When Growing Old Is a Blessing

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times

In a NY Times article published on March 2, JESSICA BRUDER reviews the book entitled HAPPINESS IS A CHOICE YOU MAKE: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old,  by John Leland.

“Is there a benefit to getting old?” asks the interviewer.

John Sorensen looks away from the camera. The pause gives viewers a moment to observe him: a 91-year-old man in a soft gingham shirt, slightly stooped, his face etched with age. “If you’re going to be housebound like I am, I’d say no, it’s not worth it,” he replies quietly. “What’s left is not worth it.”

That scene comes from a black-and-white video companion to “85 & Up”: a series that ran in The New York Times’s Metropolitan section during the latter half of 2015. The interviewer was the journalist John Leland. He chose an opportune moment to explore the frontier of old age. In New York, the ranks of Americans 85 and older swelled nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2015. Nationally, the rate of growth was lower, but still remarkable.

With that in mind, Leland embraced a mission: to follow six elders, reflecting a range of backgrounds and economic circumstances, in what he called “a New York soap opera, unscripted.”

Installments from their lives arrived each month or so, organized around such topics as housing, caregiving and the fraying social safety net. They offered a kaleidoscope of experiences, alternately hopeful and frustrating, inspiring and unnerving, sometimes even funny. “One could read this and feel like slitting their wrists, or look to it for inspiration,” a reader noted in the comments section. Another wrote, “You have a book here.” Leland took that advice, expanding his series into a volume called “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old.”

For fans of the series, the book offers a chance to revisit six fascinating lives. Its ensemble cast includes Helen Moses, 91, who falls in love with her neighbor, Howie, at a Bronx nursing home; Fred Jones, 88, who struggles to reach his third-floor walk-up apartment after gangrene claimed parts of two toes; Ping Wong, 90, originally from Hong Kong, who lucked into subsidized housing and fills her days with mah-jongg; Ruth Willig, 91, who must readjust after an unwanted move from one assisted-living facility to another; Jonas Mekas, 92, a Lithuanian-born filmmaker who dedicates his life to art; and the sad-eyed but dignified Sorensen, who has longed to die ever since Walter, his partner of 60 years, passed away in 2009.

Their stories are appealingly diverse, but therein lies Leland’s greatest challenge. How does a columnist knit together a series of free-ranging articles — a sequence of portraits captured in real time, featuring disparate topics and voices? Some publish collections. Others add connective tissue. Leland chose to do the latter, grafting in material from many origins. He cites research findings. He quotes sages ranging from Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, to James Brown and Jack Kerouac. (Leland is also the author of “Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of ‘On the Road’” and “Hip: The History.”) He embeds his own struggles — relating to an aging mother, starting over after a divorce — as a quiet throughline. But mostly Leland adds self-help, sprung from a single axiom: “If you want to be happy, learn to think like an old person.”
That choice is disappointing. Americans spend $1 billion on self-help books each year. “Happiness Is a Choice You Make” feels like part of that hard sell: a relentless process of extrusion. The morals of the story, forced from the raw material of human lives, quickly overshadow the action and characters. “The good news about getting old is that there is good news,” Leland announces. “What the elders had discovered, I began to see, was not just a preparation for death but a prescription for life at any age.”

The author has a flair for showmanship, treating this “prescription” like a powerful elixir that he has tested, with salubrious results, on his own life. He laments not finding it sooner, urges readers to take a taste. “Contentment had been there for the grasping, if only I had recognized it,” he writes. “Probably it’s there for you.”

Unfortunately, the “lessons” on offer aren’t as compelling as the raw experiences from which they’re derived. They are a slurry of positive-psychology platitudes, with occasional dashes of Buddhism and even EST.

Live in the present. Focus on the good things. Find your purpose. Love unconditionally. Accept adversity. Feel gratitude. Acknowledge that “problems were only problems if you thought about them that way. Otherwise they were life — and yours for the living.”

The book even goes so far as to suggest a positive side to cognitive decline: “learning how to use memory loss as an advantage,” a tool for wiping away bad experiences to attain greater happiness.

Many of these conclusions come early in the book. As a result, when Leland sets off on his journey to find meaning from the elders’ lives, there are few surprises. The stories feel like beams supporting a house to which he’s already revealed the blueprint.

I found myself wondering how the elders felt about having their experiences strip-mined for lessons. The author explains how “Fred’s found fulfillment in the present, because the future might not come,” while “Ping kept her spirits up by accepting her pains as a part of life.” When, late in the book, he shrugs off a woman’s suggestion that “I was reading too much into things,” it’s hard not to laugh. She’s got his number — he is old-splaining.

As it turns out, you don’t need sugar to make lemonade. Remember Sorensen, who spoke so candidly about wanting to die? Even he becomes a case study in gladness. “The lesson of John Sorensen was that to accept death was to accept life, and to accept life was to live in joy, however dire the circumstances around you,” the book explains.

But actions speak louder than anything and, in that sense, Sorensen got the final word when he died last year. Fittingly, Leland wrote about it. The headline read: “Somewhere John Sorensen Is Smiling.”