On Living and Aging: The Voices of the Oldest Old

by Julie Pusztai

Hardly a day passed when I did not talk to someone growing old or someone with an aging parent, spouse, family member, or friend. This includes my own father, a member of that growing population age 85 and older—the oldest old. I wondered how they lived with all the changes and was eager to understand. Phenomenology, my doctoral research approach, provided a way to listen to them—to examine this most ordinary, yet extraordinary, experience of growing very, very old with its losses and gains, sadness and happiness, satisfaction and disappointment, and sense of meaning and purpose.

Phenomenology investigates the actual lived experience of a phenomenon by describing and interpreting narrative data. Thirteen people from 87 to 100 years old who represented diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and genders participated in my study. They shared their stories with me during three separate interviews that focused on their life history, typical day, and experiences of aging. Each approached these late years influenced by the unique context of their past, present, and envisioned future. All had their own tale to tell, and all shared with honesty.

Most people recognize the physical changes that occur as a result of living a very long life. When the body reaches oldest-old age, it speaks loudly. Caregivers must listen attentively to gauge the impact this has on the individual’s life and the person’s resulting daily challenges. Practical matters need attention and falls must be prevented. Slowness and fatigue persist, and living with pain may become the new normal. Losses of vision, hearing, and memory, even the ability to walk without assistance, usually lead to surrendering drivers’ licenses and the dreaded decrease of independence and increase of dependence. While all of these limitations produced significant, personal meaning, it was through listening and relistening to the narratives of these 13 people that I began discerning the hard work and intentionality used to prevent these challenges and changes from determining their attitudes. They walk on a tightrope, gripping their balance pole to remain hopeful and positive.

One factor that helps them maintain that balance is staying connected, largely through family. The narrators explained that they gained great satisfaction from strengthening family ties, discovering the trustworthiness of children, and feeling celebrated and important to others. And while most identified aspects of a satisfying life, some could not. A few respondents stated: “I can’t think of anything positive.” Such bleakness and discouragement signal a red flag to caregivers and loved ones to respond with support and encouragement.

Those who exhibited prevailing positivity, however, revealed a common pattern. Over the course of their very long, and at times difficult, lives, these oldest-old people developed vibrant habits of the heart and mind that inspired them to focus on the good and live with gratitude. One comment still rings in my ears: “What does it profit?” Without exception, these wise elders recognized that no good comes from dwelling on the challenges and changes that confronted them. Instead, “I like thinking of good things,” “I just go with the flow,” and “I choose to be positive” became lifelong practices. They consider themselves survivors, and they have a discipline that leads them to hope and positivity. As an 88-year-old woman expressed, “It’s a thing of learning . . . learning a new way of being and doing.” The themes of “I can” and “I cannot” in the aging experience take on deep and rich meaning when employed to understand the losses at that stage of life. This resulted in corresponding changes in the “I ams” and “I am nots” and the relinquishment of long-held notions of identity. In the face of this, we can recognize and support the resilience in these survivors and affirm new ways of being.

Very old age reminds us all of our mortality. These people in their ninth and tenth decades took advantage of today, knowing tomorrow cannot be taken for granted. This boundary speaks to them about what is meaningful, what matters, and where to channel their energy. Living in positive relationships provides the love, care, and source of purpose and meaning for being in the world. They serve as reminders of meaning that can get lost when one is weary, the days are long, and the walk on the tightrope seems especially arduous. Helping our aging loved ones work through losses and find purpose constitutes a foundation of support. While spending time with the oldest old, I had the pleasure to learn that on most days, they balance on that tightrope; they taught me the importance of not yoking our most senior seniors with the burden of aging “successfully.” Instead, we need to know such elders well, understand what aging means to them, and hold them close, knowing that we will most likely inherit their place and seek to do so with the same measure of grace and dignity we can learn from them.

Julie Pusztai, Ph.D., RN, is director of the Azusa Neighborhood Wellness Center and an assistant professor in the School of Nursing. jpusztai@apu.edu

Originally published in the Summer '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.