My Journey Into Old Man Country

Exploring meaning in later life.

Posted Jan 28, 2020

Today, the average man who lives to 65 can expect to live to 85. What is this new territory like?

To find out, I went on a journey to meet elders who became the focus of my new book, Old Man Country: My Search for Meaning Among the Elders. The journey was long and winding. Actually, it consisted of many journeys over a span of six years that were also filled with work as a center director and professor, other book projects, struggles to maintain and care for my mother, and with life’s daily joys and sorrows in the decade of my 60s.

The book explores how twelve men face (or faced) the challenges of living a good old age. All who appear in this book are highly accomplished.  Some are friends. Some are strangers. Some are famous: Paul Volcker, the former head of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Reagan and Carter; Denton Cooley, the first surgeon to implant an artificial heart into a human being; Ram Dass, his generation’s foremost American teacher of Eastern Spirituality; and Hugh Downs, veteran TV broadcaster and creator of “The Today Show.” Several have become frail and in need of assistance since I talked to them. Some have lost partners. Others have died.

I have learned much from these men. It was an honor to spend time with them. While I found no answers or certainties, I did find things to emulate and things to avoid, inspiring examples and cautionary tales. Mostly I come away with stories that serve as “equipment for living,” as Kenneth Burke put it. My encounters leave me with greater courage to live my own unfolding and uncertain story. I am less afraid of the future. I feel enlarged and more compassionate and often surprised by the joy and the sheer beauty of music, family, conversation, and nature. 

Being an old man, I learned, can mean many things. Or it can mean nothing at all. I began talking to these men thinking that manhood was an important topic for everyone. I realize now that it was more important to me than it is to most of them.  George Vaillant, scholar though he is of elite American manhood, identified more with his creativity rather than his masculinity or sexuality. When I asked Dan Callahan what it meant to him to be an old man, he shrugged his shoulders. The question held no interest for him.

Today, when I see an old man bent over or limping, I don't see an Other. I see my future self. I watch Denton Cooley in a scooter. I walk behind Dan Callahan slowly shuffling up the stairs to his house. I listen to Sherwin Nuland’s fear of being in a wheelchair. I don't feel that I'm less of a man. I accept my vulnerability as part of being human. When I reach the Fourth Age, I hope to answer the way Sam Karff did when I asked him what it was like to be an old man. “I feel old. I mean, I feel old,” he said. “And I bear the name honorably. I don’t say seasoned or senior citizen. I'm an old man, and I'm very grateful to be an old man who is still functioning as well as I am.”

In the end, I learned that each man must find his own way to answer four basic questions:

Am I Still a Man?

Do I Still Matter?

What is the Meaning of My Life?

Am I Still Loved? 

American men tend to see life’s journey as a one-man trip. We internalize the image of the self-made man, an image that views masculinity and femininity as polar opposites and that constrains our ability to accept dependence and the need for others.  Women more often accept the limitations of their bodies and feel the desire and need to travel with others. The last leg of the trip is filled with challenges and opportunities, through a countryside often rugged and inhospitable. Trying to go it alone makes it difficult to find a home. If old men hope to live well into the Fourth Age, they will have to confront the relational challenges of relevance, masculinity, love, and meaning.