Aging Our Way

by Meika Loe

Author Meika Loe Isbn 9780199797905 File size 2 1MB Year 2011 Pages 344 Language English File format PDF Category Family and Friendship In 1998 Hallmark unveiled their new One Hundredth Birthday cards and by 2007 annual sales were at 85 000 America is rapidly graying between now and 2030 the number of people in the U S over the age of 80 is expected to almost triple But how long people live raises the question of how well they live Aging Our Way follows the everyday lives of 30 elde

Publisher :

Author : Meika Loe

ISBN : 9780199797905

Year : 2011

Language: English

File Size : 2.1MB

Category : Family and Friendship

Aging Our Way

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Aging Our Way
Lessons for Living from 85 and Beyond

Meika Loe


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Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press
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Oxford is a registered trademark of Oxford University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
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without the prior permission of Oxford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Loe, Meika, 1973Aging our way : lessons for living from 85 and beyond / Meika Loe.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-19-979790-5 (cloth : alk. paper) 1. Aging—Social aspects.
2. Older people—Psychology. 3. Older people—Health and hygiene. 4. Quality of life.
5. Well-being. I. Title.
HQ1061.L59 2011

1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

To Levi, who comes from a long line of phenomenal women

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Prologue: 30–60–90: On Age and Perspective
Introduction: Living at Home and Making it Work


Lesson 1: Continue to Do What You Did
Lesson 2: (Re) Design Your Living Space
Lesson 3: Live in Moderation
Lesson 4: Take Time for Self
Lesson 5: Ask for Help; Mobilize Resources
Lesson 6: Connect with Peers
Lesson 7: Resort to Tomfoolery
Lesson 8: Care for Others
Lesson 9: Reach out to Family
Lesson 10: Get Intergenerational; Redefine Family
Lesson 11: Insist on Hugs
Lesson 12: Be Adaptable
Lesson 13: Accept and Prepare for Death


Conclusion: New Perspectives on the Oldest Old
Postscript: On Doing Ninety (by Ann)
Epilogue: Updates on Study Participants


Appendix : Best Practices in Supporting Aging in Place


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I want to thank the thirty inspirational elders who make this book
what it is. Some taught me about conquering loneliness, some tutored
me in Yiddish, some served me shortcake, and others served as editors. All reminded me of the importance of living purposeful lives,
and their lessons live on.
Their voices are made that much richer by those who assisted with
this book’s preparation. Students of all ages patiently listened to ideas
and excerpts early on, and offered encouraging feedback and support,
including Colgate University and Skidmore College students who
have taken my Sociology of the Life Course class, as well as Colgate’s
Lifelong Learners, Skidmore’s Mature Adults, and Hunter College
Alumni in the Capital Region. Special thanks go to student research
assistants Rachel Greenburg and Katherine Flynn.
Many colleagues and friends took time to provide thorough and
thoughtful feedback. Special thanks go to Toni Calasanti, Deborah
Carr, Kelly Joyce, and several anonymous reviewers for believing in
this project and giving it strength. Eliza Kent spent many hours in
cafes reading drafts and providing invaluable guidance. Carol Bergen’s news clippings and questions over breakfast kept me grounded.
Laura Carpenter’s and Jennifer Reich’s support and encouragement
never wavered. Thank you to Janel Benson, Courtney Burke, Rebecca
Costello, Carolyn Kissane, Karen Luciani, and Crystal Moore, for
your constructive feedback. Thanks as well to the Oxford team and
James Cook, who carefully read every word of the manuscript, cut a
few, and deftly shepherded it through.
I am indebted to the organizations that directly supported this project, specifically the Upstate Institute at Colgate University and the
Institute on Research on Women at University at Albany. The project
was strengthened with encouragement from Bill Thomas and Jude

Rabig and Eldershire workshop participants; Erin Mitchell at AARP;
Loretta Carney of Albany Fortnightly; Sue Kenneally and Rick
Ianello of the Albany Guardian Society; Kim Hansen Woods at
Albany Senior Housing; Bethany Meade, Laurie Milward, and Nikki
Smith from Albany Senior Services from Albany Senior Services;
Laurie Mante, Maryclaire Hassett, Libby Kesner, Liza McKinley, and
Kris Santaromita of Eddy Village Green; Amy Vastola of Jewish
Family Services; Sue Baumann and Steven Spiller at Madison Lane
Apartments; Courtney Burke of the Rockefeller Institute; Lois Wilson of Senior Issues Forum; Claire Sigal and Dick Allen at the Sidney
Albert Albany Jewish Community Center; Julie Meyer at the U.S.
Census Bureau; Tanya Zelman of the West Hill Neighborhood Health
Advocate Program; and the lifelong learners and researchers at
Fortnightly Club of Hamilton, Thursday Morning Club of Troy, and
Fortnightly Club of Albany.
We are all a product of our time and place. That could not be more
true in my case. Heartfelt thanks to my Lancaster Street family and my
Hamilton community, two places I call home and the initial inspiration for this book. That said, my life is made most meaningful by my
New York, Colorado, and California families. On a daily basis, they
model the most important lessons for living, and keep me accountable.



