CHOICE reviews AGING OUR WAY by Meika Loe, May 2012 Issue

The US population is not just aging, but is getting extremely old. By 2008, 5.8 million Americans were age 85 or older. This text examines how the oldest actually live and what conditions and attitudes are necessary. Loe (Colgate Univ.) uses life histories, interviews, and participant observation to observe and assess how 30 noninstitutionalized participants creatively use their wits, life experiences, resources, and adaptability to make the most of diminishing health. She contends they actively negotiate for what they want, still learning and growing, despite increasing frailty. Readers see this process in numerous case studies: people modifying their environments, making new friends, figuring out when and whom to ask for help, etc. Problems exist, however. The sample is not representative. Fifty percent of the women have college degrees, atypical in this population. The focus is on “living alone and making it work,” but in real life, it works until it does not. Family members frequently experience burnout. As Loe acknowledges, lack of available services, finances, and uncoordinated care make retaining independence challenging, even for resourceful people. This is why 12 million older Americans now live in senior communities. Useful for its thoroughness, examples of resiliency, and attention to this growing phenomenon. Summing Up: Recommended. General, public, and undergraduate collections. –S. D. Borchert, emerita, Lake Erie College

Foreword reviews AGING OUR WAY by Meika Loe, Dec/Jan/Feb 2102

“Little by little, the spirit gets broken here,” says Caro Spencer in May Sarton’s novel As We Are Now, describing her life in Twin Elms. Sarton based the nursing home she’s speaking of on a “disgraceful” facility she visited in New Hampshire, “a place where more than one child has simply abandoned a senile parent, buried him alive.” In the end, Caro decides to burn the house down along with the residents, reasoning that “death by fire” is better than “death by bad smells and bedpans and lost minds in sordidly failing bodies.”

In Aging Our Way, sociologist Meika Loe, from Colgate University, examines the lives of thirty elders, aged 85 to 102, only two of whom reside in a facility. All of them, Loe writes, “believe strongly in autonomy and dignity, and retain control over their day-to-day lives.” One describes an earlier stay in a nursing home as a “dark cold dreary” experience. Another said she would kill herself if she were ever sent to a nursing home. She died at home two months after her ninety-fifth birthday; a relative and two nurses cared for her at home in her final weeks.

Aging Our Way is Loe’s well-crafted answer to the question many ask as they approach the end of their days, “How can one maintain comfort and health, stay at home, and continue to lead a meaningful life?” During her interviews and interactions with the elders over a three-year period, the author finds that “most are solitary the greater part of their days,” relaxing on the porch, watching the world go by or taking on projects—cooking, reading, tending to plants, and writing—that add purpose to life. Yet even as they take pride in living on their own, they reach out to numerous relatives, friends, and assistants for transport, health care, and company.

In the United States, young people get few opportunities to spend time with elders—a national survey in 2009 found that two-thirds of adults aged eighty-five and above live alone rather than with family members. Loe encourages readers to learn “lessons for living, at any age” from elders in their communities. Early in As We Are Now, Caro Spencer remarks: “Old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged.” Aging Our Way succeeds in making that alien territory less forbidding.

(October) KARUNESH TULI

Publisher’s Weekly review of Aging Our Way, October 2011

The stereotype of the “oldest old” (age 85 and above) in our society is of frailty and dependence, often in nursing homes. Yet 78% of those in this demographic still live in their own homes and 75% still drive. Colgate University sociologist Loe (The Rise of Viagra) reports on her research on 30 oldest old individuals in small city and rural upstate New York. She draws 13 lessons from their experiences, including “(Re) Design Your Living Space,” “Resort to Tomfoolery,” and “Accept and Prepare for Death.” Above all, she notes that the oldest old remain very much in charge of their own lives: “They innovate. They grow and learn.” Some 30% volunteer and 40% provide financial contributions to family members. Loe also stresses the importance of social capital, the network of relatives, friends, neighbors, and even paid help who sustain the elderly emotionally and practically. Loe’s writing is clear, jargon-free, and warm–she clearly likes and often admires her subjects. She has done an excellent job in organizing her book topically and lets her subjects speak for themselves, then distills their most important points. While there are few startling revelations, there is a great deal of wisdom. (Oct.)

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Meika Loe

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