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Reporter Shares Life Lessons From A Year With 'The Oldest Old'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, John Leland, became known for writing about things associated with youth culture and post-youth culture. But at the age of 55, he started a series of articles for The New York Times about old age. He spent a year with six New Yorkers above the age of 85, including a gay man who had lost his partner six years earlier, a woman who was in an intimate relationship with another resident at her nursing home, an African-American man who was a veteran of World War II and a retired civil servant and a Chinese immigrant who kept her social connections through playing Mahjong.

At the same time Leland was writing about their lives, he was the main caregiver for his mother, who was 86 and was dealing with chronic pain from a spinal fracture. As for Leland, he'd recently gone through a divorce, was in a new relationship and was trying to figure out what he wanted from a relationship now as opposed to when he was a younger man. His new book is called "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old."

John Leland, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I was initially surprised that you were writing about old age because you'd written about things associated with youth culture and post-youth culture like music. You have a book about Kerouac's book "On The Road" and why it's still relevant. You have a book called "Hip: The History." That's a history of what has been considered hip over the years. So when did - when did aging and old age become an interest of yours?

JOHN LELAND: Well, I'm a reporter at The New York Times. And some years ago, I got this assignment called the How We Live team. And each of us were supposed to take two small beats and cover them at the same time. And so I was asked what I wanted to do. And I said, well, great, I want to do gay life in the creative class. And my editor said, perfect, you do religion in retirement.

GROSS: (Laughing).

LELAND: And so we really saw eye-to-eye on that. And I - so I started writing about older people, and it was just completely fascinating to me. You know, my mother is now 89, so I go through all these things with my mother. And the thing about talking to older people or talking to younger people about their parents or their grandparents is it really gets to the emotional part of life really, really quickly. There's just no messing around.

GROSS: I remember Fran Lebowitz once saying - and I'm going to paraphrase here, paraphrase a lot. But she was saying that when she was young, she thought of old - she thought - she thought of age as an ethnic group. So, like, she was part of, like, the youth ethnic group. And older people, they were part of, like, the elderly ethnic group. And, like, she was born young. They were born old. And she was never going to become that because she was part of the youth group. And then she realized - nope, you get older. Like, if you live, you get older. And it's a kind of shifting thing. Was that a revelation for you, too?

LELAND: That we get older?

GROSS: That you would get older. You're in your 50s, it's not like - you're not nearly the age of the people you're writing about in this book, but, still, you're not youth culture age.

GROSS: I still walk down the street and see somebody and think, oh, that's so-and-so from my college English class. And then it takes me a minute to realize that so-and-so from my college English class isn't 24 anymore, and so it can't be that person. That could be his son or almost grandson.

So yeah, I don't think of myself as aging. And I guess it's because, you know - and this is, like, sort of something that I figured out while writing the book. When we think about ourselves as not aging, then we think about age as something that happens - old age is something that happens after you've completed your life, after it's a story. Well, you've done everything. And now you're sort of shot. And now you're in old age.

But what really happens is old age isn't that, it's just the next chapter of the life you've been living before. It's a continuation of it, not this, you know, happy or unhappy chapter tacked on at the end.

GROSS: So before you started writing this series about aging, were you afraid of old age at all?

LELAND: Oh, yeah. And there's times that I still am. And when I started doing this series, I'd set out to - what one of the people I talked to calls - rewriting the Book of Job and doing a story on how this is terrible about aging. And you fall down, and you break your hip, and then it's all over. And you lose your eyesight, and then your friends all die, and then it's over. And your heart stops working. And you don't have sex anymore. And you don't work. And you don't have anything that gives you purpose. So now, it's all over. And that's what I thought old age was. But then you spend time with people, and a lot of that stuff is a part of their lives in old age but in no case was it how they defined themselves. So I wasn't getting it - what the truth about their lives was as they saw it.

GROSS: The people who are living into their late 80s or 90s are kind of pioneers in a way because people didn't live that long. Very few people lived that long before we had the current medicines and imaging and interventions that we have now. So this subject is kind of a new thing.

LELAND: They're in uncharted territory. They're really, like, the vanguard that your kids think they are.

GROSS: So I want to ask you first about your mother's health. What was her health like during the year that you were writing this book?

LELAND: My mother's health hasn't been terribly good. And she's had chronic back problems all her life, so she deals with a lot of pain. And she'll often say that she'd rather be dead. She doesn't want to go on with her life. And she's confined to a wheelchair. And she lives in a lovely building in downtown New York. And she goes to the theater. And she goes to the music. But she doesn't see that role for her anymore in life.

