My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are many gems in this potentially life-changing book, though it’s not your typical self-help tome. John Leland was a middle-aged, recently divorced journalist when he was gifted the assignment to follow the lives of an assortment of New York’s elderly residents for a year. This book is a distillation of that experience and the way it changed the author’s life; it reads like letters from a cousin, unflinchingly honest yet tender.
He expected his interviews to be draining and depressing, since these old people were decreasing in their abilities each day. To him, the two most important things in American life were work and sex, and old people didn’t do either, so what satisfaction in life could they have? He found out he was wrong on all counts.
As these “oldest old”—people over 85—shared their stories, he discovered that over time these folks had developed coping strategies throughout their lives that helped them get through their days with grit and grace and left him energized and uplifted after their visits. Despite their pains, daily mental ups and downs, and some less than ideal circumstances, they had already survived loss and change of many kinds—and their life stories were wisdom.
John realized he could use what he was learning from the old folks to make his life better now. American society makes it hard to establish a relationship outside the “helper” or caretaker mode with our elders, whether we’re related or not. Here in our community we have folks of all ages as neighbors to learn from—the old learn from the young, too, John found. In fact, it might be adaptability that defines the way to a good life and a good death; the ability to adjust to life as it is rather than life as we wish it were. Barring accidents, we are all on the journey to aging and death, and we need elders as teachers and companions.
If you’ve never experienced the gift of watching someone age their way into death, "cousin" John’s book can be your circle of elders. With life stories instead of preaching, it will help erase—and confirm—some of your fears about aging and dying, and help you live the rest of your life. Appropriately for the season, the first hint is: gratitude.
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