Preface to The Ninth Decade
This work is a product of good luck and irrepressible curiosity that arrived on my eightieth birthday, eight and a half years ago. I wanted to know about life after eighty, but there were no specialized or personal books on the subject. Uncharted territory, so I decided to chronicle my experience of the eighties, to note the experience of other octogenarians–loved ones, friends, acquaintances–and thus produce a collective depiction of life after eighty.
Unlike daily pieces in a journal, the essays in this work encompass six-month periods, from my early eighties to late-eighties. For each period, I have noted a few telegraphic subtitles that suggest the various matters that most concerned me during that time, as in “Eighty-Four: Decrepitude, Wisdom, Shingles, Downsizing.” Collectively, they reflect the challenges and pleasures I experienced during this late-life marathon.
Excerpt from the Beginning of The Ninth Decade
Eighty and Before: Longevity, Leisure, Aging without Aging
I’m eighty going on eighty-one this coming May. Getting on in years, but often feel like I did in my seventies, and look almost like I did back then. More surprising, I might live into the mid-nineties, according to Patti, the captivating nurse who oversees the cardiac rehab where I work out on the treadmill four or five days a week. She made that astonishing conjecture when I was planning this chronicle. A case history of sorts focused on my experience of aging and the experience of long-lived friends and loved ones. Which led me to wonder how many years I might be around to work on it. That’s when Patti projected a lifespan in the mid-nineties. “But just to be on the safe side,” she said, “you’d best confine it to your eighties.”
Eighty-year-olds, I was surprised to learn, are the fastest-growing demographic throughout the industrialized world. In the United States, there are more than 9 million octogenarians (about one out of ten persons), and the number will rise to over 15 million by 2025. But gerontologists have not done longitudinal studies of of octogenarian life. And octogenarians themselves have written so little about their eighties–a couple of one-year journals published more than twenty years ago–that the ninth decade, an exceptional period of life, is uncharted territory. To shed some light on it, I intend to produce a multi-year account of my eighties, taking into account the experience of others in their eighties.
As for life in one’s nineties, I’ll leave that story to Jackie, my loving partner, who might outlast me by ten or fifteen years, thanks to her stellar condition. How else to describe the condition of someone who takes no prescribed medicine and suffers from none of the usual afflictions of aging, except for a lazy gut and a one-hour bladder? Whereas I have a sluggish thyroid, enlarged prostate, chronic kidney disease, coronary artery disease, cataracts in both eyes, hearing aids in both ears, itching on both arms and legs, Raynaud’s syndrome in both hands, and can’t rise to the occasion without a dose of Viagra. And that’s just a partial list of my so-called “health issues” at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Jackie, I should add, had breast cancer several years ago and got through it with verve, as if it weren’t a health issue at all. I, on the other hand, could hardly force a grin during my bout with Hodgkins lymphoma a couple of years ago.
More to the point, Jackie’s still working full-time as a realtor, whereas I retired from the University of Iowa sixteen years ago. And she remembers most of her clients from the past forty years, despite a mild stroke a few years before we met, while I’ve forgotten most of the students who populated my classrooms. It’s not just her memory that impresses me. It’s also her exercise routine, for while I need twenty minutes on the treadmill to reach my maximum speed of 3.2 miles-an-hour with a seven percent incline, she starts out at 4 miles-an-hour and in five minutes reaches her maximum of 6 miles-an-hour with a seven percent incline. And that’s just her warmup for fifty more minutes of other exercises—lunges, squats, situps, and the like. A working mind in a working body, driven by the demands of her real estate business. So, we live apart during the week in our separate homes and come together on the weekends at my place, where she keeps in touch with her clients on a smart-phone and iPad while I’m still using a dumb-phone and laptop.
The only work I’ve been doing lately is to make my way through the annual seed catalogs, looking for new varieties to try out in my vegetable garden, then taking stock of my viable seeds from previous years, then planning what to grow in each of the seasons, and finally ordering seeds, row covers, and the like. A late winter ritual I performed for so many years it once seemed as inevitable as the rotation of the seasons, until two years ago when Hodgkin’s lymphoma and chemo meant that a garden was out of the question, so the catalog ritual was also out of the question, which led me to wonder what else would be out of the question.
