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What Do a Bunch of Old Jews Know About Living Forever?


Recalling this, Olive, who’s 39 and from the Philippines, starts to cry. “I didn’t know, when she asked me to live here eleven years ago, we would fall in love with each other.”

Happy wrings my arm. “In America … we have president … his wife … Mamie.”

She smiles triumphantly, then asks me to join her for lunch at Tao, the loud, expensive Asian restaurant down the street.

Klein brags to Cohen about his new hearing aid: “It’s the best one made— I now understand everything!”
“What kind is it?” Cohen asks.

Happy exemplifies one of Barzilai’s conclusions: that SuperAgers do not age differently from other people, just later. Much later. Many do eventually get hit by one of the big four, or by other catastrophic problems, but 30 years after the rest of the population. The average age at which American women have a first stroke is 72; Happy’s was at 105.

In the meantime, other ailments can take a greater toll than they normally get the chance to. Chief among these are vision and hearing problems, like the kind Irving and his brother, Peter, both have, and mobility problems associated with arthritis. (Irving considers it a triumph when he only has to wake his attendant once a night to go to the john.) Sometimes these relatively minor irritations can be sufficient to do you in. Their sister Leonore, a lifelong outdoorswoman and gardener who preferred that you call plants by their Latin names, was completely healthy when she tripped on a scatter rug in 2005 at age 101. She died a few weeks later.

But mostly such problems won’t kill you. Already, thanks to stents and pacemakers and bypass surgery, some people who, a generation ago, might have been dead at 75 are muddling through their eighties, albeit half-broken and medicated to the gills. Soon, if the promise of Barzilai’s studies is realized, you may muddle much longer, perhaps even to 122, which was the age at which Jeanne Calment—the longest-lived human who could prove it with a birth certificate—died in 1997.

If so, like the Kahns, your happiness may depend on habits of mind, chief among them flexibility, that you would need to have developed decades, or even a whole lifetime, earlier. And on having a determined family member or top-drawer companion to keep you safe from falls, telemarketers, lapses in hygiene, loneliness.

Will it be worth it? Or will it turn out to be an inversion of the classic joke, surely Ashkenazic, about the bad restaurant: The food is terrible—and such large portions!

I too am Ashkenazic, with longevity on both sides. My father’s father, like Irving Kahn, could not imagine retiring; he went to work on a Friday, shul on a Saturday, and died on a Sunday morning, at 89. (My father, now 85, works full time.) My mother’s mother, Anna, from the same part of “Poland-Russia” as Mamie Kahn, drove well into her nineties and only stopped, under duress, when she grew too short to be seen by cars behind her. People were alarmed by the driverless Chevy Nova wandering down the street; I called it the Flying Landsman.

Toward the end, Anna lost some of her short-term memory, though images of marauding Cossacks remained intact. She also, more generally, lost interest. One day, my mother said to her, “Mom, do you know that your birthday’s coming up?” Anna shrugged. “Do you know how old you’ll be?” Another shrug. “Mom, you’ll be 99!”

“Oy,” Anna said. “I feel like I’m 100.”

She didn’t quite make it and was glad. She had always told us that if she ever got sick, she wanted us to put her in a Hefty bag by the side of the road. My mother, on the other hand, made it clear she wanted to live as long as possible, with whatever artificial help was required. The sad irony is that each got what the other wanted. My grandmother lived far longer than her enjoyment of life could justify, though she was never sick. My mother, at only 71, faced with incurable leukemia after surviving colon cancer, changed her mind and asked me, as her health-care proxy, to authorize the removal of life support when the time came. It came quickly.

So when Barzilai says it’s a “good sign” that I look far younger than 53—arrant flattery—and suggests that I have my DNA checked for his various markers, I say yes but worry that I’ll come to regret it. Do I want to find out if I’m likelier to emulate my grandmother or my mother? And anyway, who got the better deal?

I describe the dilemma to each of the Kahns and ask whose wish, my mother’s or grandmother’s, matches their own. Irving sides with my mother’s, if not her outcome. “If you’re alive, you might yet find the answer to something,” he says. “The puzzle you couldn’t solve before. The capacity to enjoy learning is what matters.” Happy agrees; she can think of nothing that would make her not want to keep living.


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