Group Portrait of the Oldest of the Old
People age 85 and above are one of the city’s fastest growing groups, but they are almost invisible. Six New Yorkers share their stories of love, pain and abrupt change.
It was an average week in an aging city. Frederick Jones, 88, fell in the kitchen of his Crown Heights apartment and went to sleep on the floor, resting until he felt strong enough to pull himself up. Ping Wong, 90, told her daughter that she could not make their annual spring trip to Atlantic City — the drive was too long, her back and joints too sore. Helen Moses, 90, decorated an enameled copper pin for the man who lives two doors down in their Bronx nursing home. He held her hand in a loving squeeze.
On the Upper West Side, John Sorensen, 91, tried to walk to the corner but wore out just a few feet from his apartment. Ruth Willig, 91, asked herself, “What’s the good of living any more, at this point — for me?” and came up with an answer: Her teenage grandson was participating in Model Congress, and she was alive to share his excitement. Jonas Mekas, 92, recited a poem at an East Village nightclub and prepared a large exhibition of his movies and stills for the Venice Biennale. “Et cetera, et cetera,” he said. It was too much to name it all.
These six people — from different boroughs, races and economic classes — belong to one of the fastest-growing age groups in America: people age 85 and over, whom gerontologists have called the oldest old. In New York City, their numbers have grown five times as fast as the general population, rising nearly 30 percent since 2000.
Yet they are largely invisible.