A few months later, when I was in the later stage of chemo, my upbeat oncologist regaled me with the news that he didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t live to be ninety-nine, which made me wonder why he didn’t say one-hundred. But no sooner was I in remission than he urged me to “do something special, like a trip abroad sometime during the coming months”—not, as it turned out, in celebration, but in recognition that there’s a fifty percent chance of recurrence during the first year in remission, which made me wonder what had happened to my chances of reaching ninety-nine. On the other hand, now that I’ve been in remission some twenty months, the odds have surely improved so much I might have a good chance of reaching 100 or more.
How strange that I’m only a few paragraphs into this piece and my thoughts keep circling around the question of how long I might live, whereas longevity rarely crossed my mind until I was beset by lymphoma and then started work on this project. Probably a result of the articles I’ve been reading in the New York Times’ “New Old Age” blog, getting up to speed on the subject. Thus far I’ve only read several months of the blog dating back to 2008, but it often focuses on the circumstances of people so advanced in age or compromised in health as to need special care of one kind or another. “Assisted living” it’s called—a euphemism that resonates with a host of medical, psychological, social, financial, and legal issues. Thus, the question of longevity is unavoidable, as in any discussion of aging or old-age planning.
Now that the question keeps coming to mind, I wonder what it would be like to have Jackie’s stamina and bill of health, to be as fit as she—and have a good chance of living into my nineties or beyond—without any need of assisted living. And, therefore, without any need to give up the home I’ve lived in and the gardens I’ve tended the past forty-three years. But it’s also clear that my four-story house on a three-quarter acre lot is not a good long-term fit for an eighty-year-old, especially since my garden-helper is graduating from the university this spring and the cleaning lady just told me it’s too much for her aging body. Which makes me wonder if it might soon be too much for mine as well. It’s certainly not as suitable as Jackie’s little house on a postage stamp lot—her place so elegant and immaculate it looks like a still-life, everything arranged just so, whereas mine looks so much like real life that she’s often urging me to de-clutter the attic, the cellar, and everything in between before I shuffle off this mortal coil. All of which is to say she’s as organized as an elementary school teacher, and I’m as in need of discipline as one of her former third graders, romping up and down the place as if my sun might never set.
Cluttered though they are, those multiple floors help keep me in shape, as does the uphill-downhill backyard. And the neighborhood keeps me in touch with a run of life that seems like life itself—college students on one side, middle-aged working parents with teenagers on the other, an octogenarian couple behind me, a few single women in separate houses across the street, and a small nursery school nearby. A range of life I’m not yet ready to trade for the ease of a retirement home. Seventy-five years ago, such places were a rarity, as I recall from my childhood, for old folks back then often lived with their children and grandchildren. The extended family was still intact, co-existing under a single roof, enriching the lives of everyone in the family. Now, of course, retirement homes proliferate like morning mushrooms. But now as I discovered from the government’s statistics on aging, millions of aged people are not only living apart from their children and grandchildren, but also outside of retirement homes, so I’m evidently not alone on that score.
And I’m probably not alone in wondering what living into my nineties might be like, especially given the increasing number of eighty-year-olds in the government’s statistics. But I can’t imagine what I might make of those additional years to deserve such a gift of time, when already it seems I’m a lotus-eater. Nothing on my docket but whatever I happen to be writing at the moment and whatever manuscript I’m reading for a series of nonfiction books I co-edit for Iowa’s university press. How can I justify this extended life, when aside from reading, writing, editing, and occasional trips to picturesque places with Jackie, it’s dominated by the pleasures of gardening, cooking, and savoring delectable dishes I concoct or come upon in newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks. Like the classic sauté of shrimp, also known as scampi, that involves only a few ingredients, perfectly matched as if they were meant for each other, especially when quickly cooked in an order that perfectly marries them to each other. First some melted butter, waiting to release the seductive aroma of minced garlic, enhanced by the addition of some dry white wine, salt, and pepper, yielding a tangy bath for the shrimp, brightened after a few minutes by lemon juice, and topped off with minced parsley. A deliciously easy ten-to-fifteen-minute prep well matched with thin spaghetti or a baguette of French bread. Having turned into a self-indulgent gastronome, I wonder what other eighty-year-olds do with their leisure time and what they think of their doings.