And her physical health isn't good. And her emotional health isn't always as good as it should be either. And she says well, you know, I lived - a quarter of my life, I was pursuing my education. And then the middle half of my life, I was raising a family and doing a job. And now I just don't have a place anymore. I'm a useless eater. And that was the phrase she used that really stuck with me, that she was a useless eater.

GROSS: Yeah, and you're right that she had no idea where to find meaning in life at this stage in her life. And you had no idea how to help. Can you elaborate on that a little more?

LELAND: Like I said, my mother had the sense that she's a useless eater. So what do you do? How do you replace the things that gave your life meaning when you were able to - back when you were able to cook for people, back when you were able to go work at a job? What's going to satisfy you now? And for the son, how do you help the person find meaning when they just say, I wish you hadn't signed that order to revive me when I had that surgery five years ago?

So we're in this uncharted territory together, and we're exploring it. And it was an incredibly huge benefit to me to see this in people that weren't my relatives because I would go see one of the people that's in the book, a Fred Jones or Ruth Willig - who are two of the characters in the book - and I would see them and just be fascinated by their lives. And then I would go see my mother and think, boy, I wish she didn't feel that way. I didn't wish - you know, I would go see the other people and just accept them as they were and realize I was getting a great benefit out of spending time with them.

GROSS: You're saying you weren't accepting your mother as she was, you were just accepting the subjects of your articles as who they were?


GROSS: You weren't conferring that same generous approach to your mother?

LELAND: Yes, and it took me a while to see that because I'm not the smartest guy in the world all the time, especially when it deals - comes to family matters. So - but when I did see it, then I just started to enjoy my time with my mother so much.

GROSS: Nearly - I think it's fair to say nearly each of the six people you spent time with for your book - you profiled - probably needed a cane or a walker or a wheelchair and didn't want to use it. And several of them, therefore, did not use it. They wouldn't use the cane or the walker that they really needed. I think that's a really common thing. I've saw that with members of my family. What's your understanding of why that is?

LELAND: Well, I'll tell you about one of the people in the book. And that's John Sorensen, who had had lost his partner, Walter, of 60 years. And John had been a decorator. And he just had this image of himself as the healthy guy that he had been all his life. And to have a walker sitting in his apartment was such an unsightly thing - or to be out with this walker was such an unsightly thing that he - it was just offensive to him.

And he told me about going to the Metropolitan Opera. And there was a woman named George Washington Kavanaugh. And they would go into the opera. And she would be there opening night with the beautiful gown and the jewels. And she'd be there with her two handlers.

And just before the curtain went up, she would walk down the aisle. She would leave her walkers behind - her minders behind and walk those 20 steps or whatever she needed to walk to her seat in her gowns and her pearls and sit by herself. And that was John's idea of, you know, a role model. And so he didn't want to be the frail guy with the walker because that wasn't how he saw himself. And he never wanted to see himself that way.

GROSS: So did he fall as a result?

LELAND: He didn't go out as a result. And he lived right by Central Park. So he lived in a beautiful area and...

GROSS: See, that's the kind of thing that makes me sad, that somebody won't go out because they don't want to be seen using a walker. And I realize it's his choice to make but what a sacrifice.

LELAND: It's heartbreaking and - but we have to accept that that's the choice that people make. And it's - if it's not the choice that I would make or you would make, it's the choice that John made. And the idea of being out there with the walker would've just made him more unhappy.

GROSS: You had several people tell you that they really wanted to die. John told you the only bad thing about dying is that I won't be alive long enough to enjoy the fact that I finally died (laughter). So when people like John would tell you that they wanted to die, what would you say?

LELAND: Well, it evolved over the course of the year - and really the two and a half years. I started off saying, oh, John, but your friends would miss you. They loved you. And it - this was foolish because John's issue wasn't that he didn't feel loved. He knew he felt loved. He just didn't want to live anymore. So I finally stopped saying it. But I still thought it because I didn't want John to die. And then I began to think that, you know, we wouldn't want him - we don't want immortality for anybody.

So it's really - it's a cruel thing to want people to live or to wish people, you know, eternal life on people if it's not what they want. And so I gradually gave up even thinking it. And it really helped me understand John and this strange paradox about John because he wanted to die, but he wasn't depressed. And he wasn't sad.

