the longest lives

Our Fragile Gerontocracy

Old people have never been so powerful — or, now, so vulnerable.

Bill Streiber, 84, seeing his son through the window at the Solheim Senior Community in Los Angeles, California, on May 21, 2020. Photo: Art Streiber
Bill Streiber, 84, seeing his son through the window at the Solheim Senior Community in Los Angeles, California, on May 21, 2020. Photo: Art Streiber

Each day’s headlines jolt us with the same unnerving reality: There has never, in the history of the Republic, been a stranger time to be old. We live in a kind of gerontocracy that feels both accidental and deeply entrenched. Our best hope for unseating the about-to-turn-74-year-old in the White House, whose reign is propped up by a terrifyingly powerful cable network that serves as the plaything of an ultrarich 89-year-old, is a former vice-president who, at 77, won the Democratic nomination over a 78-year-old senator whom young people preferred during the primaries. If elected, he will, one hopes, work effectively with the 80-year-old speaker of the House or may, one worries, be thwarted by the truculent 78-year-old Senate majority leader. Until then, several crucial rights, including access to health care and abortion, may rest in the survival of an 87-year-old Supreme Court justice currently in somewhat fragile health (notwithstanding the fact that her endurance and physical strength have become the stuff of legend and of memes).

The futures of all Americans are largely in the hands of people who are entering, or well into, what one of my uncles used to call “the bonus round.” And yet the aged, at the height of their power and disinclined to relax their grip on it — just look at who votes — have also never been more vulnerable. What a horrific few months it has been — especially in New York and especially for the poor and the nonwhite. But this virus strikes the old with the most consistent lethality. Almost 60 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. were 75 or older. Almost 80 percent were age 65 or older. (Only 7 percent of deaths have been under 54.) Residents of nursing homes or assisted-living facilities have made up as many as half the fatalities in some areas of the country, and the reaction among many people, either by implication or outright declaration, has been, “See? That means most of us have nothing to worry about!”

In the last few months, the elderly population has become prey not only to a lethal pandemic but to the Hobbesian worldview of a group of death-cult politicians and their adherents who have felt free to air their conviction that hurrying Grandma and Grandpa to the end of the conveyor belt may be an acceptable price to pay for a revived economy, not to mention the indifference of a subset of the young and the middle-aged who really want to go out and play and are unconcerned with what they might spread while dunking the basketball in the park or sidewalk drinking. The medical conditions older Americans manage to live with every day are now airily discussed as “comorbidities” (in other words, they had it coming), the years they have amassed treated as so much demographic bad luck, the vulnerabilities that flesh is heir to dismissed as getting in the way of reopening the economy.

The resentment that churns just beneath the surface of all the urgent, let’s-get-moving-again platitudes about how nobody lives forever is not, of course, new. Every set of fresh arrivals in the workforce has felt, at some point, that older people are obstinately refusing to make room for them, their ideas, and their priorities (and, maybe, their raises). Today, there are more of those human blockades than ever: People live (and work) even longer, and the boomers — there are so, so many of them. The fury and fear of many younger progressives about a core political issue, the imminent destruction of the environment, is frequently shorthanded as cross-generational judgmentalism — “You and your wasted lifetimes of obsessive consumerism ruined the planet for us.” Many of them view older people as their categorical adversaries — remnants of a neglectful previous administration, in a way, who don’t even have the good grace to stop impeding progress. And young conservatives, of course, just say the quiet part loud. “You can call me a grandma killer,” chirped one in the course of a Twitter rant about how she was sick of the lockdown and wanted to go out to museums and restaurants and have fun.

The first time you say, comically, “Oh my God, I’m so old” probably comes in your 20s, when you realize that some pleasures are no longer so pleasurable, that hangovers now last past lunch, that some nights you just want to stay in, or that you just don’t understand what’s so interesting about whatever trending thing people just a few years younger than you can’t stop talking about. But that’s really just a way of asking the cosmos, “I’m not so old, am I?” By your late 30s, “I’m so old” contains a dawning awareness that adults a dozen years younger might hear you say that and think Yeah. In your 40s, you say it to others less and to the bathroom mirror more, as you register the gray hairs (or the absent hairs, or the unwanted hairs), or the vertical line between your eyebrows that has suddenly gone from a thing that happens when you’re worried to a permanent feature. In your 50s, you realize that “old” is not something that happens to you because you weren’t paying attention. It’s coming for you, or you for it.

