Ollie the Cat: 2004 – 2018
Old People and Skin Hunger

What the Oldest Old Know

EDITORIAL NOTE: At the bottom of this post is the latest episode of The Alex and Ronni Show - a now-and-then conversation between me, the proprietor of Time Goes By, and my former husband, Alex Bennett. Today's topic is cats. But first, I want to tell you about one of the best books of the year.

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John Leland, an exceptional reporter, joined The New York Times in 2000 and has been covering retirement and religion for the paper since 2004.

In 2015, The Times published Leland's year-long series, “85 and Up” about six of the oldest old living in New York City, all age 85 or older. I was hooked with his introduction which reads in part:

”Early this year, I began visiting these six elders, asking simple questions about their lives. What gets them going in the mornings? What are their aspirations, their concessions to age? Do they want to live to 100? Without the daily drumbeat of work or family responsibilities, where do they find meaning and purpose?

“What they shared, each in a different way, was a story of abrupt change — the loss of a spouse or a home, a sudden turn in health, the arrival of new love, the pain that signals only more pain to come...

“They buried brothers, sisters, parents, children, peers. They lived through the Depression, World War II, Nazi labor camps and the AIDS epidemic, but now they often find themselves with no one to listen to their memories.

“Few ever expected to be so old. None had a formula for how to do it.

“Their lives are a New York soap opera, unscripted.”

Earlier this year Leland, who is nearly three decades younger than the youngest of his six subjects, told fellow New York Times reporter, Jane Brody:

“These people totally changed my life. They’ve given up distractions that make us do stupid things and instead focus on what’s important to them.

“To a person, they don’t worry about things that might happen. They worry when it happens, and even then they don’t worry. They just deal with it.

“At whatever age we are, we can choose to adapt to whatever happens. We have influence over whether we let things knock us out.”

These six elders are a good cross-section of humanity at any age: an African-American man who is a veteran of World War II, a gay man whose partner of 60 years had died six years previously, a Chinese woman who maintains her social connections playing mahjong, a woman who found a new boyfriend in the retirement home where she lives and a well-known film director.

After repeated visits with each of his subjects over a year's time, Leland put together an extraordinarily informative and poignant story about – ahem, “what it's really like to get old” (see this blog's subtitle in the banner).

As he told host Terri Gross recently on her NPR radio program, Fresh Air, before this series, he was afraid of old age and sometimes still is:

”...when I started doing this series, I'd set out to - what one of the people I talked to calls - rewriting the Book of Job and doing a story on how this is terrible about aging.

“And you fall down, and you break your hip, and then it's all over. And you lose your eyesight, and then your friends all die, and then it's over. And your heart stops working. And you don't have sex anymore. And you don't work. And you don't have anything that gives you purpose. So now, it's all over.

“And that's what I thought old age was. But then you spend time with people, and a lot of that stuff is a part of their lives in old age but in no case was it how they defined themselves. So I wasn't getting it - what the truth about their lives was as they saw it.”

You can listen to Terry Gross's entire interview with John Leland, or you can read the transcript of their conversation here.

LelandBookCover125 In January this year, a book based on Leland's conversations with the six elders was published. Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old, received near-unanimous rave reviews.

In this short video from PBS NewsHour in March, Leland explains that learning how to think about death from his elder subjects changed how he lives:

During the past 20-odd years I've read hundreds of books on just about every aspect of growing old. There is a lot of dreck among the good ones but none has captured what it's really like to be old with such campassion, empathy, humor, genuine interest and, eventually, understanding as Leland does.

That happened because above all else, he is an excellent reporter who took the time to listen carefully and, as he says, “let them guide me through the world as they saw it."

The book is available at all the usual retailers online and off. If you have access to The New York Times, the original series begins here.

Leland's followup to the original series was published last December in The Times.

Given all the age-related reading I do, you'd think I pretty well have the subject covered and to a degree, I do. But John Leland opened my eyes, my thoughts and my imagination to a good deal more than I have considered before. Books like Leland's don't come around every day.