And he loved to talk, so talking always cheered him up. And I would ask him, you know, do you wish you died yesterday? And he would say, no, because, you know, we're having this great conversation now. And do you want to die tomorrow? And he'd say, no, because Anne (ph) is coming over later - my niece - and I wouldn't want to miss that. So he was able to enjoy his life in the moment as long as he didn't have to think that there was another, like, five years of this ahead of him.

GROSS: Did the people who you spent time with fear death? I don't mean fear suffering or pain but fear the end of life and death.

LELAND: Well, there were six people I spent time with. And I would ask this often of them because sometimes their views on things would change. And five of them were constant - they didn't fear death. They did fear dying. They did fear being completely incapacitated and in a terrible vegetative state and just hanging on. There was one who was afraid of death. And I asked him why. He just started crying. And he said - because I don't know. It was that unknown that just scared him. And he was probably the most religious of the group. Although, his - he was also the smuttiest of the group. So it's a little bit of a contradiction there as well.

GROSS: Right. OK. If you're just joining us, my guest is John Leland. His new book is called "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old." I'm going to take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter John Leland. His new book is called "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old." And it's based on a year assignment of spending time with six New Yorkers over the age of 85 and just observing and reporting on what their day-to-day life was like and what their feelings were like about that period of their lives. I mean, one of the real issues for people, I think, is what is it like or what will it be like to carry on without your life partner or spouse? And one of the people you spoke with, John, who had been partners with his companion, Walter, for 60 years, you know, outlived him. I think he was dead for six years. By the time you talked to John, Walter had been dead for six years.

LELAND: That's right.

GROSS: And did John want to find another companion afterwards? And I should say they weren't married because legal gay marriage, you know, marriage equality came after Walter's death. So I think I'm right on that, that it was too late for them.

LELAND: That's right. And it's one of the heartbreaking things on that because they - Walter died before they could legally marry in New York. And as a result, John was not eligible for Social Security survivor's benefits from Walter's life. And so he lived on about half of what he would've lived on had they been a married couple. So that's a heartbreaking thing.

And I think John would've made another life for himself did he not have some of the health problems that he had. And one was that he was losing his eyesight. And the other is that he had gout that was causing him to lose the use of his hands. And he'd always been the handy guy. If something broke down in their house in Fire Island or somebody - a neighbor's house in Fire Island, they would bring it to John to fix. They didn't know how to hook up their stereo, John would hook it up. He was that guy.

And when he couldn't do it anymore, he felt sort of useless. So it was the combination of the two things. He did have friends that he loved. And his friends were almost a generation younger than him. So he wasn't losing them right and left. But going on without your partner, it's tough. Nobody wants that. But the people that are doing well in old age, I think, are able to distribute that to a bunch of people. They - your partner used to do everything for you. But now you find somebody who you like to talk to - about current events with. And there's somebody else, maybe, who's your friend you talk about books with. And, maybe, someone else - you go to the theater. Or you look at plants together. Or you just sit around and play Pinochle with - those are the people that I think do very well.

There's some people that will find another mate. One of the people in the study, Helen Moses, had met her husband in kindergarten. And they'd gotten together right away. And they were together until his death about 50 years after they got married. And she thought it was over for her. And she was in a nursing home. And she met a man named Howie. And they just took up together. And they were inseparable.

GROSS: Well, you watched Helen think through whether she wanted to get married or not to Howie, the man she met in the nursing home. And, you know, the cons were the kind of thing you mentioned, you know, that responsibility of caring for the person and the pain of it, the pain, you know, of losing somebody so close. But there's some pluses she saw to the possibility of marriage, too. What were those?

LELAND: Well, it would be they would get their own room together. They would have sex. She - Helen said, oh, you're never too old for sex. I'm not too old for anything. I think - Helen would say she's from the old school. She didn't believe in premarital sex. I - and I think part of that was just talk. I don't think she was that that interested in it but, maybe, more physical intimacy and going to bed with a man and waking up with that man. I think that was something she wasn't going to do without marriage.

So maybe that's it - that additional closeness that comes to couples when they get married, when they've made a formal tie to each other. But, you know, Helen's 93 now. So were she to get married, there's - the possibilities were really great that in this fairly short period of time, one would die on the other. And that's really hard to deal with.

GROSS: So did Helen and Howie ever get married?

