As Francis marks a decade as pope, what does it mean to be 86?

Pope Francis, who on Monday hits 10 years since his election, arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 8. (Andrew Medichini/AP)
11 min

NOVARA, Italy — Stefano Spaini woke up on his birthday, his dog bounding onto the bed, feeling pretty good overall, but still noticing the signs of his age. His phone still buzzed with calls from friends — just not as many. He needed pills for his heart, his blood pressure, his cholesterol. Recently, he’d seen evidence of decline even in his fingertips, as he fumbled with his shirt buttons, sometimes unable to feel them.

“Eighty-six,” Spaini’s wife, Luciana, said when he walked into the kitchen.

“I’m still here,” he said.

Eighty-six. For most of us, it’s an age beyond the realm of what we’ll ever experience.

Several advanced countries have average life expectancies of 85; nowhere does the average person live to 86. And in many poorer parts of the world — places with food shortages, wars, meager health care — reaching 86 requires such a constellation of fortune as to almost feel mystical.

Eighty-six is the age of people who lived their childhoods without television. It is the age of people who remember World War II. It is the age of actors Robert Redford and Vanessa Redgrave, novelist Don DeLillo and Apollo engineer Margaret Hamilton. It is the would-be age of the late John McCain, Wilt Chamberlain and Yves Saint Laurent. It is the age President Biden would be at the end of a possible second term.

It is the age of Pope Francis.

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The pope, who on Monday hits the 10-year mark in his pontificate, shows the potential of life at 86 in the modern world. He travels to conflict-torn countries, gives speeches to full stadiums and recently said he feels no reason to give up the job anytime soon.

But 86 can be fragile, unforgiving. Francis has had to significantly slow his pace. He has persistent knee pain and requires a wheelchair. He takes a daily nap.

Pope Francis on March 13 marks ten years in his pontificate. (Video: TWP)

The hardest thing about this age, many 86-year-olds say, is not knowing much time you have left. The U.S. actuarial tables say five, six years on average. But about 8 percent don’t even make it to 87. Only half make it to 91. In Italy, one of the grayest societies on earth, fewer than in 1 in 30 people are 86 or older.

“At this age, you don’t know if you’ll be alive in five years,” said Luigi Guantario, 86, who once worked for Italy’s space agency, and said he’d always lived with goals, only now they are short-term. Maintaining friendships. Continuing to drive. Remaining active, some days reaching 10,000 steps by noon. He says he can imagine a similar dynamic at play for the pope, though on a grander scale.

“The commitments he has as pope are helping to keep him alive,” Guantario said.

Francis’s election 10 years ago broke new ground in so many ways — he was the first Jesuit pope, the first Latin American pope. A decade later, “the oldest” is invoked more frequently than “the first.” Only three other popes over the past 500 years have reached age 86 on the job.

Like many 86-year-olds, Francis’s activities are often assessed in the context of his age. No longer is he just the pope traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo; he is the 86-year-old pope. Across the church, bishops a full decade younger are being ushered by rule into retirement. On his trips, in his meetings, Francis is now almost always the oldest person in the room. And whatever doubts come about his capabilities, they are invariably generated by those who are younger.

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As Francis has gotten older, he has talked a lot about this stage of life, though rarely in personal terms. Last year, he devoted several speeches to the “meaning and value of old age,” decrying how the elderly are often seen as a “burden,” and making a case for the value they have to offer — through wisdom, and even through their slow pace, an antidote to the pressures facing the young.

“Old age is a gift,” Francis said.

Never before, he said, has the planet had so many old people.

How they are treated, and perceived, “is one of the most urgent issues facing the human family at this time,” he said.

The many versions of 86

As 86-year-olds tell it, old age can be lonely, amazing, a time of letting go, a time of fighting to hang on. It can also be scary. It’s hard to think about mortality. It’s hard to consider all the things that might come before death: lost faculties, lost independence. It’s hard to feel vulnerable.

“You cannot deny that [death] is threatening,” said Father Franco Imoda, 86, a Jesuit priest who still leads the board of education at a Rome high school.

“I’m afraid of it,” said Nadia Gindy, 86, a retired English professor in Cairo. She dropped her voice as if to share a secret: The young presume the very old come to terms naturally with the end, but it doesn’t necessarily work like that. She has grandchildren to be with, she said. Theater shows and operas to attend. An apartment in London to visit. And so many things standing in the way of acceptance.

“I’m not reconciled,” she said.

The threat of decline is so built into the experience that some 86-year-olds devote their powers to maintaining what they have.

On the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Koichi Miura bats leadoff on an all-80s baseball team and keeps up the regimen of an athlete: running, no smoking, only a little drinking.

In Athens, Loucas Christophorou, a nuclear scientist, is writing his 39th book while maintaining an active position in Greece’s national research academy and — like many scientists and academics — says he plans to work until the “very end.”

