Did you know there are currently almost 10 million eightysomethings in the United States alone? 

I’m turning 50 this week, and thinking about aging even more than usual, so it was with a grim sort of combined curiosity and determination that I picked up the galley for a book releasing in October 2019:  Eightysomething, A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness: The must-read guide for the uncharted territory of eighty and beyond. “Yes!” I thought, “Bring it on. What do I need to know?”

Bad news first. If we manage to live that long, here are a few hard realities to consider:

  • half the people in our cohort will have already died.
  • 66% will have trouble hearing
  • 33% will have trouble walking
  • 50% of people over 55 will be diagnosed with dementia (although rates are declining, due to better education on the subject, exercise, and good medical care)
  • elder abuse, particularly financial, is real, and we should take steps in advance to ward it off

The author, Katharine Esty, is a practicing psychotherapist, a social psychologist, and the author of three previous books. She’s now in her eighties herself, and through her research (interviews with 128 eightysomethings over three years, as well as twenty-six adult children of eightysomethings) she identified five coping styles: Deniers, Stoics, Complainers, Worriers, and Realists. I probably don’t need to go into detail for you to figure out which you might be, but I think it’s a worthy exercise for each of us to contemplate this honestly: which style are you? How does it serve you? What style do you aspire to? 

Ultimately Esty was happily surprised to find her eighysomething peers overall happier and feeling more free than any other time in their lives, particularly those who worked to cultivate close friendships. Social ties become more important than ever, providing more satisfaction than even family ties, and those connections lower risk of dementia, boost immunity, and encourage healthy behavior. She describes getting this old as a “journey to a smaller world,” which I loved. Downsizing, doing only what you genuinely want to do every day, living in the moment; all that sounds like a relief after dozens of years of working and serving others, striving to accomplish and find meaning.  Our eighties is when we finally get good at living in the moment. Phew! 

What wisdom did Esty take away from her interviews?

Live openly, caringly, honestly. Don’t close up. Be open to every situation. Listen. Don’t be judgmental. Get educated. Live in the now. Family is what matters. Most satisfaction comes from serving others. Do good for the world. Work is very important. Do what you like. Do what you dream. Notice what is happening in the present. Help others. Love one another. Be true to oneself. Live the right way: don’t drink, don’t smoke. Be busy. Don’t worry about money. Let go. Anger doesn’t accomplish anything. Follow your own path. No drugs and no tattoos or drinking to excess. Be honest. Good relationships are what matter. No need to achieve. Be kind. Walk a mile a day. Preserve the Universe. (note that no one talked about success, accomplishments, power, fame, or her weight…)

A great read for anyone taking care of a person over 80, or for anyone who’s thinking about the future!

Interview with the Author, Katharine Esty – 

What advice would you give your 50 year old self?

My most important advice is don’t listen to those voices that tell you “you’re over the hill.” It is probable that you will have amazing pleasures, adventures and loves in the years ahead. It mostly depends on your attitude and staying open to new things. Each of us can age in our unique way. I began a brand new career as an organizational consultant at age 50. One of my clients was UNICEF  and I went many times to Bangaldesh. It had been a dream of mine to work on womens’ issues and third world development. It never occurred to me it would actually happen.

What was your #1 takeaway from writing Eightsomethings

My biggest takeaway was that there are a large number of people in their eighties who are active, relatively healthy and pain-free. They describe themselves as unexpectedly happy. I also learned that aging has as many faces as the stars in the milky way. I interviewed people whose activities and inner worlds were totally different one from another although there are some predictable transitions. 

A few examples: I interviewed a man in NYC who goes bar hopping and plays pool every day, a woman who prays a lot and writes poetry and a woman who has a new boyfriend, an apartment and a house, and participates in four book groups. She explains she “sleeps around” because she spends some nights at her house, some at her apartment and some at his place. 

You identify five coping styles in Eightysomethings. Am I wrong to assume you’re a Realist?

You are right. I am basically a Realist in dealing with my health issues now. But I am also a recovering Denier. I used to go to work when I was sick and my colleagues would look at me and tell me I was green and to go home. Over the years I have learned a lot about self care. Now I cancel a dinner invitation if I don’t feel good. I have learned I do not have to soldier on and pretend to be well.  What is interesting to me is that we keep learning and developing in every stage of life, including the eighties.

Aside from the publication of Eightysomethings, what are you most looking forward to this year?

As a typical eightysomething I do not look ahead to the future in the same way that I used to. My horizon is short. I am looking forward to my grandson’s bar mitzvah next year but that is about as far out as I let myself plan. Even though once I hit eighty, I learned that my life expectancy was nine more years, I am not making plans more than a year ahead.. My kids tell me they are counting on a 90th birthday bash. Mostly I look forward to what I am doing this week. Dinner with friends tonight, my writing group tomorrow.

Tags : agingbooks
Nina Lorez Collins
Nina Lorez Collins a lifelong New Yorker, born there in 1969. She graduated from Barnard College in 1990 and got a Masters in Narrative Medicine from Columbia in 2013. She has four kids who are mostly launched, is the founder and author of WWVWD, and serves as a trustee on the board of the Brooklyn Public Library.

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