LELAND: Helen and Howie are still not married. And I think Helen will often say that she wishes she could get married but I don't think she really does. I think she's got that perfect equilibrium where she is at the center of this love triangle involving her daughter and her partner. And she's the focus of both their attention. And she's able to focus her attention on both of them. And I think that's the best of all worlds for her.

GROSS: So Helen had told you that, you know, if they were married, they could have sex because she doesn't believe in premarital sex. And I'm wondering what sex means to her just in terms of its importance but also how she would define sex now if she would define sex differently than she used to. You described them spending time in bed together. They have separate rooms in the nursing home, but they'd watch TV together in the same bed. And then, you know, one of them would leave and return to their room. So I'm just wondering what - if this isn't too forward to ask - what level of physical intimacy they have with each other or what level they - she wishes that they had?

LELAND: Well, Helen would open that door. And when I would try to walk into it, she would close it down.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LELAND: Helen would say, I'm from the old school.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LELAND: You're asking very personal questions. Tell us about you and your girlfriend.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LELAND: No, I'm not going that way with you, Helen, either. But - so I don't know. I would imagine that sex involves a certain making yourself vulnerable that sitting in the bed together and watching TV together doesn't quite do. But that's really me projecting myself onto it. So I'm not sure what she meant by that.

GROSS: My guest is John Leland, author of the new book "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old." We'll talk more after a break. And we'll remember science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin, who died Monday at age 88. We'll listen back to my 1989 interview with Le Guin. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Leland. We're talking about the yearlong series he wrote for The New York Times about old age. He profiled six people over the age of 85, learning about what their day-to-day lives were like, what they wanted out of relationships, what were the times they wanted to die and what made them happy to see another day. His new book, which is about that series and is also about his relationship with his mother who is now 89, is called "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old."

I think it was the person who's a World War II veteran and retired civil servant who said that he just couldn't fathom that no one else he knew remembered World War II or the Depression. And it just made me think about, how at a certain age when you've outlived everybody you know and when the people who you do know are younger, how easy it would be to feel like you're from a different world than they are, that your baseline is different. Your set points are different. Your whole frame of reference is different. And that maybe there's not really a place for you anymore in the world as it exists.

LELAND: Well, I think that's a great point. And a lot of people feel left behind by technology. The smartphones are beautiful things but not if your hand shakes. You know, if you have a slight tremor in your fingers, that device becomes, you know, just a brick in your hand. And it's useless. And so a lot of people felt left behind by that. And like for most of human history, we could turn to these elders for wisdom because they knew about what it meant when that cloud structure came or when the animals would migrate. And that kind of knowledge, we have Google for that now. So people felt left behind by technology. And John Sorensen was the man who said he couldn't imagine that people didn't know - didn't remember World War II or the Depression. And John is a 90-plus gay man. So they had - his generation of men had had a particular, you know, devastation in the '80s and '90s.

GROSS: Right, so he lost a lot of his cohort to the AIDS epidemic.


GROSS: Yeah, so you write about a time when you were in Iraq on assignment, and your mother had surgery. She was in very bad shape. And you and your brother, who at the time was living in North Carolina, had to make the decision about whether to allow the hospital to give her a feeding tube. And it was a very hard conversation because you were talking to your brother like from Iraq (laughter) like on a really bad line. So did she have a DNR at the time?

LELAND: Yes, she did. And my brother was able to get me a copy of it. I don't think I had it. And we read it together the best we could over these - the lines were always like - there were cell phones from Iraq. And they were always hanging up on each other. And - or one of us could hear the other and not the other way around. So it was no way to decide the life or death of your parent. But we soldiered through. And the DNR said if she were ever to be in a persistent vegetative state or have no quality of life, then we weren't supposed to perform - take our own measures.

And this didn't - those - that didn't apply to the circumstance at hand. This was more like - you know, we compared it to putting out a fire if the drapes caught fire. You know, this was a temporary thing that would allow her to go back to the life she had before. And the life that she had before had things in it. She went to the Philharmonic. She had friends she ate dinner with. So we didn't think that that was a life that had no quality to it. So we authorized the feeding tube. And she will, every so often, mention that she wished we hadn't.

GROSS: How seriously do you take that?

LELAND: My mother loves her kids, so she wouldn't lay that on us so hard. But I think maybe it's something she hangs on to - this idea that she could have gone. And she got cheated out of that. Or later on when she had pneumonia, she said she was thinking about, you know, just how easy it would be to drift away. And somebody in the early annals of medicine had called pneumonia the patient's friend because it takes you away fairly painlessly. So I think it's - I take a little bit seriously.

