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Aging lessons: The things that let you thrive in old age are easier than you think

83-year-old Sylvia Lask is featured in "Exceeding Expectations," a project by Columbia University that followed the lives of 20 elderly New Yorkers. (Video: Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center)

In good weather, Sylvia Lask logs thousands of steps a day on her Fitbit as she pushes down New York City sidewalks with her walker. As frequently as once a week, she heads to Albany, walker and all, to lobby state government officials about mental-health issues.

Florence Lee drives in to Manhattan on her own from Queens on Thursday nights during the New York Philharmonic’s season for performances of the vaunted orchestra. Larry White still travels around New York State, as he has for the past 10 years, to help prison inmates manage long sentences.

What makes Lask, Lee and White particularly notable is that all of them have found a way to forge active lives past 81, the average life expectancy for someone living in New York City. And because of that, they are featured in a series of narratives, photos and videos showing “that older people have goals, they have lives that are dynamic,” says Dorian Block, director of the Exceeding Expectations project at the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia University. “You can be the person you’ve always been.”

This promotional trailer introduces "Exceeding Expectations," a project by Columbia University that follows the lives of 20 New Yorkers in their 80s. (Video: Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center)

Through social workers, friends of friends and neighbors, the center tracked down 20 older New Yorkers living active lives — a mixture of rich, poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian — and followed them through their daily routines from 2015 to 2017.

New York City is a unique place to live and age. The city that never sleeps has a wealth of aspects that eases life for the elderly: food delivery, micro neighborhoods, endless cultural entertainment, an abundance of senior centers and parks, and easily accessible medical care. And there’s no need to drive: The city is connected by a vast transportation system, so that even those who might not be able to manage stairs to the subway can take the bus or use the Access-A-Ride service for disabled passengers. In addition, taxis and taxi alternatives such as Lyft and Uber are plentiful.

Even with its focus on New York, the Columbia project has provided lessons about aging that apply to anyone. Among them:

1. Have a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning. Take the example of Lask, who is 84. “If you do nothing, you’re going to sit and rock, and your life has no meaning after that,” says Lask, who still works part time as a psychiatric counselor at a mental-health clinic in the Bronx. “It doesn’t mean because you’ve reached a certain age that you have to stop!”

Lask is vice chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, and she lobbies in Albany, the state capital, for mental-health legislation. She recently helped to get a law passed to include mental health in the curriculum for the state’s public middle schools. “If I do nothing else and we’ve saved one life in this bill, it will be worth all the trips to Albany,” Lask says.She has been taking the train to Albany so frequently that some fellow residents in her apartment building think she has moved, which is the main reason she shows up to play bingo with them once a week.

2. Celebrate and cultivate the social connections. Sandy and Art Robbins, 83 and 89, live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in an apartment that serves as headquarters for her theater company, rooms for her husband’s art therapy clients, and the location of many a Passover dinner for members of their extended family.

Lee, 83, a retired teacher who moved to Queens about 14 years ago after living for many years farther east on Long Island, plans to stay put in the city. “I’ll never move” to a seniors-only community with “no young voices, no people going to work,” she says. Aurea Texidor, 88, has such a network of friends at her local senior center that she has accumulated a collection of hats these friends have knitted for her. Hank Blum, 88, spends hours in his Upper East Side neighborhood chatting with his doorman, his banker, his pharmacist and the wait staff at his regular restaurants.

3. Do not be defined by your obstacles. Jacquie Murdock, 87, a former professional dancer, is blind and was recently given a cancer diagnosis. But she’s such a fashionista that she was profiled by a popular blog, Advanced Style, which celebrates fashion for older people, and she is sometimes recognized on the street because of that. Until her illness slowed her down, she regularly took the subway around the city and participated in dance classes for senior citizens.

“Some people live with health and other challenges as the main plot of their lives,” says Columbia’s Block. “For so many other people, it’s just the background.”

Luis Cajigas, for instance, an Exceeding Expectations participant who recently passed away at age 87, once decorated a cart for a Three Kings Day parade, an enormous winter celebration held each year by the Puerto Rican community in East Harlem, and rode it in a snowstorm to get there, even though he struggled with heart failure.

4. Money isn’t as important as you might think. Block says the New Yorkers who had the basics of a safe roof over their heads and enough to eat seemed content with their lives, even though some of them are barely scraping by.

“Something that was very surprising to me was that people’s levels of satisfaction with their life and their daily routines were not affected by their class and income level,” he says. Some of the people in the project who had the least income had some of the richest views of life. For instance, Rosa Mendoza, 88, a Cuban immigrant who gets by on her $1,200 monthly income from Social Security — while paying a rent of $800 — treats herself to ice cream when she has a little extra. And even though she recently lost her husband, she finds joy in making jokes, singing in her church choir and keeping up with family and friends,

5. Acknowledge that aging can be lonely. Most of the participants had lost old friends and relatives, Block says, and tell her, “I don’t have peers anymore.” Many “felt very alone in their experience of aging,” she said.

Larry White, an 83-year-old resident of Harlem who spent 32 years in prison, says the men who had served time with him and remained his friends are now gone. With no living relatives, he describes himself as a loner.

Other participants say that friends who used to travel with them or talk to them daily on the phone have passed on, and that has been isolating. The lack of conversation about aging in the culture at large also contributes to the feeling that “there’s no one left for them to talk to,” Block says, adding that this makes other social connections even more essential.

6. Have a routine. Lee says that in addition to her Thursdays at the Philharmonic, she sets aside Tuesdays for doctor visits, Wednesdays for her hairdresser in her former home town about 50 miles out on Long Island, and Fridays for yoga. Block says that most of the participants are “secure in their routine,” which shows that they know what matters to them.

7. Location is important. Even though many older New Yorkers qualify for subsidized senior housing, the city’s lottery system for that housing can mean that they are placed in a new apartment in a borough or a neighborhood far from their original home. For Jin-Fu Lu, 83, an immigrant from China, that means traveling six miles across Brooklyn to attend a community center in Sunset Park, where he and his wife had previously lived, because it caters to the Chinese community. “It shows how important place is,” Block says.

8. Death has no dominion. Nearly every person in the project, Block says, has no fear of death and no hesitation about talking about the end. “Younger people are scared to talk about dying,” she says. “It’s such a reality for people in their 80s.” Many of them told her that they had lived a full life and were ready to go, she says. Murdock even brought out the dress she wanted to be buried in.

One of the biggest takeaways from the Columbia study is the evidence that aging — even with the inevitable losses and restrictions — doesn’t have to be dismal. In fact, removed from the daily hustle to work, life in the last decades can be a time to savor living.

“Science — and our own experience — tells us that ageism begins with our own perceptions of aging,” Block says. “Every time we tell ourselves that we’re too old, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

In other words, if we buy into the idea that old people are automatically diminished, we make assumptions about their — and our — limitations that might not be true.

Many people think about the financial implications of retiring and recognize that they might have health problems at the end of their lives, but beyond that they haven’t worked out a plan for what might be decades of living once they are retired. “Being willing to try new things — that’s what keeps their spark going,” Block says of the 20 successful agers in the project.

Block adds the study helped her to realize just how much everyone wants to be heard. “If you ask people about their lives and stories and motivations,” she says, “it brings out the best in them. We don’t have a ritual to allow people to share their stories and to feel validated.”

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