Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person
Posted December 30, 2017 7:01 p.m. EST
Jonas Mekas turned 95 this year and won a lifetime achievement award in Frankfurt, Germany. Ping Wong, 92, learned new rules for playing mahjong. Helen Moses, who turned 93, mostly gave up talk of marrying Howie Zeimer, her steady companion of the last eight years. Ruth Willig, 94, broke a bone in her foot and feared it was the beginning of the end.
John Sorensen’s ashes wait to be scattered on New York’s Fire Island. Fred Jones would have turned 90 in March.
Nearly three years ago, I started following the lives of six New Yorkers over the age of 85, one of the fastest-growing age groups in America. The series of articles began the way most stories about older people do, with the fears and hardships of aging: a fall in the kitchen, an aching leg that did not get better, days segueing into nights without human contact. They had lived through — and some were still challenged by — money problems, medical problems, the narrowing of life’s movements.
But as the series went along, a different story emerged. When the elders described their lives, they focused not on their declining abilities but on things that they could still do and that they found rewarding. As Wong said, “I try not to think about bad things. It’s not good for old people to complain.”
Here was another perspective on getting old. It was also a lesson for those who are not there yet.
Older people report higher levels of contentment or well-being than teenagers and young adults. The six elders put faces on this statistic. If they were not always gleeful, they were resilient and not paralyzed by the challenges that came their way. All had known loss and survived. None went to a job he did not like, coveted stuff she could not afford, brooded over a slight on the subway or lost sleep over events in the distant future. They set realistic goals. Only one said he was afraid to die.
Gerontologists call this the paradox of old age: that as people’s minds and bodies decline, instead of feeling worse about their lives, they feel better. In memory tests, they recall positive images better than negative; under functional magnetic resonance imaging, their brains respond more mildly to stressful images than the brains of younger people.
John Sorensen, who liked to talk, brought cheer to every conversation, even those about wanting to die. Helen Moses and Ping Wong knew exactly what they wanted: for Moses, it was her daughter and Zeimer; for Wong, it was mahjong and the camaraderie it entailed, even if the other players spoke a different dialect or followed the rules of a different home region. Jones, Willig and Mekas all spent their energy on the things they could still do that brought them satisfaction, not on what they had lost to age.
For three years, visiting them has been a lesson in living, and a rejoinder to the myth that youth is life’s glory, after which everything is downhill. Their muscles weakened, their sight grew dim, their friends and peers gradually disappeared. But each showed a matter-of-fact resilience that would shame most 25-year-olds.
“It’s like the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel,” Jones said one day in his apartment, a cluttered walk-up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, whose stairs he could barely climb. “The span is too long just to have a bridge, so they had to have a bridge and an underpass. So part of it you’re up here, and part of it you’re down here, and finally you get to the Eastern Shore. Good days, bad days. But overall it’s good days.”
So it went with all of them.
Their message was so counterintuitive that it took a long time to sink in. But finally it did: If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person. Their examples were so life-changing that I wrote a book about it. But this is their story, not mine.
Fred Jones died of a heart attack in April 2016, just past his 89th birthday. John Sorensen died two months later, refusing food in a nursing home he had never wanted to see. He spent his last days listening to his favorite operas and thanking anyone who came near.
For the others, 2017 was a year of continuities and great changes.
Helen Moses invented a new word for what set her apart from others around her. It was a day in early December, and Moses greeted her visitors with a sound like a motorcycle.
“Vroom, vroom,” she said.
Her hand shook slightly, and she was noticeably more subdued than in the past, closing her eyes between questions. But flashes of the old spirit shined through.
“What keeps me going is when you’re lively,” she said. “You’ve got to be lively. You can’t be an old beckyhead.”
She smiled at her own invention.
She was wearing new sneakers given to her by her son, and copper enameled earrings made for her by Zeimer. She was not wearing her new hearing aids because one had cracked — and because she did not like wearing them.
Otherwise, she said, being 93 was about the same as being 92.
“I think my life is happier now,” she said. “I don’t look at the price when I go shopping. If I like it I buy it. But when I was young if it was too expensive I couldn’t buy it.”
