When Old News Is Good News: The Effect of 6 Elderly New Yorkers on One Middle-Aged Reporter

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For almost three years, my mother has been asking me the same question. Don’t I get depressed, she wants to know, talking to all those old people?

The short answer is no.

The slightly longer answer is that no work I have ever done has brought me as much joy and hope, or changed my outlook on life as profoundly. Even now, I am surprised to be writing those words.

In early 2015, I began a series of articles following six New Yorkers age 85 and older — one of the fastest-growing age groups in the country. The six lived in nursing homes or walk-up apartments; they played mah-jongg or listened to opera or made scratchy independent movies. One found new love in old age; one said at every interview that he wanted to die. All six had beaten the odds just by living that long. At the beginning of 2018, having just revisited them in “Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person,” I can say that four are still beating them.

The series explored what old age looked like to the people who were living it. What it did not explore is what effect these elders were having on the middle-aged reporter who was spending more and more time with them.

The people in the series became more than story subjects. They shared intimate thoughts about life and, quite often, death. I went to a jazz club to see Jonas Mekas; a podiatrist appointment with Fred Jones; a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown with Ping Wong; a New Jersey beach house with Ruth Willig. I told them about my mother, who turned 89 last month, and about my impending divorce. They gave me chocolates and writings and showed me photographs of themselves in their youth. They had complaints, sometimes quite a lot of them. But as often as not they shared thoughts about things that brought them joy.

One day in his apartment, Fred Jones asked me my definition of happiness, then gave me his own. “Happiness to me is what’s happening now,” he said. The apartment, a cluttered wreck that was up two flights of stairs he could barely climb, was an unlikely place to look for happiness, and Mr. Jones, whose health was failing, was an unlikely spokesman. But he never dwelt on his problems. “If you’re not happy at the present time, then you’re not happy,” he said. “Some people say, if I get that new fur coat for the winter, or get myself a new automobile, I’ll be happy then. But you don’t know what’s going to happen by that time. Right now, are you happy?” Whenever I asked him the happiest time of his life, he said without hesitation, “Right now.”

The six became models for the challenges in my own life, living examples of resilience, gratitude and the wisdom that comes from living through ups and downs in history. Even amid the very real hardships of old age, all found reasons or opportunities to be happy.

In early 2016, I wrote the words “Happiness Is a Choice You Make” on a sheet of paper and taped it to the wall by my nightstand. It was Mr. Jones’s wisdom filtered through that of all the others. Right now, are you happy?

They were words to live by, at any age. Why not? In the rest of the year I wrote a book by that title, due out this month, with a subtitle giving credit where it is due: “Lessons from a year among the oldest old.” This time, I tell the story that is not in the Times series.

In some ways, the title is an answer to my mother’s question, and an homage to six people and one assignment that changed my life. The effects carried me through this year, as the daily maelstrom of current events roiled friends around me. No, I did not get depressed spending time with old people. I became more patient, less anxious, more capable of loving, less afraid of death and decline.

Which is to say, more like an old person. And grateful for it.