Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Book Review

Published January 23, 2018.
John Leland spent a year interviewing elders 85 plus who lived in and around Manhattan. He presents his perspective on how this demographic--the oldest olds--forge happiness despite formidable challenges.

The result is a book that has a healthy mix of character sketches, direct quotes, applicable aging research, and interviewer reflection.

I enjoyed it so much that I returned the library copy and bought my own. And then I bought a copy for my 75-year-old mother-in-law.

She read it in one day.

In the pages of the book, we meet six older adults and glean from their life experience.

In a gross oversimplification, Leland distills there life lessons in the following passage:
"Each elder had different lessons to teach: from Fred, the power of gratitude; from Ping, the choice to be happy; from John, acceptance of death; from Helen, learning to love and be needed; from Jonas, living with purpose; and from Ruth, nourishing the people who matter" (104). 
Who are these elders?

Fred Jones portrays himself as a dapper dresser and a ladies man, but he has problems managing the stairs in his apartment, so his social interaction is limited. Nevertheless, he maintains a sense of humor and focuses on gratitude.

Ping Wong has served as a translator for most of her adult life. She's remote from many of her family members, so she's immersed in the culture of Chinese immigrants. She had to manage a change in housing, but found a way to recreate a support structure.  After years of working full time and caring for others, she relishes having more free time for activities such as mah-jongg.

John Sorensen occupies himself by cherishing memories of his long-time partner, Walter Caron and also by listening to opera and other music. John will talk about being ready to die; however, in the mean time, he lights up when talking about the days that he and Walter spent on Fire Island or the musical performances he's attended when his health was better.

Helen Moses is a lively conversationalist with a strong personality. After being widowed and moved into institutional care, Helen forged a relationship with another resident, Howie. She loves caring for him, but Helen's adult daughter has reservations about this romance. Helen spends a lot of energy trying to mediate between her daughter and significant other. She doesn't see him as a drain but as a way to be connected and to have purpose.

Jonas Mekas has been a film buff for decades, and he's still making films, giving speeches, and attending events around Manhattan. He's an immigrant from Lithuania who suffered hardship caused first by Stalin and then by Hitler. Nevertheless, he has pushed to do more than survive, but to thrive. He sees the creative process as his key to happiness.  

Ruth Willig lives in an assisted living center, but she receives regular visits from her four children and sometimes goes on vacations with them. She works to find a balance between letting them do things for her and maintaining as much independence as she can manage. While this line has to be constantly renegotiated, the children and their mother use humor and flexibility.

Intertwined with personal detail are results of research by scholars such as Laura L. Carstensen, Lars Tornstam, Mary Pipher, and Robert Butler.  Also, Leland weaves in quotes by authors and philosphers such as Henry Miller, Seneca, and Deepak Chopra.

Probably the most poignant passages contain details and reflections that Leland has about his own mother's journey into late life and how he perceives her and supports her. It's hard to see the ocean in which you are swimming, but Leland makes a good effort, and his year with the elders offer us a preview for our own late life and a charge to engage with older adults while we are still fortunate to have them in our lives.


Books on Aging
Social Engagement through the Lifespan
Leisure World Cohort Turns 90