Hank Blum, whose story Our Town has been sharing with readers for the past six weeks, is one of 20 New Yorkers we are following this year through the Exceeding Expectations project (www.exceedingexpectations.nyc).
The project aims to provide a more diverse, and therefore realistic, portrayal of the experience of aging than is typically presented in media and popular culture (decline, total dependency, and when not…skydiving!). The project also aims to explore how a person’s environment and circumstances affect how they age.
When we met Hank in January, and when we introduced him to you six weeks ago, he was retiring for the fourth and what seemed like, the final time, from a 50-plus year career as an optometrist. His Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) was making it difficult for him to make it through his commute to the Bronx and his long workdays.
For Hank, it had long seemed impossible to disconnect the purpose and structure work provided from living. Every time he left work, he was pulled back. The rhythm of the commute, his second home on Southern Boulevard, his relationship with his patients, his favorite lunch spot, were what he knew of daily life. The decision to leave was indeed so hard for Hank that he returned to work in February for several Saturdays when his former boss called him to fill in.
We don’t know as much as we think we do about retirement. It is a new concept in the history of the human race – pensions were first invented in Germany in 1847 – but few lived to collect them. Social Security did not start in the U.S. until 1935. And many people never retire – farmers, those in countries without income support, many people who do informal and household work. Research suggests that when you retire may not affect happiness and health as much as how you retire, including your resources, support, and what you do all day. Hank has resources and support, but is still finding the new daily rhythm for his life.
As this year went on, Hank developed stronger connections to his neighborhood hangouts – which he shared with Heather Clayton Colangelo, our writer who was following him.
Hank’s repeated refrain as he moves through his New York is, “They know me here.” He doesn’t just have “his” doorman and doctor. Hank has “his” waitress or waiter (in several spots), his pharmacist, and even his bank teller. Without the social opportunities work provided, the “spider web” of small exchanges with neighbors and service people became a higher proportion of Hank’s daily interactions – none intense or deep, but a part of the fabric of his life. Hank is fortunate to have his wife Patti. One third of those over 65 in New York City live alone, and for them this web looms even larger, as it may represent most of the daily interactions people have.
All of the people we are following have health challenges, varying in prognosis and severity of symptoms. Some people treat their health challenges as a backdrop to the greater plot of their lives, activities and relationships. Others treat health challenges as the main action. Hank has endured health challenges for decades while remaining highly active. His health moved further to the forefront this year, both as he faced more challenges, and as work was no longer a regular focus.
In the past year, Hank has yet to develop a new routine or passion to fill the time he spent at work. He spends much of his emotional energy focusing on leaving Patti in the best place possible when he eventually dies, as she is 18 years younger than him, and they imagine that he will die first. Hank cherishes time with his family – his four children and five grandchildren - and says he has let go of other desires. He watches the news, checks his stocks and runs errands.
This year, Hank and Patti also got a new dog, Ethel, after their dog, Lucy, died.
In the summer, Hank spoke of how he would never want to leave the city or the Upper East Side – its diversity, its public transportation, its walkability, high quality healthcare, the museums and theaters, his neighborhood spots.
And then, in a turn of events, he and Patti are, as of this month, seriously considering moving to a 55-plus community in Connecticut. They are largely thinking toward the unknown future – of the potential of Hank being more ill and of Patti potentially living alone and building a life as a single woman for the first time in life. A move would bring them closer to their children, who live in Connecticut and Westchester. And the community might provide the structure they crave (and likely a new “spider web” of micro daily interactions).
What we have learned from Hank and the other people we are following is that older people’s lives are dynamic, and that rather than the static state or steady decline prevailing stereotypes portray it to be, aging is a stage filled with change, ups and downs and learning to adjust over and over.
Just as Hank adjusts to retirement, his physical limitations and his mortality, we follow Rosa Mendoza, a Cuban woman in Astoria, Queens, who spent her entire life caring for her children, grandchildren and husband. When her husband died last fall, she was forced to rebuild her daily life.
We also follow Sandra Robbins of the Upper West Side, who runs a children’s theater, and has had to build a deep bench of people who can help her clean, cook, shop and care for her husband Art, as she grapples with her own health and the future of the theater.
And we are following Otto Neals, an artist in Brooklyn, who has never contemplated a future without his Crown Heights home, despite the stairs and his wife’s reliance on a walker. He thinks of little else beyond his art.
What we’ve learned so far is that people age in the multitude of ways that they have lived, using the resources available to them. There is no right or best way to age. How people age is the product of their entire lives.
As a society and as a city, as we react to the longevity revolution, what we need are options that are available to us as our needs and desires change. We need housing options for those who want to and can stay where they have long lived and options for those who need new types of flexibility. We need services and supports when we need them. We need opportunities to be active that appeal to the range of interests held by the people of New York.
As we all reconsider our lives with the expectation that we will live longer, we have the right to have higher expectations of how we will age.
When Hank retired for the first time at age 70 he said, “I felt like I could pick up the world and put it on my shoulders,” but he had nothing new to funnel his energy into. Too often, people do not plan for and anticipate their retirement at all. Others who do make a financial plan and figure that takes care of everything. Crucial questions remain about how to spend the time formerly spent on work.
We need to make it easier to know about ways to continue learning, contributing to the community, and spending quality time with neighbors and friends. It is a missed opportunity to not to harness the energy of the growing aging population for a city of all generations.
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.ny