And at the end of my year with the elders, my mother had a heart attack, and she thought this was it for her. I think she thought it was it for her. And she was so at peace that it was really easy to accept, OK. You know, she said, you know, if I die, this is the minister I want to perform the ceremony. And you should check his website. He writes about jazz and sermons, and you'd like it. And she was completely comfortable. And then when she started to recover, and it was clear she was going to make it, you know, she got to be that person who's been in the hospital too many days. And they're irritable that the food didn't come, and they just get that sort of hospital-itis (ph).

GROSS: (Laughter) I like that word.

LELAND: My younger brother had been in North Carolina during the beginning of this. And so I'd been on my own. And then, you know, he and I would compare notes about the woman we saw. And my mother was the - the woman I'd been with had been like, you know, completely at peace and accepting of the situation. And the woman that he was with was, you know, grumpy and ready to go home as people are after a couple of days in the hospital. And it was just funny to compare notes like that.

GROSS: You know, I'm thinking with the feeding tube that you were going to inevitably feel guilty either way. If you deny the feeding tube, and your mother died, that's guilt - you know, guilt and uncertainty that probably would have followed you for a very long time. But you went through with the feeding tube, and your mother made you feel guilty for not letting her go. So you were in a tough situation - guilt on either side of that one.

LELAND: Yeah, and if it happened today, I think I understand my mother and her wish to die a little better than I did before. And I might decide the other way.

GROSS: Seriously? Tell me more why.

LELAND: Because it's something that she's expressed in sober terms for a long period of time. And because of my experience with John Sorenson - again, watching it in a detached way that you can with somebody who's not a relative. And I was quite fond of John, so it wasn't completely detached. But it was not the same as with my mother. And when John went into the nursing home towards the end of his life, and he had basically stopped eating - he was starving himself to death - I knew that this was what John wanted. He was like a singer who'd been on stage long enough and was out of material, and he was just ready to go. So I wasn't - it was hard to even feel sad when he was dying. You know, I liked him a lot. And I miss him, but I don't wish he had lived another month or another week.

I do know that he spent those last days listening to arias that he loved and just saying thank you to anyone who spent time with them. And I was there with him on one of his last days. And he was in a lot of pain, and he hated the physical therapy because, you know, it was just bringing more pain. But he saw that physical therapist, and the physical therapist said, I'll be back again tomorrow. And John said, I look forward to this already. And it's just remarkable to me. So I think I'm more capable of letting go of my mother when the time comes.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us my guest is New York Times reporter John Leland. He's the author of the new book "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New York Times reporter John Leland, who's the author of the new book "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old." And it's based on a year of profiling six people over the age of 85 in New York City. This is for a series for The New York Times. And it's also about his mother who was in her late 80s when he was writing the book. She's 89 now.

One of the things you got to observe is the infrastructure for older people whether it's the nursing home or the home health care aide or the family that lives close by. I don't know if there was like Meals on Wheels kinds of things involved in what you observed. But standing back and looking at the different versions of the infrastructure for the aging that you came across, what are some of the things you'd really like to see that you weren't seeing enough of?

LELAND: That's a great question. I think what people do really well in is when there's possibilities for interaction and closeness and making decisions in their own lives. I didn't have an experience with writing about anyone who was in a bad nursing home. There are a lot of bad nursing homes where there's just not enough staff, and people are confined to their beds for long periods of time. So that's really bad.

But even in the good nursing homes, the residents there often aren't making decisions of what sort of life they want, what kind of activities they want, what kind of interactions they want, what they want to eat, when they can eat. And I think that's something that as the baby-boom generation gets into that slightly more dependent state, they're not going to accept being told, well, OK, Terry, you eat at table nine at 8:30. I think we'll want something where we have all the supports that people need - or that we need, but we want more individual decision-making.

GROSS: Do you have a DNR? I know your mother has one.

LELAND: Oh, I'm so terrible with record keeping. I did finally make a will. But a DNR is slightly beyond me.

GROSS: Have you thought about if you do get around to making one, what you'd want in it because I think they're getting more and more detailed as time goes on.

LELAND: I think so. And there's an interesting thing. They're starting to do sort of a cognitive breakdown or a dementia DNR to make decisions about how far is too far.

GROSS: I just was just reading about that in your newspaper.

