands on the newspaper series and weaves in his experiences with his elderly mother. Writing on this topic also gave Leland, now 58, new insights into how he wants to live out his later years.

“If I look ahead to my life, why see it only in terms of the losses than in terms of the gains?” he said. “I plan to keep growing as a person. I’m not afraid of old age the way I would have been. Not being afraid means being able to imagine a desirable future for yourself.”

I am the middle-aged son of an 86-year-old mother and an 85-year-old father, so I was naturally curious about Leland’s book. Here are my five takeaways:

1. Don’t Let Age Define You

The “elders” in Happiness defied easy categorizations and included: Frederick Jones, an 87-year-old World War II veteran and retired civil servant; Ping Wong, 89, who tried to stay positive despite the deaths of her husband and only son; John Sorenson, 91, who was grieving the loss of his partner of 60 years; Helen Moses, 90, a resident of a Bronx nursing home in the throes of a romance with a man she met there; Ruth Willig, 91, who was trying to find her way in an assisted living facility and hold on to her independence and filmmaker and writer Jonas Mekas, 92, who had a full plate of projects to complete.

“Old age wasn’t something that hit them one day when they weren’t careful,” Leland wrote. “It also wasn’t a problem to be fixed. It was a stage of life like any other.”

2. Continue to Set Personal Goals

Of the folks spotlighted in the book, filmmaker Mekas had perhaps the biggest ambitions for what he still wanted to accomplish. Others had less defined, but important personal goals — Jones wanted to live to 110 and Wong focused on everyday things that brought her happiness, like playing Mah-jongg.

When trying to find your purpose, “Kickboxing might not be a great choice, but painting, political activity, time with family or passing along your skills to the next generation can be a reason for living at any age,” Leland wrote.

3. Focus on What You Can Do

According to Leland, people in this age group don’t try to do “a little of everything” — they focus on the interests that bring them the most satisfaction. “If they have 70 percent of their abilities, they put it into things they can still do instead of pining over what they can’t do,” Leland said.

My mom, for example, maintains her calendar of bridge games and book club meetings, while adding some new pursuits offered at her retirement community, like Wii Jeopardy and bowling. But she’s not training for a 5K race or diving into the completely foreign world of online games.

  1. Adapt to Your Current Circumstances

When Leland’s mother decided in her 80s that she preferred to use a wheelchair to get around, he worried it would limit her life. Instead it opened up new options to visit museums and attend plays. As Leland interacted with the subjects of his book, he came to a new understanding about his relationship with his mother, for whom he acts as a caregiver.

“It changed into a two-way relationship where we were doing things for each other,” Leland said. “Caregiving can be really hard for the person receiving the care, because you’re building up a debt they’re unable to pay. When I was no longer looking at the relationship that way, it made it much more pleasant.”

  1. Embrace Your Changing Role in Life

For Willig, retaining some level of independence mattered greatly. But even as she came to depend on others for assistance with daily living, she learned she could provide emotional support to her family.

“She was the youngest of four kids and now was the oldest in her family and the matriarch,” Leland said. “It was a role she never expected nor prepared for. She was the one everybody emailed, and she got to hold a great-grandchild, which is a big deal in anyone’s life.”

My mom is going through a similar period of adjustment. She is an active caregiver for my father, who has advanced Parkinson’s disease and now lives in a nursing home, and is our family matriarch. At the same time, she has accepted the need for our help with financial decisions and estate planning.

As Leland notes of the elders in his book, “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.”

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