Life Beyond 85 — an optimistic view researcher

Eight years researching a book on the very old is serious business, but not without its moments of humor.

Before writing "Life Beyond 85 Years," Barbara Barer conducted many interviews. One she remembers best was the old gentleman who welcomed her to his apartment, ushered her to a chair and asked if she'd like a drink of juice.

"That would be nice," she said.

He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a tray, topped with an 8-ounce glass of prune juice.

After the interview, as she thanked him and prepared to leave, he noticed she hadn't emptied her glass. To avoid offending him, she gulped it down and headed directly home.

Barer, a senior research associate at the University of California at San Francisco, wrote the book with Colleen L. Johnson, professor of medical anthropology at UCSF,

Barer lives in Piedmont with husband Dr. Mal Barer. and is an active member of Oakland's Beth Jacob Congregation. "I have become close to many of our elderly congregants and I've developed a sensitivity to what it's like to get older.," she said.

She was also a volunteer interviewer of local Holocaust survivors, further deepening her interest in the Jewish elderly as well as the very old in general.

Even though they are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, people over 85 have hardly ever been studied separately, said Barer, who wrote the book with Colleen L. Johnson, UCSF professor of medical anthropology.

They were always lumped in with "the elderly," those over 65 or 75. "So we were venturing into uncharted territory, almost like anthropologists venturing into another culture."

The authors, who received a grant from the National Institutes of Health, knew those over 85 would have problems, but they were surprised to discover how well they coped with them.

While all had experienced social and physical losses, most were content with their lives. In several interviews over six years, even though their disabilities increased, their sense of well-being actually improved. "They are true survivors," said Barer, whose book is subtitled "The Aura of Survivorship." "If they make it beyond 85, they are proud of their special status."

The previous generation, few in number, did not have the distinction of being the fastest-growing age group, nor will the next generation, since by then, longevity will be relatively commonplace.

But how about the quality of their lives?

"The younger old, people from 65 to 75, have a lot of illness," said Barer, and many of them lose their spouses. But if they make it beyond 85, illness (and widowhood) sort of level out. You don't see many new heart, cancer, diabetes or stroke problems.

Men and women age differently, said Barer. Men over 85, who comprised less than 30 percent of the study, seem to manage fairly well, until they die of a heart attack. Women tend to develop chronic illnesses, such as arthritis or osteoporosis.

Some 20 to 30 percent had no family, either having outlived them or never having had children. Yet they seemed to fare as well emotionally as the two-thirds who were in three-generation families. Some had good friends. Others withdrew and had very little social contact with others, enjoying their own company. They were alone, but not lonely.

A primary factor in their sense of well-being among the entire group is that they tended to stop worrying, even about their families.

While the book focuses on the general elderly population of the San Francisco Bay Area, Barer took particular note of some of the Jewish elderly she interviewed, who made Jewish ritual an important part in their daily lives. She recalls a woman she visited one morning, who had her candlesticks out, happily preparing for the Sabbath.

Another interview brings a smile to Barer's face. When Barer arrived, the woman was all dressed up, in a sparkly outfit and high-heeled boots. Barer had agreed to drop her off at a party after the interview, but she noticed that the woman had her boots on the wrong feet. Her dilemma: Should I tell her? How would she feel? Would she be embarrassed?

"I decided she had made it to age 90 without my help, and she didn't need me to tell her what to do."