In 2015, we began following six people over age 85. Last year the four remaining showed that old age is not what you think.
Nearly four years ago, I began following six people over age 85 to see what their lives were like: what kept them going, what they hoped for or feared. This past year, I asked Jonas Mekas, now 96, about death and the afterlife.
The question had particular resonance. In summer Mr. Mekas had been hospitalized for a blood disorder that was still mysterious to his doctors. It was the first sign in four years that he was mortal. He canceled a trip to Berlin because he was tired and short of breath, and was now walking with a cane, his complexion grayish. Since his 20s he had used his movie camera to protect him from the outside world. Now his doctors were using cameras to explore the worlds within.
He did not think much about death, he said. He had grown up next to two cemeteries in rural Lithuania, where the gravediggers drank beer and talked between jobs, and so that was how he thought about death, as something commonplace.
“It’s a very normal transition,” he said. “What’s beyond that line, it’s where the mystery begins, where it becomes interesting. There are glimpses in the messages that come from there, some of the old Scriptures. Indications are there, and I believe it all. I believe it much more than anything that’s written since the 12th century.”
We were onstage at Anthology Film Archives, the nonprofit theater he helped start in 1970, and he turned to address his audience. “All I can tell you,” he said, “is that life does not end in this room.”
So closes another year for some members of what gerontologists have called the “oldest old,” one of the fastest-growing age groups in the country. Their world got a little smaller, its mysteries a little more pressing. Two of the series’ six subjects died in 2016 — Fred Jones, who asked God for 110 years, and John Sorensen, who missed his partner of 60 years, and who said every time we got together that he wanted to die. Both gone within a few months of each other — death, apparently, makes its own plans.
For the others, 2018 was a challenge. Ping Wong turned 93 in a nursing home in southern New Jersey: dementia. Helen Moses, still not married to Howie Zeimer, turned 94 at the Hebrew Home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx: a fall, some Parkinson’s-like symptoms, then internal bleeding. Ruth Willig turned 95 in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn: a fall on a bus, another in the shower, an infection that took two courses of antibiotics to curb.
[Read earlier installments of John Leland’s ‘85 and Up’ series.]
But this is an accounting of maladies, not of lives. Ms. Wong spoke by video with a goddaughter in China she hadn’t seen in 50 years; Ms. Moses and Mr. Zeimer very nearly had a religious commitment ceremony in October, before health concerns intervened; Ms. Willig traveled to the wedding of her granddaughter and celebrated her great-granddaughter’s first birthday.
“She was going come hell or high water,” Ms. Willig’s daughter Judy said of the wedding. In November, when the family gathered for a small 95th birthday celebration, Ms. Willig said that if she made it to 100, they could hold a big one.
And for Mr. Mekas, it was a year like no other. He paid tribute to a forgotten cinematic trailblazer, raised millions of dollars to expand Anthology Film Archives, played a major role in a New York exhibit about the Velvet Underground and was accused, in The New York Review of Books, of downplaying his interactions with anti-Semitic elements in Lithuania during the Holocaust. After the last, he gave a detailed, six-hour interview to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, describing a time period about which he has rarely spoken in public.
What a year. What a four-year stretch. If they’d been freshmen when the series started, they would be new graduates now, with diplomas and plans. Instead, their four years have been extended improvisations, their goals and achievements rarely reflected in the broader culture.
Memories kept bubbling up, an abundance compared to the thinning years ahead. For them, memory remains something in the head, not in the device, and when they depart, the process of remembering will change without them. So much is said about memory loss in old age. But what about memory muscle, which younger generations have not needed?
They were born when American life expectancy hovered around 60 years, and they surpassed current expectations around the time they rounded 80. But life, too, has plans: at age 80, an American man can expect eight more years, a woman almost ten. That’s longer than adolescence.
CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times.
And still, it has been left to them to invent life at their age, without the guideposts or role models of their earlier years. As the British novelist Penelope Lively wrote when she was 80: “Our experience is one unknown to most of humanity, over time. We are the pioneers.”
Having gotten old in an aging culture that still worships youth, they have done the unthinkable: gotten older.
“Did you ever meet anyone like me?” Ms. Moses asked one day at the Hebrew Home. “I’m special. A lot of people know me here. I don’t know them. They go, Hi, Helen.”
Ms. Moses started the year visibly slower than she’d been at the start of the Times series, no longer boasting about being in trouble with this or that nurse. But she was also quick to express gratitude toward her daughter and Mr. Zeimer, who were often at odds.
“Howie,” she said, addressing Mr. Zeimer, “aren’t I kind to you? You better say yes.”
He did, adding that over the last year, “She’s grown older and more wiser and more perfect for me.”
“He’s very kind,” Ms. Moses said. “We never had a fight. We never left each other where he just said good night. Always with a kiss.
“I kiss him good-night,” she said. “Want to see?”