In northeastern Nigeria, Shuaibu Mohammed — married three times, including now to a 30-year-old — still works as a carpenter, helping to support a sprawling family that includes the youngest of his 28 children, age 5.

Even at 86, he said, anything is possible, with good fortune and a good diet.

But 86 can also be painful.

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Angela Gatto, a former schoolteacher, lives in a nursing home one hour outside Rome — and says she feels “terror” at the idea of living longer.

The meaningful part of her life has already happened, she said, and there’s not much left for her now. Her brother, with whom she was so close, recently died. She used to devour books, but now her eyes are too bad. She doesn’t watch TV. She doesn’t feel compelled to socialize. Her main preoccupation — sitting in a room one morning with eight other elderly, mostly silent women — is her memories.

She replays in her mind the experience of being a girl in Tuscany during World War II, of taking shelter in an abandoned country house during a bombardment and huddling there long enough to fall asleep. She recalls being awakened by a horrible boom and seeing the ceiling blown off and debris everywhere, and realizing that two classmates were dead.

“The headmaster was clutching her hair and screaming at the top of her lungs,” Gatto said.

She told the story slowly, over an hour, hitting certain details and then rewinding, repeating the same sentences again and again — the missing ceiling, the girls.

“The headmaster was clutching her hair and screaming at the top of her lungs,” Gatto said once more.

Gatto only broke away from the story if pressed. In a morning of talking, she expressed only one opinion about the present tense, regarding the man pictured on a wall calendar in the nursing home. Pope Francis.

“He’s better than the other popes,” Gatto said. “Very likable.”

Deciding when to let go

The luckiest of the active 86-year-olds get to choose how and when they wind down. It’s never easy. Pope Francis long ago predicted that his own tenure would be “short,” somewhere between two and five years; it hasn’t been. He has indicated several times that he would be “open” to retirement, following the precedent of Pope Benedict XVI, were his health to worsen. But he insisted last month that stepping down wasn’t on his mind. He said he believed the pope’s ministry is “ad v itam.” For life.

Pope Francis says ‘door is open’ to eventual retirement as he slows pace

In the faintest of ways, Stefano Spaini is like Pope Francis. He’s a leader trying to figure out how much longer he can keep going.

In his fertile flatland outside of Milan, Spaini heads the local chapter of 50&più, a social group for older Italians, and his 86th birthday happened to coincide with a big event, a lunch he’d helped organize for 88 people. He arrived at the private room of a restaurant carrying a briefcase with diagrams and seating charts. He greeted almost every person, touching them on the wrist, giving hugs, gesturing them to their seat.

“Presidente,” one friend said in greeting.

“You are sitting here,” Spaini guided.

For much of his life, he considered himself skilled above all at facilitating a good time. He never had children, so he devoted himself to his wife and doted on his godchildren. He was a serial joiner, with a spot on nearly every local committee, every association, every sports club. He built a career as a wine salesman, taking pride in the notion that any event he organized, including this lunch, would have good bottles on the table.

Even after a health scare two years ago, his daily routines haven’t changed much into his late 80s. He drinks two glasses of wine for lunch. Another two for dinner. He keeps in good enough shape to walk the dog.

But recently, he also noticed himself settling into a new stage: of letting go.

He dropped out of some of the associations. At his wife’s urging, he started throwing away a lifetime of paperwork. He even gave away his soccer cleats, acknowledging at last that he’d never use them again.

Then came the lunch event, and after working the room, feeling buoyant, he took for himself the most inconspicuous seat possible: in the farthest back corner. He told almost nobody it was his birthday.

But this was not a crowd that would let something like that pass without notice.

As lunch wound down, the emcee — a singer with a spunky bob of dyed hair — dragged Spaini to the stage. She played the moment for drama, mic in hand, telling 87 other elderly Italians that they were witnessing a special moment, that their local chapter director was born on this very date some unnamed number of years ago.

“How old is he?” somebody interrupted.

“We’re not supposed to say,” the singer said.

Spaini took the mic.

“I think I’m the oldest of you all, here, quite likely,” he said. “I’m 86.”

The crowd gave him a huge applause. Spaini glowed. The emcee reassured him that he was still a “young dude.” Spaini started heading back to his table, but the emcee pulled him back, not letting him go just yet, cuing the music, and as some old couples took to the dance floor, others lined up to hug Spaini and kiss him. He started to cry. You only get such a reception, he said later, if a life is well-lived.

“In that moment, 60 to 70 years of life, of work, passed quickly by, as if it were a vision,” he said.

He was emotional, too, he confided, because the presidency was one more thing he was letting go of. His plan, he said, was to step aside next year; a successor was already identified. He knew he could still have a hand in running things. But his standing would be different, no longer an 86-year-old current leader, but an 87-year-old former one.

“A pope emeritus,” he said.

Stefano Pitrelli in Novara, Elinda Labropoulou in Athens, Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo, Ismail Alfa in Maiduguri, Nigeria, Siobhán O’Grady in Cairo, and Cate Brown in Washington contributed to this report.