30 – 6 0 – 9 0 : O N A G E A N D P E R S P E C T I V E

30. When I turned thirty, I felt old. I felt experienced, grounded, and
honestly, more legitimate. I was an assistant professor with several
years of teaching and a book under my belt. I was a decade older than
my students. Fewer people asked me if I was a student or what I was
majoring in. Then I rented a room in an elder’s home near the university and discovered a thriving elder community. Over the next three
years, as I taught courses on aging, started a family, and resided in two
vibrant intergenerational communities, elders became my primary
teachers, mentors, friends, and extended family. Experiencing pregnancy and childbirth within these communities, I began to embrace
the complexities of age, wrapped up in questions about body, health,
culture, social perception and roles, generations, life stages, location,
and relationships. Meanwhile, I came to view aging and the human
life course in new ways. I realized the importance of social networks,
continuity across one’s life, and self-reliance and control when it
comes to well-being and living, aging, birthing, and dying comfortably. In sum, I have been busy rethinking age.
60. My parents and in-laws are in their sixties. Each actively loves
and cares for their surviving parents, children, and grandchildren,
most of whom live at a distance. At moments, tables turn, and those
who cared for us look to us for care. I see them balancing their adult
lives with new and emerging issues. Their lives and bodies, roles and
responsibilities are in flux. Reminders of aging that had previously
remained under the surface are emerging. All have dealt with loss and
grieving and serious health issues, and all have taken advantage of

senior discounts. Yet, they prefer not to refer to themselves as seniors,
and are not even remotely considering moving to Florida. Instead,
what lies before them is time, new family configurations, and opportunities for reinvention. They are rethinking age.
90. We have longevity in the family, as they say. My father’s mother
lived to ninety, and her mother lived to ninety-two. My mother’s
father just turned ninety. My grandparents’ and great-grandparents’
long lives enabled me to learn from them and enjoy their company
well into adulthood. My grandparents have been among my most
trusted lifelong companions, friends, and mentors. We have watched
and supported each other over the years. I have observed them confronting physical challenges associated with longevity. I have asked
questions about living meaningful lives in old age, and they have
raised issues related to independence, safety, companionship, care,
and mortality. In many ways, their questions have become my questions, and have led me to the thirty “oldest old” who anchor this book.
When I met these study participants, most were living at home and
hoping to stay there. They were making it work, and I wondered how
they managed to do that. All were willing to let me into their lives
from time to time. Some instantly incorporated me into their day-today activities, others kept in touch from a distance. Many have become
dear friends. Together and apart, we have been rethinking age.
30–60–90. In the midst of this three-year journey, a new life
started, and many others ended. The cycle of birth and death became
very real, and the social aspects of each were revealing. Julia’s life
ended in the church pews, as the choir sang. Lillian passed away with
her lover by her side. Meanwhile, my daughter’s beginning was eagerly anticipated. As the baby and I grew, I saw those around me starting new life chapters and ending others. My father ended a career in
business. My only existing grandparent was now living alone. My inlaws became active grandparents. Ann and Eddie committed to more
exercise. And Christine and Fred moved into a new nursing facility.
While confronting change, many things stayed the same. All of us, no
matter what our age, were practicing things like memory, mobility,
balance, sensory perception, patience, and confidence. We were
searching for words, for meaning. We wanted to be heard, known,
trusted, and cared for. And we experienced setbacks and obstacles,
and then started anew. I learned that a life course perspective helped
[ xii ]


me to see similarities and differences across lives and across age. I
found a new way of seeing—a wide-angle lens that allowed me to see
REALIGNMENT NOTE: 90–60–30. This book comes out of my
journey, as a young yet aging professor of sociology, through an awareness of age and agelessness. Many people—young, old, and in
between—have been important guides. They provided the links, the
clues, and the glue to put it all together. But mostly nonagenarian
women and men led this journey; they are the center of this book and
my heart. They have been my teachers and I, the student. Through
their life lessons, I have learned how to be a better parent, professor,
and person. These lessons were taught in words and in actions, as they
went about their daily lives. Observing their joys and challenges has
modeled for me the diverse ways individuals can create full and meaningful lives at any age.
I have approached this book in direct contradiction to how our society is structured. Elder voices and experiences center it, in a 90–60–
30 sort of way. They are not marginalized, not an afterthought, not an
end-point. Instead, they provide a variety of starting points for understanding age, aging, and the life course, at a time when aging is
changing. We will check their experiences with gerontologists, sociologists, psychologists, and other authorities along the way. But the
real experts, testing out new and familiar theories on age and aging,
are eighty-five and beyond.