Five years ago, I started research for a book that required me to interview dozens of people ranging from the old to the very, very old — say, 80 to 103. (It was a lucky break for me that I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which has become their natural habitat.) I assumed that the bulk of my work would be to pry open locked rooms and help them root around for cobwebbed memories that were trapped in long-unvisited mental attics. I was mostly wrong about that; in fact, I was wrong in almost all of my assumptions about the friendly strangers who would look through the peephole, then open their doors to me. Even the men and women I spoke to who suffered from serious infirmities were bracingly, intensely there. “I have what you need in here,” a woman in her 80s who was struggling to recover from a stroke told me, pointing to her head. “But” — her finger moved to her mouth — “you’ll have to help me get it out of here.” Another one, a tougher nut to crack, started our interview by saying, “I should warn you that the only things I can remember are the things I’m not going to tell you.” And a couple of men in their 90s were frank about living in the first stages of dementia. “Come see me anyway,” one said. “Sometimes I’m surprised by what I know.”

However, almost all of the older people I interviewed were fully functioning, eager and engaged citizens of the world, and many of them seemed to possess a power that the younger among us do not, an ability to toggle easily from you-are-there recollections of an often decades-distant past to full connection to that day’s news. More than that, they were interested. They laughed, they inquired after and gossiped about old colleagues, they asked almost as many questions as I did, they recommended people with whom I should cross-check their recollections, then requested to be told what they said, then followed up when I forgot to get back in touch. They would warn me in advance that their memory might fail them, but it almost never did, and when they snagged on a name or a title, they would happily accept a prompt or decline one. “Sometimes if I look up and wait for a few seconds,” one centenarian explained to me, “the name I’m looking for will float down from the sky and land in front of me as if it were a leaf falling from a tree.”

History vanishes every time we lose someone, but it asserts and clarifies and rewrites itself more clearly every time we talk to someone who’s lived it. It is one thing to read about V-E Day, but talk to an 85-year-old who can tell you where he was when the news broke, what it was like to hear it on the radio and then go to a movie theater to see the first newsreel footage, and it will come to life in a different way. The sweep of experience — from there, on to JFK and MLK and Vietnam and civil rights and the legalization of abortion and the rise of aids and the crack epidemic — is a national as well as a personal resource; sometimes it’s easy to forget that everything you have lived through is something someone older has lived through as well. And although the pandemic has taken far too many older people from us with cruel swiftness, it has also shown us what it looks like to be prepared.

Older people do not take for granted the ease of doing anything — they are people for whom a trip to the drugstore or the market or the laundry has always required the extra thought that the rest of us are now putting into it, people for whom fresh air in their lungs and a stroll of a few blocks on a sunny day have long felt like luxuries. “I miss the subway, and the ease of using stairs, and of walking,” said the playwright Terrence McNally, who fought lung cancer and COPD for years before dying of COVID on March 24. “In my condition, you learn that there is no such thing as a truly level sidewalk. Everything is either uphill going or uphill coming back.” People who are both fully connected to the lessons of the past and the realities of the moment — this cup of tea, this plate of cookies, this conversation, this hour, this day, this week — are, among other things, examples: They already know what the rest of us are now beginning to grasp. They have learned to struggle uphill. Some of them have had ten, 15, even 20 years to master being old.

On the evening of April 26, dozens of theater artists gathered — in spirit if not in body — for Take Me to the World, a streaming concert tribute to Stephen Sondheim on the occasion (actually, five weeks late, but it’s been a rough spring) of his 90th birthday. As the show reached its diva-saturated climax — with Patti and Bernadette and Meryl, Audra and Christine, getting drunk in white bathrobes — some fans wondered who would be granted what felt like the song of the moment: “I’m Still Here,” a former showgirl’s recap of her life’s ups and downs that has, in the half-century since it was introduced in Sondheim’s Follies, become an anthem of wry, exhausted endurance. The answer: Everyone. Led by 11-year-old Iain Armitage, the number became a collective Zoom chorale, a testament to proud persistence that served as the show’s exit music. Many of the singers were not yet born when Follies opened.

But “I’m Still Here” isn’t really an assertion of victory, except for the victory of continued existence. As Sondheim himself once wrote, it’s “about survival” and, at best, “eventual optimism.” Its toughness is leavened by droll shock at having made it through the brutal vicissitudes of luck and history. Elaine Stritch once crabbily insisted that no singer under 80 should be allowed anywhere near it, and perhaps she had a point. It did seem a shame that — in a wholly wonderful concert — an old person didn’t get to claim it as her own. If not now, when?

This virus continues to rob old people of their futures — futures they are as entitled to invest with hope and energy as anyone else. Because the elderly are both a hardy and a precarious population — one that is depleted every day even as it welcomes new members to its ranks — it has become easy for some people to treat them as both more and less than human; they’re either a population of noble Yodas we can mine for every nugget of gnomic sagacity before we discard them, or they’re obstructions interposed between the idealistic and/or selfish and the things they respectively crave. “They” are us, only with more miles, more wrinkles, more history, more joint pain, sometimes more money, often more knowledge, almost always more perspective. If we’re very fortunate, one day we will become them, even if, as a 98-year-old neighbor told me a few years ago on his way out for a short walk, “I know what you’re thinking. But believe me, it’s no picnic.”

*This article appears in the May 25, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Our Fragile Gerontocracy