Recently I was one of three women who took a fourth out for dinner for her ninetieth birthday. We ate in an elegant restaurant befitting the celebration of achieving such a milestone. Friends for almost twenty years, we basked in the warmth of good wine, great food and, most importantly, our close and enduring friendships.
At sixty-six I was definitely the baby of the crowd. One of the other women was about to turn eighty, the other was almost seventy-two. All of us still work as psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, actively seeing patients and very involved in our professional lives. We were all widowed or divorced. However the ninety year old is newly involved with a man she thinks she might be comfortable spending the rest of her life with, while the seventy-two year old recently began living with a man who will most likely be the love of her life.
Love, work, friendships. That’s my prescription, not only for reaching older age, but doing so with exuberance, joy, and fulfillment. And it turns out that my prescription is supported by research published in The Longevity Project: Surprising discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study (Hudson Street Press, 2011). Drs. Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin found that people who felt loved and cared about reported a better sense of well-being, while the clearest health benefit of social relationships came from being involved with and helping others. That description certainly fit the four of us!
I have to say, however, that even as a child I was learning how to live life as a fulfilled older person for “old people” were never “old” to me. My grandparents worked for most of their lives, stayed actively involved in politics and the world around them, and exuded strength and fortitude. In fact, when my grandmother died at eighty-one, I was shocked. It was almost as though a part of me believed she was immortal. My parents were also excellent role models when it came to aging. My mother lived to be one month shy of her ninety-ninth birthday and, until she was ninety-four, had never been in a hospital except to give birth to me. She worked well into her seventies and the summer before she turned ninety she went on three trips – a land tour of Alaska, a trip through Ireland, and a walking tour of the Swiss Alps. My father, a very intelligent man, died at age eighty-six, never having lost a brain cell. Although he had retired years before, he wrote plays and books practically until the day he died.
So sixty-six doesn’t seem at all old to me. I have had my share of difficulties over the past seven or eight years. My husband, with whom I had a story-book relationship, has been dead for five years. He was twenty-one years my senior, so I always knew that I would survive him, not that the knowing made his loss any easier. He was also ill for several years before his death, so I watched my strong, powerful, competent husband, deteriorate bit by bit before my eyes. Was it difficult? Most definitely. My mother began to fail as well, so I was faced with seeing them both decline simultaneously. I did continue to work during this time, finding that seeing my patients and dealing with their pain, was a welcome respite from my own anguish.
I also began writing about my experience, chronicling the ups and downs of my husband’s struggle with both metastatic prostate cancer and heart disease. Sometimes it felt like a relief to put it down in words, almost as if I was ridding myself of the horror. At other times, it felt tortuous and I wondered why I was subjecting myself to such self-inflicted pain. I wondered if I would do anything with these pages. I didn’t know. I couldn’t think beyond getting my husband past the next day, the next crisis. Eventually my husband who had fought and fought and fought to hold onto his life, to not leave me, said, “It’s enough, already.” He went into hospice. Thirty-six hours later he was dead and I was a widow.
Through the haze of my grief, I took refuge in my work, my family and my friends. I don’t know how I would have survived without them. The telephone was a lifeline. I don’t think I made too many middle of the night phone calls, but it was comforting to know that I could. And my work? Once again it provided a welcome relief from my own pain. Many, although not all, of my patients knew about my husband’s illness and death, opening up a new arena that had to be dealt with and explored. To me, there is nothing more fascinating that the inner workings of the mind, both my patients and my own: trying to grasp, to understand, to find new meaning and greater freedom.
And then there were those pages. What was I going to do with them? Did I have a book in me? Did I want to open up the specifics of all that pain? The time my husband had a heart attack after his first chemotherapy treatment and the cardiologist advised contacting his children. The time he suddenly couldn’t walk and then three days later he magically could. The time he fell and hit his head and a subdural hematoma was added to his laundry list of ailments. Was I ready to tackle all that?
But if I wrote a book, I didn’t want to deal only with the last several years. There was so much more. There was the serendipity of meeting my husband in the first place – my walking up a friend’s newly built steps leading to talking with the carpenter who built them leading to his referring me to the man, my future husband, who would remodel my small home on a lake outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. There was our falling in love – two people with vastly different backgrounds – my husband from a poor, rural, uneducated, unsophisticated family and myself from a middle-class intellectual background from New York City. We couldn’t have been more different, and yet we were so very alike. And our relationship grew ever closer through the years. His sparkling blue eyes lit up when they saw me. I would melt into his arms feeling safe and protected. If I was going to write, I had to write about these years as well.
And so I did. My book and my sixty-seventh birthday should arrive around the same time in March.
Love, work, friendship, new challenges, new skills, new frontiers. Definitely the way to stay vibrant, to know and feel and believe that age is all relative. Years of my life await me. I plan to make the most of them. And to have many more dinners with my three close, and very precious, friends.