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Here is the latest episode of The Alex and Ronni Show recorded on Tuesday 22 May 2018.

If you would like to see Alex's entire two-hour show with other guests after me, you can do that at Facebook or Gabnet on Facebook or on YouTube.


I go to the dog park every morning with my dog and have come to know some of the regulars there. Many are old. One woman in her 80s was telling me that another woman who walks there every morning is in her 90s and still lives on her own with her little dog. She gets someone to take the dog for a second walk later in the day because it is a very energetic little dog. I was in awe, I had been talking to the older woman just the other day after she just got back from her annual holiday in the Barbados. She moves very slowly but I thought she might be 80, not 90+.

How pretty you are!

I love these Ronni Alex shows and learn so many details about your life before "Times Goes By". While you share some stories about your life prior to TGB, the clips reveal more.

The more I know of you the more I admire you. I love your sense of humor. Keep on making these videos, please.

I am glad that you can still laugh trough the tears, but it does not surprise me. You are a strong woman that we all should use as a role model.

Thanks for sharing John Leland’s book, Ronni. This has been one of my favorite books this year, with so many great life lessons for living at any age. I’ve bought the book for family and friends in their 30s, 40s, and 90s, and all have appreciated it.

as a very longtime researcher on ageism i find leland's
book a denial of the harsh truths of old age and of ageism and age apartheid system permeating the culture. NOW's conference against agism, esepcially as it affected women (72 and 75)long ago derailed. The people interviewed by leland havent a clue about ageism or being oppressed = and above all, old people are reluctant to "complain." They have been carefully taught. Plus the white people interviewed would be more hesistant to complain to a black interviewer. there surely were remarks about isolation
and loneliness but mostly it was making the best of it .AND IT IS WHAT SOCIETY WANTS TO HEAR. HOW LONG, DEAR LORD, HOW LONG - BETTE DEWING

Thanks for the info about the John Leland book. I look forward to reading it.
I know you are still missing Ollie, and he was so very beautiful and wild looking! The cat conversation was a lot of fun.
My 18 year old Ms. Kitty Gardenia has kept me from going anywhere for even a weekend for three years now, how crazy is that? I'm now considering a pet sitter because the woman is in my meditation group, and very trustworthy.

I have learned so much by working with those in their third third, first as a caseworker when I was 22 years old, home visits, then in an assisted living facility doing programs with residents, and as an administrator once said, First you talks like 'em, then you walk like 'em, then you Ism, and now at close to 70 years old, totally understand, and love these blogs, and books, and especially your talks with Alex. m

Thank you, Ronni. I just ordered the book. And look forward to listening to you and Alex this evening!

Welp . . . my experience so far (and I'm only 80-1/2) is that ALL of it is true. The bad stuff and the good stuff.

I have a lot of holes in my life now. Some of them I could repair if I put more effort into it. Some of them I do work on. I'm a lifelong avoider of exercise, and have been walking ten minutes (I know, pathetic) a day since May 1st. I still have to stop a couple of times to catch my breath, but it's getting better. And I'm not an idiot--I know that cardiac health is crucial if I want to hang around.

I also have pleasures I used not to notice: the simple stuff of daily life. I am amazed that I'm not bored, but--I'm not. I spend a lot of time online, I'm practicing the piano (and preparing a recital program--Grieg, who's badly underrated these days), I have two or three clubs I meet with regularly, I stay in touch with friends--lunches, etc, I do a little volunteer work that I hope is helpful. I have a dog and a cat, who are wonderful family. And today I am celebrating 47 years sober. That alone is worth all the confetti in the world--I would certainly have been dead or locked up many years ago if I hadn't found the help I needed to get sober. It's been responsible, really, for everything I've been able to put into and get out of life.

So, to repeat, I think both the bad stuff and the good stuff are true. Which one am I going to focus on today? Guess!

P.S. You do absolutely look terrific!!

