When Elizabeth Meade Howard’s father died at age 90, she found herself adrift without a beacon. Not only had she lost her parent, she’d lost her model for aging well. An award-winning journalist, she began to interview friends, neighbors and professionals she admired—some of them famous—inquiring what aging successfully meant to them. Her quest became the book Aging Famously: Follow Those You Admire to Living Long and Well, due out on September 10. The thesis of the book, she says, “is to look to your own mentors. See how they’re living their later years, and if there’s something good in it, take from that.”
Each chapter distills a single subject’s life into just a few pages, a task that Howard says was most difficult for those she knew well. The self-described “semi-native” encountered some of her subjects in Charlottesville—such as artist Hartwell Priest and Jefferson School teacher Rebecca McGinness, for example. Others she sought out, and some she met through circumstance and persistence, such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson during his visit last month to Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church-Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville.
While all of the interview subjects are over 60 and many have since died, Aging Famously is not only about aging well, but about living well at any age. Local resident Mary Lee Settle, who quit her job as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar to become a writer, told Howard, “It’s a risk not listening to your soul. …Your job is to take the next step and the next step is always into the dark.” Poet laureate Stanley Kunitz agreed with such persistence but also acknowledged those steps in the dark don’t have to be alone. “It’s very important to feel one’s self as part of the world you live in, and to care about others as well as your own being,” he said.
Walter Cronkite credited his energy to a boundless curiosity, a characteristic, he told Howard, that compelled him to observe his own appendectomy reflected in a mirror. Gordon Parks, the first African-American photographer to work for Life and the first African-American to write and direct a Hollywood film, recognized the necessity of work. He told Howard, “Survival came from working hard. Whatever you want in the world somehow or another comes to you through hard work.” But balance, too, is necessary. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks wrote Howard that to maintain a long life one must “Learn how to rest.”
A theme that arises among the diverging narratives is the importance of creativity. “Aging well requires some imagination,” Howard says, in order to find workable solutions for obstacles such as being unable to drive. All of her subjects, she says, were “mentally flexible and looked at life in a variety of ways.” Their creativity endured despite the effects of health problems, too. “They were not dancing into old age,” Howard says. “But they had enough drive that they plowed through it. And they were gifted in that they had that sense of purpose and curiosity. I think that overrides a lot of pain and loss.”
They also had in common “a certain willingness to take a risk or to be rejected,” she says, such as one subject who revived her acting career in her mid-70s. Howard ponders what might prevent some people from taking such risks, and perfectionism comes to mind. “I’d like to be Joan Didion, but I’m not,” she says. “You have to do it as well as you can do it.”
In interviewing people at this advanced stage of life, Howard found herself bearing witness to her subjects’ love, loss and all that they had survived. Kunitz was in his 90s when she visited, and his wife had recently died. “He was pretty compromised…and sad,” Howard recalls. Afterward, she stood in the hallway and cried “because I thought, ‘This is really an exceptional experience, a sweet time, and it’s not going to happen again.’ I’m not a religious person but it was close to something spiritual.”