And of course, there was Zeimer. “I love Howie,” she said.
This year brought changes for Moses, both from within and from without.
Since the start of the series, she and Zeimer lived two rooms apart in the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, in the Bronx. They ate all their meals together and watched television in Moses’ room every night, especially during baseball season.
But when the home went through renovations this year, Moses and Zeimer were moved to different floors. This meant eating separately, in different dining rooms, and navigating longer distances to visit each other. Moses uses a walker; Zeimer uses a wheelchair and requires an attendant to push him.
“After I finish my breakfast I go up,” Moses said. “All the girls up there by him like me,” she said of the attendants on his new floor. “When he needs somebody to help him get dressed, I go look for somebody. And then they come and help him.”
“At night when I get ready for bed, he comes down. And he stays till quarter till nine. He sits in his chair and I lay in the bed.”
She noted another change in their relationship.
“His kisses are getting better,” she said.
Her daughter noted the changes in her mother. “I’m having a hard time with it. She’s more frail. But she’s still going. I’m not going to let her stop, because once she stops, such is life.”
With the new year approaching, Moses considered what she was looking forward to. “Just a nice old age,” she said.
What did that mean to her?
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know.”
Was she living one now?
Moses did not hesitate.
“Yeah,” she said.
For Ping Wong, who began the year in a nursing home near her daughter in southern New Jersey, 2017 was a year of making adjustments. She was in new surroundings, among new people, facing changes in both her body and her mind. After a fall in the nursing home, she had to use a wheelchair, and without exercise, her artificial hips became stiff and sore. Her memory lapses were more frequent, her daughter, Elaine Gin, said.
In one conversation Wong gave her age variously as 90, 92, 98 and almost 100. “I live a long life,” she said.
One night she called her daughter in a panic because she thought Japanese soldiers were going to kill her, a flashback from the occupation of Hong Kong during World War II.
But by her birthday in May, when three generations of relatives visited with a cake from Chinatown, Wong seemed alert and adapting to her new home. Like the others, she described her life through its continuities, not its disruptions.
“At the beginning, of course, I don’t like this place, but gradually I think it’s good for me to stay here, because I meet a lot of honest friends,” she said.
Wong said it took almost a year to adjust to her new home. But by December she had formed a very close friendship with another resident, as well as several more casual friendships. She played mahjong and dominoes, and called out the numbers at bingo. It was a smaller life than she had in her apartment in New York, but it suited her energy level.
“I like the life here much better than young times,” she said in December. “Young times we only have time to study and make money. I couldn’t remember when I was young, what we were interested in talking about. Nothing. Only today’s lunch or today’s outing. That’s all we were interested in when we were young.”
Now, she said, “We seldom talk about bad things. We keep ourselves happier. Try your best to keep your mood up. I’m getting old. I want to live a peaceful life here. No arguments, and we can talk with each other without any difficulties.” Ruth Willig’s year took a turn over the summer, when she stood up from a chair and felt her left foot give way. She was at a rented house on the New Jersey shore with her daughters and one of her sons, and she did not get treatment at the time. The foot hurt, but “a lot of things hurt,” she said. “If I cry every time it hurts I’d be crying.”
After a week, when it did not get better, she went for X-rays and learned she had broken a metatarsal bone. Her doctor prescribed a walking boot that went nearly up to her knee, with Velcro straps that were difficult for her to fasten.
But she was determined not to let the injury take over her life, she said. She refused to pay for an attendant to help her with the boot, or to stop walking.
“She knew that at that age, if she stayed off it she’d lose a lot of ground, and she wouldn’t do that,” said her daughter Judith, who runs an agency serving low-income older people in Brooklyn. “My mother, she’s a fighter. That’s who she’s been all her life. That’s how she sees herself, and it’s a pretty accurate picture.”
Then with the boot on, Willig fell again in October, injuring her arm and hip and pelvic bone. This time the pain terrified her.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, is this the beginning of the end?'” she recalled. “I really was very frightened.”