LELAND: Yeah, a great article by Paula Span - I think it was wonderful. But there was a study by the British Psychiatric Association of people with Alzheimer's. And they asked them about their quality of life. And they asked their - I think it was their health proxies, which is typically their kids, about their parents' quality of life. And all the time, people with the dementia rated their quality of life much higher than their kids did. And even as the disease advanced, the people with it still rated their quality of life as high, whereas the kids thought their quality of life was getting lower and lower and lower.

So they still had cognitive challenges - you know, things that challenged their minds. And they still had people that would come to see them. So it raises questions about advance directives because if a certain level of dementia looks like a life that's not worth living to you now, but when you're in it, there's the possibility that it won't look like that at all to you. So it makes that kind of complicated. And the British study was very, very small. So it's not conclusive in any way, but I think it's really fascinating.

GROSS: Yeah, so that leads to this question. Has the line shifted for you for when you think you'd want to die - at what point you think life would no longer be worth living if it ever comes to that point. And what I mean by that is it's often not a choice. You're just - you're dead (laughter). It's not always that kind of slow process, yeah.

LELAND: I think if we think of old age as another country, I've become less confident in the ability of the people who have never visited this country to make life and death decisions about it. In other words, some day I'm going to be there. And I can make this decision now about what constitutes a life worth living. But the way I look at it in 20 years or 10 years might be entirely different. There was an essay a couple of years ago by Ezekiel Emanuel, who's an oncologist and was one of the architects of the Affordable Care Act. And it was that - it ran under the headline something like "Why I Want To Die At 75." And it didn't quite mean that. It was about why he didn't want extraordinary measures or life-prolonging measures after he was 75. And those included like flu vaccine - flu shots or vaccines.

But he felt that, boy, everything after 75 was the far side of the slope. And if I set this directive now, I'll live more fully in the lives - in the years I have before that. Now I agree with the second part of that - that if you knew when you were going to go, you would live more fully in the time you have now. I just don't think there's anything stopping us from doing that. But I do think when he gets to be 75, he might think about that question a lot differently. And he might want that flu shot.

GROSS: Yeah, right. So what are some of the examples of ageism that you see around you that really irritate you the most?

LELAND: Oh. I think that every person over a certain age can tell you that they hate being called sweetie or hun or dear. Oh, Terry, you're 80 years young.

GROSS: Oh - the years young thing. Yeah.

LELAND: No, I am not years young. I am years old. And the daughter of Ruth Willig, who's the woman who had to move out of her assisted living facility - and her daughter is kind of a very forceful woman. She would be out with her mother and someone would say, oh, your mother is so cute. And she would say, my mother is not cute. You know, my mother went to college during the war and became a microbiologist. My mother is tough. She - and she raised four kids. And she went through the depression. And she is not cute. She's smart. She's loving. She's wonderful, but she's not cute. So that's the kind of ageism that could just really stick in your craw.

GROSS: There's something, like, so unbearably patronizing and condescending about that as if being older and even being - you know, having lost certain functions is an embarrassment that has to be, kind of, covered up with these meaningless things that - meaningless terms posing as terms of endearment but are really terms of condescension.

LELAND: Oh, yeah because you're in the position to call that older person dear. You know, that's setting up a relationship between you guys that you're not equal and they're grateful to be - to have you call them dear or hide that they're old by calling them 101 years young. You know, it's - it would be so offensive, I think, to any of us.

GROSS: People, but I think especially women, were always uncomfortable saying what their age was because it was supposed to be both embarrassing and a sign of your pending uselessness if you told your real age, right? And now, hopefully, that's changing. But with the Internet, if you have any kind of profile, someone wants to know how old you are - you go on the Internet. You find out. There's no hiding it.

LELAND: You know, as a newspaper reporter, I'm always asking people their age. And often, that gets - a lot of women don't want to say their age. But I found two groups of women who said that right away. And one was women in China. When I was reporting in China, I asked them their age, they're like, 34. And the other is people over the age of about 80 or so who will say, in March, I'll be 93. So they're not only telling you their age, but they're adding a little bit of time to it.

GROSS: Right. OK. John Leland, thank you so much. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you.

LELAND: Thank you.

GROSS: John Leland's new book is called "Happiness Is A Choice You Make: Lessons From A Year Among The Oldest Old." After a break, we'll listen back to my 1989 interview with science fiction and fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin. She died Monday at age 88. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSETTE EXPLOSION'S "DOUCE JOIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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