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Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old

by John Leland

Pub Date: Jan. 23rd, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-374-16818-6
Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

New York Times reporter Leland (Why Kerouac Matters, 2007, etc.) chronicles the year he spent communing with the “oldest old,” gleaning as much of value about his own life as about those he followed.

Drawn from a remarkable newspaper series, this book, though sometimes repetitive and studded with occasional obvious insights, harbors far more than advice and received wisdom. The author offers an adaptive framework for a way of thinking about aging that can be transformational, and not in the conventional self-help sense. From the engrossing opening chapter to the close, Leland gives us a felicitous though practical perspective that mines a year in the life of six people ages 88 to 92, who “came from different backgrounds and social strata.” Many readers will find it encouraging to know that the future need not be all decline and diminishment. The author does not gloss over the physical and emotional difficulties of advancing years, some of which may seem insurmountable. But guided by the evolving outlooks of his subjects, Leland discovers strategies for compensating, for enrichment and usefulness at any age, including his own. Divorced at 55, living alone for the first time, and responsible for an 86-year-old mother whose only wish is to die, Leland finds his own path to acceptance and joy. If the title of the book sounds banal, it is no less valid for its (deceptive) simplicity. It is, in fact, absolutely true, as the six culturally diverse “seniors” demonstrate in their own fascinating ways. Few books about aging show such clarity and purpose or so deftly blend cleareyed examinations of social issues with a realistic but hopeful cast of mind.

In this edifying and often quite moving book, Leland presents the “lessons” taught by his subjects even as they themselves are learning them, and he does so with an empathy and thoroughness that deserve our gratitude.