The wisdom behind their years


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A New York Times reporter reflects on a life-changing project


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  • Fred Jones, then 88, and John Leland in Brooklyn in October 2015. Photo: Nicole Bengiveno




  • John Leland, a reporter with The New York Times, chronicled the year he spent visiting with six elderly people in the book "Happiness is a Choice You Make." Photo: Erica Berger.




John Leland found the key to happiness in an unexpected demographic. It all started when Leland, a reporter with The New York Times, was given an assignment to cover the Census. What sparked his interest was the boom in the 85-and-over population. He thought about how he could approach reporting on one of the fastest growing age groups. “And so I came up with and got the go-ahead to do a series that would just follow six people around for a year and let them tell us what the stories are,” he said.

After that year was over, he missed his subjects and sought a reason to stay involved in their lives. That’s when the idea for his new book, “Happiness is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old,” was born. Released in January, its title is based on the inspiration he got after spending quality time with these elders — with no agenda in mind. “I realized all the people had plenty of reason to be unhappy. They had a lot of challenges in their lives. And they managed to get through the day with resilience and gratitude and a sense of purpose that I really admired.”

How did you find your subjects?

In all different ways. I spent a lot of time in senior centers, nursing homes, professional associations of retirees, anywhere where older people gathered. Jonas Mekas I found through his own website. I knew some elder lawyers. I was trying to find somebody involved in a certain kind of family dispute and that didn’t work. One of the people who worked in one of the elder firms volunteered at an organization called Heights and Hills in Brooklyn and it turned out they had somebody who was wonderful, but also the mother of the woman who ran it had been bounced from her assisted living center, so she was like homeless at 90. She became one of the people in my series, Ruth Willig.

There was one couple who met at a nursing home and were dating. What’s their story?

That’s Helen Moses and Howie Zeimer who met at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale. And I’ve come to really admire their courage. I was looking for a couple that met later in life, not a couple that had been together for, you know, 60 years, although those are out there too and interesting. But I wanted to see who had the courage to start a new relationship and make themselves vulnerable at 85, 90 years old in the way that we do when we start a relationship. And what I’ve come to see is the courage it takes to get involved with somebody at that age knowing it’s probably not going to last that long and that one of you is going to watch the other one die. And that’s tremendously courageous to do and it takes a lot of ingenuity to figure out how to put together a relationship at that age. They’re an interesting couple because Helen is the older of the two by about 20 years. Howie had been in a terrible car accident and was left in a coma when he was younger and there was a series of brain damage there and that’s why he was in the nursing home. And because Helen was so much sharper than Howie, I was trying to see what she got out of it and then I realized it was that Howie needed her and she was essential to him. And she had worked a job when she was younger; she had raised her kids; she had nursed her husband when he was dying. So she had been needed all this time and then reached old age and wasn’t needed in quite the same way. And it’s a great gift Howie has given her by needing her and it’s a great gift that she’s given Howie by being there for him.

Did the experience change the way you spoke to your 89-year-old mother?

It really did because when I saw the elders, I wasn’t trying to fix them. I didn’t have to solve the problems in their lives. I could just be with them and recognize that I was getting a lot out of it. And in my previous dealings with my mother, I always thought about the things I could do for her. I was happy to do them. I love my mother and owe her a lot. But it could be tiring sometimes. And it was a one-way relationship. And then, having spent all this time with the elders, I could appreciate what I was getting from them and what I was getting from my mother. So it became more, in my eyes, a two-way relationship and it was so much more pleasant. Now my mother’s not a project; she’s a lunch date or a dinner date.

You were going through a divorce and talked to all the elders about it. What did they say?

Since most of them had had long relationships, I would ask them what’s the secret to a 50 or 60-year marriage. And the answers were always disappointing. There is no secret, apparently.

Out of the people in the book, how many are still alive?

There’s four who are still alive. Fred Jones, the guy who lived in a walk-up apartment in Crown Heights and was losing parts of two toes to gangrene, died in April of 2016. He died a week after his daughter and the social worker said he died of a broken heart. I think that’s true. And then in June, John Sorensen, who was a gay man who lived on the Upper West Side, who said every time I saw him, that he wanted to die. Because he missed his partner; they had been together for 60 years. His partner had died a few years ago and John really missed him. And finally, he just gave out and decided to stop eating. And the end went fairly quickly and quite courageously. I learned a lot from John, even at the end. He was in a lot of pain and was starving himself to death and at the same time, was listening to the arias that he loved. And he was giving thanks to anyone who spent time with him. I think one of the last times I was with him, a physical therapist came by and said, “I’ll be back again tomorrow.” And John said, “I look forward to it already.” That’s a great way to live.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

I think you see ways of living lived out by real people. A lot of the wisdom in this book has come our way before. It’s in most of the faith traditions, some of it’s in the self-help books. But when you see the elders, you see these things being lived out under what might be, very difficult conditions. It changed my life. It made me much happier and much more content with my own life. It made me more generous in my relationships. I hope some of that rubs off on other people.





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