“No,” said her daughter, Zoe Gussoff, before reversing herself: “Whatever makes them happy.”
It was lunch hour, but Ms. Moses pushed her sandwich away after a few bites. This year she lost much of her appetite and has lost some weight. At 94, she still does not need glasses, but wears hearing aids, which the nursing home staff stores at night. When she gets ambulating with her walker, it is hard to keep up with her.
“You’re going to be here 10 years in February,” Ms. Gussoff told her.
“That’s a long time,” Ms. Moses said. Most of the friends she made when she first got to the home had died. “It’s a nice place,” she said. “It’s clean. Most people are nice. Some are not. That’s it.”
In spring, she fell and required four stitches by her eye. The fall meant increased supervision from nursing home staff, and for the first time, a wheelchair — a severe drop in autonomy for Ms. Moses. During treatment, doctors also noted Parkinson’s-like symptoms, and they were uncertain whether she would ever walk again.
Ms. Gussoff took her to an outside neurologist, who enabled her to walk using a walker. But the turn in Ms. Moses’s health had a bigger consequence: Ms. Gussoff, who had vehemently opposed any marriage between her mother and Mr. Zeimer, was now willing to bless a commitment ceremony, as long as the couple didn’t live together, and as long as Ms. Gussoff would remain in charge of her mother’s health care.
“My daughter convinced me,” Ms. Gussoff said. “She said, ‘What would be the harm? Grandma’s 94, what’s the difference? Make her happy.’”
The couple, who are fans of the show “Say Yes to the Dress,” made plans. On the internet, Ms. Gussoff’s daughter found something called a “Short Scoop Bridesmaid Floral Lace Dress Cocktail Formal Swing Dress.” They lined up a rabbi and picked a couple of dates in October for the ceremony.
“Commitment,” Ms. Gussoff reiterated. “We don’t say the word ‘marriage.’”
Then life intervened.
As the dates approached, Ms. Moses started complaining about stomach pains. When she finally got to a hospital emergency room, doctors found bleeding from her lower intestine. She spent two and a half weeks in intensive care or recovery.
CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times.
“I was lonesome,” Mr. Zeimer said. “I wondered whether it was possible to come and see her but they told me no.”
When Ms. Moses returned to the nursing home, life intervened again. This time, the rabbi got sick.
She and Mr. Zeimer have not given up hopes to get hitched, as Mr. Zeimer puts it. In the meantime, he moved to a room closer to hers, and still watches television with her at night, though he leaves earlier than previously because they get tired.
As in past years, Ms. Moses talked often about her own mother and how much she missed her. Her mother had taught her so many things, but not how to be 94: how to manage a daughter who liked to take charge and a boyfriend who made her feel needed again, all set against the daily wear of aging. In this act she was on her own.
Summing up, Ms. Moses said, “If it wasn’t for the hospital I had a good year.”
Two hours south, in Voorhees, N.J., Ms. Wong asked after my mother, who turned 90 this year, and broke her hip. Did she have activities where she lived? Ms. Wong asked.
“Here you have three meals, a bedroom and then a lot of activities,” she said, describing her days in the nursing home, where she moved in 2016 to be near her daughter. “You can pass time, enjoy yourself. Usually this kind of activity is good for the elderly, but your mom is too far from this place, otherwise it’s better to come here to enjoy herself.”
Four years ago, at the start of the series, Ms. Wong had lived in a subsidized apartment near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, where she spent her days playing mah-jongg with three women from the building. The onset of dementia and consequent move to the nursing home had been very difficult for her, and this year her spirits were up and down. Though she has made new friends, she also had recurring bouts of anxiety, including one that landed her in the hospital.
“She kept telling the people they put hot water on her and burned her skin,” Ms. Wong’s daughter, Elaine Gin, said. “Delusions. Finally they sent her to the hospital. I was there at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. I entered the emergency-room door and I can hear her talking. She’s nice, she says, ‘Thank you very much,’ ‘You’re so nice.’ They do all the tests. She’s fine, but she’s talking and talking and talking. At 11:40 my friend came so I could go to work, and she’s still talking. They moved her to a room, and she couldn’t stay by herself. I got off early, at 4 o’clock, and she’s still talking. At 6:30 she finally calmed down. She wanted to stand up, she wanted to walk around.”
In late November she was back in the hospital, this time for dehydration and kidney malfunction. When I asked what was wrong, she said: “I think I fell down, because I am very weak. Now I can’t take very big steps.”
But even with her setbacks this year, Ms. Wong remained proudly resourceful, insisting that her rewards at the home outweighed the hardships.
“I’m the oldest, so I know everybody when they are admitted,” she said. “I have a lot to talk about what we are facing.”
And she found a new way to begin our conversations: “I remember you,” she’d say, and the act of remembering — and the joy of declaring it — seemed to fill the moment with meaning, a small gift near the end of a long life.
