What It’s like to Be 90-Something

 Photo by  Susanne Pälmer

My preconceptions about older people first began to crumble when one of my congregants, a woman in her 80s, came into my office seeking pastoral care. It is a strange and wonderful feature of my job that I get to be a confidant and advisor to people at all stages of life. She had been widowed for several years but the reason for her distress was not the loss of her husband. It was because she had fallen in love with a married man. As she shared with me her story over a cup of tea and kleenex, I tried as much as possible to keep a professional and compassionate countenance, though, internally, I was bewildered by this realization that people still fall in love in that teenage, butterflies-in-the-stomach kind of way even into their 80s.

I have a great privilege of working with people who are double and even triple my age. This is not the case for many as the economic structure and workforce are stratified in that people are employed within their own demographics. But because I am a minister in a mainline denomination with an aging base, the people I primarily interact with are over the age of 60. I came into my job assuming that I, a Korean-American woman in my mid-30s, would not be able to connect with these people from a completely different racial and cultural background. It did not take long for me to discover how very wrong I was.

We all have joys, hopes, fears and longings that never go away no matter how old we get. Until recently, I mistakenly associated deep yearnings and ambitions with the energy and idealism of youth. My unconscious and unexamined assumption was that the elderly transcend these desires because they become more stoic and sage-like over time. Or the opposite: they become disillusioned by life and gradually shed their vibrancy and vitality.

The initial realization that my assumptions might be wrong set me on a trajectory of further researching the internal lives of older people. Using my congregation as a resource, I interviewed several members in their 90s with a pen, notebook, a listening ear and a promise to keep everyone anonymous. I did not hold any of my curiosity back and asked them my burning questions about their fears, aging, sex lives or lack thereof. Fortunately, I had willing participants, many of whom were flattered that I was so interested in them as American society tends to pay less attention to people as they age.

I began each conversation by asking if they had any regrets. By this point, they have lived long enough to look at their lives from a very broad perspective so I knew their responses to this question would be insightful. Most of their regrets revolved around their family and how they wish relationships, usually either with their children or between their children, turned out differently. These relational fractures, I could see on their faces, still caused them much pain and sorrow. One of my interviewees has two children who have not seen or spoken to one another for over two decades. She lamented that this, among all the mistakes and regrets she could bring to mind, was the singular thing that kept her up at night.

I then moved onto the topic of the happiest times of their lives. Every single one of these 90-something-year-olds, all of whom are widowed, recalled a time when their spouses were still alive and when their children were younger and living at home. As a busy young mom and working professional who frequently fantasizes about the far away, imagined pleasures of retirement, I quickly responded, “But weren’t those the most stressful times of your lives?” To which they all agreed. There was no hesitation though, that those days were also the happiest.

Their responses intrigued me as it contradicted the well-known article on happiness in The Economist that went viral in 2010, “The U-bend of Life”. This was a common topic of conversation among my family and friends during this time as it had a particular resonance with people in both its counter-intuitive yet completely reasonable analyses. The theory of the U-bend came about as researchers discovered consistent findings from independent research projects on happiness and well-being all over the world. That is, happiness, pleasure and enjoyment are most tenuous during the middle-ages of life, starting in the 20s with depression peaking at 46, which the author described as “middle-age-misery.” The happiness of peoples’ youth however, not only returned but were experienced in higher levels in their 70s. Researchers hypothesized that middle-age-misery was due to the overwhelming number of familial, professional and financial demands during these years and that people became more self-accepting, less ambitious and more mindful of living in the present moment instead of the future as people approached their 70s.

My interviewees’ contradicting thoughts on the happiest times of the lives led me to reflect upon the complex nature of happiness and possibly the changing understanding of happiness as people age. When we are younger, perhaps we think of happiness as a feeling than a state of fulfillment, meaning or abundance, which my interviewees were associating it with. Regardless, their responses came as a sobering reminder for me to fully appreciate and soak in these chaotic days of diaper changes, messiness and minimal me-time. They may just end up being my happiest times.

Another subject I was dying to know about was if their spouses of many decades were the loves of their lives. As it turns out, this was true for some and not for others. In both cases, it did not keep them from trying to make their marriages work. I got the sense from what they were sharing that after they had children, their marriages became much less important to their happiness than the overall nuclear family dynamic. This focus upon the family unit, however, did not mean that their sexual and romantic passion went away. They still longed to be wooed and pursued. They still experienced intense attraction to people who were not their spouses and continue to experience intense attraction for other people to this day. Of course, sex becomes more tiresome, as well as masturbation, but the desire for companionship is as present as it was during the height of their youth.

My interviewees’ thoughts on beauty and their aging bodies were also varied in that their changing physical appearances only mattered insofar as it mattered to them when they were younger. Those who were valued for their good looks or athleticism experienced much more grief in regards to their current bodies than those who derived confidence from admirable qualities that were much less time-fixed. A great example of this is one interviewee who was well-known in her community for being a writer and columnist in local newspapers. When I asked her if she was saddened by her aging appearance, she responded, “Well, I never thought I was pretty to begin with so, no.” The ones who did experience greater negative emotions about aging though, shared that the peak of that grief occurred in their 70s and has diminished since then.

The same woman who told me she wasn’t bothered by her aging appearance also shared with me that she wasn’t afraid of death but of dying. I found this to be a profound distinction. She believed in an afterlife, as one might expect given that she is a church member. She had an assurance that she would, in one way or another, be well taken care of after her time here came to an end. She is still very physically and mentally healthy so it was that final leg of her journey that worried her. Would she be restricted to a hospital bed, just a mess of tubes and needles? Would she still recognize family and friends? Would she be in constant pain? Being old didn’t bother her until it affected the quality of her life in an incredibly detrimental way. In fact, being old, she shared, brought a lot of advantages: more time, more perspective, less hustling to be the best and most successful and urgency to strengthen the important relationships in her life.

This radical relational orientation of all my subjects caught me by surprise. As someone who is entering the height of my career, I expend much more energy on my work than my relationships. And when I imagine my future, I envision what I will have accomplished rather than what my relationships will be like. These 90-something-year-olds emphasize the opposite when they look back on their lives. Their joys and regrets have nothing to do with their careers, but with their parents, children, spouses and friends. Put simply, when I asked one person, “Do you wish you accomplished more?” He responded, “No, I wished I loved more.”

My conversations challenged me. I certainly won’t be giving up my job to hang out with my family more because I also recognize that satisfying careers and financial stability are great sources of fulfillment, which in turn, affect family well-being. But these different perspectives helped me to focus on what really matters in the face of competing responsibilities and priorities. That sermon really does not have to be the best sermon in the world when my son is starving for my attention. My husband really does not need to get the highest-paying job he can find if that means I can spend more time with him.

However, the biggest impact they left on me was not reprioritization but being okay with aging. I confess that prior to my conversations, I had an intense fear about growing old. This, I realize, was what motivated me to begin this research in the first place. I assumed the elderly lost their vibrancy and thirst for life. That couldn’t be further from the truth. They still laugh like crazy, fall in love like mad and pursue happiness fiercely.

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This essay was also published on Medium here.