Such fear can be self-fulfilling, said Ruth Finkelstein, associate director of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University. “People have a premature sense of when the end begins,” Finkelstein said. “And it’s harmful in terms of what care they seek. The truth is, people get better. An acute accident doesn’t have to be the end.”
For Willig, it was not. After a gloomy autumn, she gradually worked through the pain. By December, she was as mobile as she had been before the two falls, her daughter said. “And that’s because she pushed through. And that’s my mom.”
Her mood revived. By year’s end, she was looking forward to a 2018 spring wedding of her granddaughter in New Hampshire, and showing off photographs of her first great-grandchild, who was born in April.
“These are the things that keep me going, to tell you the truth,” she said. “I really enjoy taking care of my plants and seeing them flourish. And then of course my family, every weekend somebody comes.”
She said she still did not want to live to 100. But maybe she would consent to a party next year for her 95th birthday, she said.
She brightened at the afternoon sun filling her apartment.
“And here I am,” she said. “And I’m really so happy that I overcame that. The hardest thing of getting old is becoming infirm,” she continued. “That’s what scares me. It could be the end. Many of us are afraid. Just go already. Who wants to live?”
Francesco Ragazzi had a theory about Jonas Mekas. “In a way,” he said one morning in October, “everybody now can be Jonas Mekas.”
Ragazzi, 33, an art curator from Milan, was in town to assemble an exhibition of Mekas’ work at a fashion boutique on Madison Avenue, and he was noting the resemblance between the diary-based films Mekas started making in the 1970s and the social media that followed decades later.
“But,” he said, “there is only one Jonas Mekas still. So I think we need to ask ourselves why. Because I think if everybody will be Jonas Mekas one day, the world will be saved. We need to keep going in this direction, becoming Jonas Mekas.”
Mekas this year made progress toward a goal that has driven him since the start of the series: raising money to expand Anthology Film Archives, the nonprofit organization and theater he helped start in the 1970s.
On March 2, a crowd that included Greta Gerwig, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters and others bid nearly $2 million at an art auction to benefit the archives. Performing onstage, Patti Smith altered the lyrics to her biggest hit to “Because the night belongs to JONAS,” to big applause.
For Mekas it was a year of reckoning: how much money the organization still needs to raise ($6 million); how far was too far to travel at age 95 (Seoul, where he did not attend an exhibition of his work); and how to make ends meet in the coming years.
This last was a trickier matter. He could no longer afford the rent on his Brooklyn loft, he said. “I have to move to a cheaper place,” probably within a year, he said.
But Mekas put the disruption in perspective. His life has been nomadic since the 1940s, including years in Nazi labor camps and U.N. camps for displaced persons. Moving to a smaller place somewhere in Brooklyn was a hiccup.
“It’s a necessity and it’s realistic and I need to do it and you do it,” he said. “It’s nothing. This is just another stop, and there will be another stop.”
Mekas also published a book of anecdotes and autobiographical images this year, “A Dance With Fred Astaire,” named for a Yoko Ono and John Lennon movie in which Mekas and Astaire both make dancing cameos. Another five or six books were almost ready, and a couple of films still needed finishing. After that, he said, “I’d like to travel.”
For now, he said, “I’m thinking about resistance. What does it mean, resistance? What kind of resistance do we need today? Technology is now being used, much of it, for negative purposes. So to resist all what is happening negatively in humanity or technology is to develop the — OK, this banal word, spiritual aspect.”
He remained sanguine, despite some reservations about current world leaders. Totalitarianism, in his experience, did not endure, whereas art, nature and the teachings of the saints all were as powerful as ever — they were what composed his life. He did not use the word optimistic, but he felt that solutions were more durable than problems.
“To go back and introduce into all the schools art, to cut down on sports but bring arts, philosophy back into all educational systems,” he said. “And that’s what’s being cut everywhere. And I think that’s one of the sad and tragic parts of where we are. Education is the resistance to everything that is bad today.” So ends another year for four members of New York’s oldest old: not with a whimper, but with small joys to ease their aches. Each lost a little and moved a year closer to death, as we all did. But each welcomed another morning, the start of another year to come. All had beaten the odds just to get this far.
As Willig said, “You think we’ll make another year, you and me?”