In Sheepshead Bay, Ruth Willig gave thanks for larger gifts this year: as she stayed mostly the same, her family changed around her.
“I dare not talk about not surviving,” she said one afternoon in her apartment, where balloons in the shape of a 9 and 5 held their last whiffs of helium. “My children, my son especially, say, ‘Oh, Ma, you’re going to keep going forever.’ The thought of my passing is very upsetting to him.”
Ms. Willig could not help noting the passage of time, especially the absence of her three siblings. Once the youngest, she was now the last of her generation. “It’s weird to be the only one left, it really is,” she said. “I can’t really call anyone: do you remember this? It was not easy at first. I’m getting used to it.”
CreditEdu Bayer for The New York Times
Patterns held: she avoided most activities in her assisted living building, and she went to the New Jersey Shore with her children for a summer vacation. She canceled her weekday newspaper subscription because the papers were adding up — “And how much can you read, really?” she said — but then renewed it because she missed it.
Some things got harder. Photographs of her great-granddaughter abounded, but only in people’s cellphones, “so what does it do for me?” she said. The house at the shore was advertised as accessible for people with disabilities, but there was no grab bar in the shower, and the high-end mattress in her bedroom was too high for her to climb onto.
“They haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of someone who needs it,” Judy Willig said.
Then Ms. Willig banged her shin on the steps of her building’s shuttle bus — a small injury for a younger person, but the impact shredded the thin skin on her leg, and because she was on baby aspirin to prevent a stroke, there was a lot of bleeding.
The wound required her to cover the leg in waterproof wrap when she showered, which led to another fall.
“When the cut got infected, we both worried,” Judy Willig said. “We didn’t talk about being worried, but we were.”
Still, there was a wedding and a birthday. And the unlikely fact of another year, with its ups and downs. Ninety-five, who would have thought?
“I find it amazing, how we’re living so long,” she said. “We keep going on.”
Jonas Mekas glided into 2018 on the wings of other artists, looking backward at departed associates. Through a German publisher, he resuscitated his defunct magazine Film Culture for a book-length issue devoted to Barbara Rubin, an extraordinary character who blew into New York and Mr. Mekas’s life in 1963 as a fearless teenager, and wound up connecting Bob Dylan to Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol to the Velvet Underground. After making a taboo-busting underground film called “Christmas on Earth,” she left the scene for France and ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and died at age 35 of an infection after giving birth to her fifth child. Like Mr. Mekas, she’d been one of the vital background players who made better-known artists like Mr. Warhol or Lou Reed possible.
In midyear Mr. Mekas’s backward glances took an unwelcome turn. In a long article in The New York Review of Books, Michael Casper examined Mr. Mekas’s work at two Lithuanian publications during the Nazi occupation, where his poems or reviews sometimes ran beside virulently anti-Semitic calls to violence. The article noted that Mr. Mekas’s writing was not anti-Semitic, but argued that his proximity to pro-Nazi hate speech clashed with the image he has created for himself. Mr. Casper wrote that Mr. Mekas “has repeatedly manipulated his story, taking advantage of people’s ignorance of wartime Lithuania, to make himself appear, when useful, as victim, hero, or oblivious bystander.”
Mr. Mekas denounced the article as “dirty” and inaccurate, arguing that the toxic material in those newspapers ran only briefly and that the papers were principally devoted to local news and culture, a tacit form of resistance to occupation. After 75 years, he said, that period remained unreal to him, because it was “such an unnatural intrusion, that I cannot identify myself. It’s like it does not belong, that period.”
At an art opening shortly after the article appeared, Mr. Mekas looked weak and nearly broken — a 95-year-old crushed by a ghost from his past. But another culprit surfaced: a hemoglobin deficiency and polyps in his digestive tract. By fall, between monthly blood transfusions, he was gushing about new music by Eminem and Cat Power. As the shock of the article receded, he focused on the miracle of his care.
“Which translates into strengthening my trust in the essential goodness of humanity,” he wrote in an email health update to friends. “No, humanity is not yet lost. It’s only confused. Yes, the bad news dominate all the media. But there are unseen, invisible millions of men and women who daily perform invisible but essential human acts that, I firmly believe, is moving the human evolution along the lines envisioned by the Poet of the Eternity.”
Would Mr. Mekas have had this perspective at a younger age? Perhaps not. But at 96, it defines him.
He ended the year tired from another trip to the hospital, his blood condition seemingly stabilized but his appetite scarce from acid reflux. “There are aspects that are improving,” he said on New Year’s Day. “Maybe nothing is getting worse, but remains the same.”
So begins a new year for four pioneers on an alien frontier, and for the exceedingly grateful reporter who has followed them through 17 articles, one video, a book and countless glimpses of past and future. Their stories are a year closer to the end, as are all of ours. But all discovered something in 2018, and all said they were glad to have experienced it.
Onward to 2019, whatever it may hold.