I live in a retirement complex, where we have a new library. Today, over 4,000 of our books came from storage in boxes, which were placed near the new shelves by worker bees. Then, our team of library volunteers, all in their 80s, many over 85, opened the boxes and shelved books, alphabetically, for most of the day. By 3 pm more than half the boxes were empty. That's what the old old do. And then we take a nap.

The comment "...now they often find themselves with no one to listen to their memories." reminded me of your Elder Storytelling Place. If not for that I would have never sat down and written out some of my stories.

One of my favourite residents of "The Ranch" died last week in palliative care.

F was always ready to help a fellow resident.

This is heartbreaking volunteering in a senior residence. It doesn't take long to to get close to smart, worldly, tough, been through it all seniors. (most in their 90's, one 100)

Every single resident has a medical issue.

That's their reality. No faking it.

They tell me what hurts. How many pills they take.

That shocks the ^%# out of me, but they just keep keeping on, like it's war and there are no survivors.

Each week there is someone missing. Their dining room chair is empty. Where are they?

I see the ones left behind.. I know they are worried, afraid they could be next. I wonder what they look forward to.

We volunteers face this cohort every week, and they become our friends.

Someone leaves, a new resident moves in, sits in that chair and life goes on.

Hospital. Operation. Palliative care.

Someone is gone.

There was no goodbye.

I stand at the door of the dining room, look at each chair, and say to myself the name of every original person who sat there from day one.

And I remember details about them.

One woman owned a ranch

Another was an artist.

Mister B owned a fancy pen store downtown.

Mister B's children took him home to Toronto when he had weeks to live.

And ...


Ronni, I love those interviews you do with Alex.

When our last cat died, the vet, who has an uncanny weird resemblance to Cathy Bates (I love her) said this:

"When you are ready for another cat, come see me. I get lovely senior cats from seniors who have died. I love giving senior cats to seniors."

We will adopt another cat some day.

41 major life stressors | Health24

Jul 21, 2012 - We are simply not put together to deal with the kind of stressors that modern life often ... It lists life events in order of the stress levels they cause.
Major mortgage‎: ‎32 Change in health of family member‎: ‎44
Life event‎: ‎Life change units Change in number of family reunions‎: ‎15
Common life stressors | Health24

Jul 21, 2012 - Common life stressors. Major life events such as loss of a loved one, retrenchment or divorce. Trauma such as sexual abuse, earthquakes and military combat. Socio-economic stressors such as malnutrition, poverty and bureaucracy. Social stressors such as relationship issues, family changes, sexuality, loneliness and ...
10 Most Stressful Life Events: the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale

These could indicate which life stressors put people at higher risk for becoming ill as a result. .... This list of stressors was submitted by readers in the comments.
Shorten Your List of Stressors - Verywell Mind
Stress Management › Management Techniques

Dec 31, 2017 - If you have a long list of stressors, eliminating them in a systematic way can really cut the stress you feel in daily life.

Another look at it, as pointed out in the excellent book Never Say Die by Susan Jacoby, is that unfortunately, for every charming, plucky, dear old person who gets to appear in books like Leland's & on the eve. news--"oh, look, how cute: she's going skydiving for the 1st time"--there are thousands who don't have the health/stamina, money or family to help with activities like that or even being taken outside in your wheelchair to look at the flowers, etc. And while it may be true for some of the very old that they learn to appreciate the simpler (beautiful weather or a good dessert, for ex.) joys of life; some, depending on their living situation, don't even get to do that; a lot of nursing facilities (espec. those that take MedicAid and where, let's face it, most of the very old have to live) have rooms without windows & crappy food.

So I think the U.S. could learn a lot from the Europ. countries that have health services that allow most elderly to stay in their homes. (I met some1 who spend the last 10yrs of her working life in Europ. & said that retiring bk to the States & seeing the difference in how some European countries & this country treat the old was like having a bucket of cold water thrown in her face.)