[ xiii ]

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Aging Our Way

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Introduction: Living at Home
and Making it Work

Ruth H. prepares for a winter walk


n 1998, Hallmark unveiled their new “One-Hundredth-Birthday”
cards. By 2007, annual sales were at 85,000 cards.1 America has the
highest number of centenarians in the world (mostly due to our large
population), estimated at 100,000,2 and in general, our population is
“graying.” Today, American men can expect to live to age seventy-five
and women to age eighty. The number of people in the United States
over age sixty-five is expected to double between now and 2030, and
the number over eighty is expected to almost triple.3 By 2050, one in
four or five Americans will be over sixty-five, and about 5 percent will
be aged eighty-five and older, up from 2 percent now. If these trends
continue, the United States at midcentury roughly will be where
Japan, Italy, and Germany—the three “oldest” industrialized countries in the world—are today.4 Everywhere in the world the number of
solitary elders is climbing fast. Given the growing population of elders
situated to age in place in future generations, we all have a vested interest in understanding how the experience of old age is changing.5
We are well on our way toward a fundamentally new, permanent,
and older age structure in our society.6 By 2020, for the first time in
history, Americans over sixty-five will outnumber those under fifteen.7 The baby boomer generation’s vast numbers will accelerate this
shift.8 This new social structure will reflect demographic changes in
class status and education, ethnicity and gender, in combination with
age. Younger generations will be substantially more ethnically diverse
(with many minority youths working low-wage jobs, particularly in
health care), and older generations will remain disproportionately
nonminority and female.
Given broad changes in mortality and morbidity rates, some
scholars project overall increases in life expectancy for years to come.
Advances in biomedical technology make scientists optimistic that
increased longevity in America will both accelerate and continue
beyond the middle of this century. For example, The Lancet medical
journal projected in 2010 that most babies born since 2000 in wealthy
countries such as France, Germany, Italy, the UK, the United States,
Canada, and Japan will celebrate their hundredth birthdays.9 On the
other hand, it is possible that recent increases in obesity and diabetes
will actually lead to declines in life expectancy in this century.
The fastest-growing age group in America is composed of those
eighty-five years and over.10 Today, Americans who live to age eightyfive live on average another 6.8 years for women and 5.7 years for

Aging Our Way

men.11 As longevity and good health increase, the meaning of old
age is changing; being old does not necessarily entail being frail or
dependent. In fact, the chance that older adults will live independently increases as they age. Nearly 40 percent of Americans
eighty-five or older live by themselves, compared to only 20 percent
of those ages sixty-five to seventy-four.12
We are no longer a society with a functionally impaired older generation alongside a fit, active, younger population. In fact, the MacArthur Foundation Research Report on Aging found that the trend is
toward a more active and healthier older population, and a less
healthy younger and middle-aged population.13 Perhaps surprisingly,
active life span is increasing faster than total life span. More people
are living longer and healthier, while avoiding or delaying severe
disability. The health and functional status of the old have been
improving steadily since the early 1980s, mainly thanks to improvements in medical care. At the same time, it is crucial to remember that
not everyone is living longer and healthier. Disability rates have
increased among those younger than sixty-five, due to substantial increases in rates of asthma, obesity, and diabetes.14 A great deal of
research suggests that social inequalities contribute to chronic illness
and shorter life expectancy. Added to this, some of the most important determinants of diminished capacity—cognitive and functional
decline—are more closely related to socioeconomic factors and education level than to age. In sum, good health is a privilege and a luxury
in America, as is a long active life.
Our current culture of medicalization potentially overstates the
physical declines of later life.15 In fact, evidence suggests that important abilities, such as perspective, social values, emotional regulation,
and experience, may all increase with age and can contribute to adaptability in old age. Assessing elders’ functionality in relation to young
adults, or focusing on quantity of health problems or scores on individual tests, obscures their overall capacity to function and adapt in
ways that allow them to lead full, meaningful lives into old age.16
These traditional assessment models also obscure the importance of
social contexts in shaping quality of life and overall health.
Given these changes in our society, a close look at how old people
creatively and strategically maintain self-efficacy, health, and
well-being is timely and important. This book follows the everyday
lives of thirty individuals, aged 85 to 102, the majority of whom live


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