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Reporter John Leland on the lessons he's learned from spending time with the very old

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Back in 2015, John Leland, a reporter for The New York Times, set out on a mission. He was going to follow six New Yorkers over the age of 85 and chronicle their lives and thoughts in old age. One of them was Ruth Willig, a retired microbiologist and mother of four.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUTH WILLIG: I'm Ruth Willig. I turned 94...

KELLY: Leland recorded a lot of his conversations over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LELAND: And what keeps you going, Ruth?

WILLIG: What keeps me going? Well, I love my plants. I love watching them bloom and taking care of them. And I like to read. I do the puzzles as much as I can. And I walk around on my own two feet. What else can I say?

LELAND: You're a feisty lady.

WILLIG: I guess I'm a feisty lady. They tell me that (laughter). They tell me that.

KELLY: Ruth died on Christmas Eve. She was 98 and the last of the original six people who John Leland was following. And so his series has come to an end. He joins us now to talk about what he learned.

John Leland, welcome.

LELAND: Oh, thank you.

KELLY: I want to stay with Ruth - that lovely moment we just heard of her talking about loving watching her plants bloom. I loved learning that since you began this series, she had become a great-grandmother. She'd found a new best friend. She was still having adventures, still living life. It felt like such a powerful example that every day, no matter how old we are, no matter how young we are, we get a fresh shot.

LELAND: It's the most obvious thing in the world, right? There's still 24 hours in a day, whether you're 17 or 87 or 97. And I needed these elders to kind of show me that. And they were all 85 and up by the time I met them, and I got to see that their lives were completely full, as much as mine was, you know, in their old age as well.

KELLY: Wow. In your last article for this series, you write, and I want to quote, "for almost seven years, Ruth and the other elders have served as correspondents from a country that most of us have not traveled in, though many will." It's interesting to think of that, to think of old age as a kind of foreign country. But it is for many of us - right? - because we so rarely talk about it.

LELAND: Yeah. I'm not the one who came up with that idea, of it as a foreign country. But it's really true. If someone had traveled to wild, exotic places of the Earth, we would want to know what it was like. What did they learn? How did it change their lives? And yet, with aging, we don't seem to ask these questions because we think we know what it's going to be like, and we don't really like the answer.

KELLY: Your original plan, I gather, was you were going to follow all these people for one year and then move on. What changed?

LELAND: I don't know. One of my colleagues in the early part of it said, you should follow everyone to the end of their lives. And I said I couldn't possibly do that. It would be too depressing. But what happened was when I finished the year, I found there was something missing from my life. And I didn't really understand that because I'm a journalist. I move on from assignments all the time.

But I really missed them, and I wanted to stay in touch with them personally and also professionally. And things kept happening in their lives. They had more children. One of them was publishing books. They didn't have more children, but they...

KELLY: OK. I was about to say. Wow. (Laughter) OK, that's quite a life.

LELAND: They were active, but not that active.

KELLY: (Laughter).

LELAND: They were still living their lives. Some would be publishing books. Some would have a new great-grandchild. Some would invite me over for Thanksgiving. And one of the central ideas that I'd gotten from them was absolutely this. Those days still have value, and there's still new experiences to have at that age. And so I just kept following them.

KELLY: You're making me think of comments from another member of the group who I want to introduce here. This is Ping Wong. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PING WONG: I'm almost 90 years old. And I'm happy to have the whole family with me today. And the weather good for us, so take pictures (laughter).

KELLY: John, what did she and others have to say about happiness, about joy?

LELAND: They all had a different formula for it. What they had in common was it meant spending as much of your time and energy as possible doing things that had some kind of meaning for you. And one of the things we saw was that they spent less time than a lot of younger people I know doing the things that made them unhappy and more of their time and energy on doing the things that were satisfying or made them more content in their lives.

KELLY: Which seems so very obvious. It makes you wonder why those of us who are young or in middle age haven't figured it out.

LELAND: You know, we - you heard Ruth earlier talk about her plants and how much satisfaction she could get from her plants.

KELLY: I want to bring in the voice of one more person you talked to. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONAS MEKAS: So here I am. My name is Jonas Mekas. I am 95 - yes, 95. But I feel most of the time like I am somewhere around 27 in my mind. And in my body, when I sort of look into myself, I feel like more like - believe me or not, I feel like 65 or somewhere there. I don't feel like 95 at all.

KELLY: I love that. He feels like a spring chicken at 95. But it does prompt me to wonder, did you ask them about what they fear, about what's coming, about death?

LELAND: I asked probably each of them several times over the course of the first year and those that lived for a longer time over the years that came. And almost to a person, they were not afraid of death. And several of them used the exact same words. They said, when you're dead, you're dead. They were afraid of dying and how they might die. They were worried about a long, protracted, painful death. Some talked about - used the word that they didn't want to become a burden to their relatives.

KELLY: Yeah. Have you changed your daily life in any way after this project, after these conversations?

LELAND: You know, I learned so much from them. And I tended to be kind of a grumposaurus (ph). And I realized that, you know, that was not the best way for me to live. I could do some of the things that they did. I could be more deliberate about expressing gratitude, which is one of the things

I learned from them. I could put more stock in my very near commonplace relationships. I could do so many things differently. And I could give up that fear of getting old and also of dying. And without those fears, some of my other fears kind of seemed insignificant.

KELLY: Wow. You just mentioned gratitude. And I guess I want to finish by circling back to Ruth. Speaking was hard for her at the very end. And her final words were to her nurse, and they were thank you. What did you learn about gratitude from these people?

LELAND: That it was one of the keys to a better life. There was a man, Fred Jones, who lived not too far from Ruth, who had a really, really hard life. And I asked him what was his favorite part of the day. And he said it's waking up in the morning and saying, thank God for another day.

KELLY: Well, I will say thanks to you, John Leland. Thank you.

LELAND: Thanks so much.

KELLY: John Leland of The New York Times - his series, 85 And Up, ran for seven years and ended this month with an article titled "Notes From The End Of A Very Long Life."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Justine Kenin