Thanks for the info on Leland. Just ordered the book for my mother. At 97, she still loves to read; however, it's questionable that she'll remember what she has read from chapter to chapter--or maybe even page to page. She certainly does live in the moment, primarily due to her memory loss. This is the hardest for me to observe. Is she happy? I don't think that describes her, nor does depression. It is difficult for me, as her main topic of conversation is how old she is, when is she going to die, "will I make it to 100--if I do, will I get a cake (but I don't want to live til 100)?" "Mom, you get a cake every year. No need to wait."

When my youngest brother died suddenly last summer, I dreaded telling her; however, I think she coped with it better than she would have at a younger age. This wasn't a conscious choice on her part; it just was due to how she has adapted at her advanced age.

On another note, I agree that you look terrific on camera!

So many thoughtful and provocative comments here, as usual. I heard the Terri Gross interview with Leland months ago when he was doing promotion of the book, and I both enjoyed and was troubled by it. But that's pretty much my reaction to almost everything about aging.

Just last month my 87 year old mother was finally accepted by a home which we are all desperately hoping will be a good place for her, since three facilities had turned her down before that one and she had been told for two months that she needed to move on from the rehab facility where she'd been since a fall the first week of January. Her own home was no longer an option and could not be made into one.

Although she smiled a lot during our visit on Mother's Day, it was clear that her thoughts were mostly consumed with conniving a plan to get us to take her home (the primary one that day was so that she could find her recipe for the lunch entree that was served that day, because hers was so much better). It's amazing to me how convoluted and yet focused her mind still is, despite her dementia. We're learning to think faster on our feet in the process of coming up with reasonable responses to these questions that do not make her angry. Maybe over time she will become more settled and content there, but I doubt it. She's never really been a settled and content sort of person and I don't see that changing now.

The book sounds interesting and likely adds considerably to appreciating the aging experience though I haven't yet read it. Our aging process is so unique to each of us that as much as we are all the same, how we view these years can vary significantly. First hand aging accounts can provide an important perspective though I never expect any of them to be exactly like my own. I certainly like the idea of a younger generation writer examining the aging process, hope any writings attract younger age readers -- prompting them to become more aware, understanding and comfortable with aging issues benefiting all.

I strongly agree that the U.S. needs to invest time, $$$ and effort into facilitating most older people being able to comfortably and safely remain in their residences as preferable to residing in nursing homes. I've read that studies show doing so would be a less expensive expenditure on our national health care budget and is more desirable to most aging citizens.

I'm intimately familiar with group housing of aging adults in a variety, all of which are very expensive settings, from some much less desirable facilities to exclusive-type more attractive retirement communities in an area of Southern California. I know the quality can be highly variable despite federal and state legally required minimums. There are reportedly significant quality variations between states, too. Clearly aging in the U.S. is a topic needing more attention.

In response to Joared's insightful comments I would like to add this.

At 80 y/o and living alone I am looking into this program here in Portland. Their slogan caught my attention." Helping Neighbors Stay Neighbors!" I live alone and am able to get out far less than I would like to. This program is in its infancy, yet I learned at the one introductory meeting I attended, it is growing at a surprising speed. The following is copied from their explanatory webpage. They are also nation wide.

About River West Village
Aging is a team sport; let’s do it together! River West Village is part of the national Village Movement of neighbors working together to offer age-friendly options for older adults to successfully live safely and independently in their homes in SW Portland while living full and meaningful lives. Villagers make new friends close to home by getting together for coffee, walks, discussion, happy hour and outings. Volunteers do tasks friends and family might do including transportation, household chores and technology assistance.
River West is one of eight Villages in the Villages NW network in the greater Portland metropolitan area.

I downloaded the book from the library and am reading it now. So far, I find it depressing. I couldn't help but think of the Townes Van Zandt song, Waitin' Around to Die. I'm 62, so maybe I'll grow into it. I do know this -- I don't care how lonely I am, I will not spend old age doing my boyfriend's laundry.

Kate Gilpin, you are an interesting person

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