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Yesterday and tomorrow

Words to live and die by, in advice from the elderly and a primer on the final journey

The years after 70, writes the author of ''How to Live,'' ''are a ripe time for realizations and breakthroughs.'' The years after 70, writes the author of ''How to Live,'' ''are a ripe time for realizations and breakthroughs.'' (Istock)
By Rebecca Steinitz
February 1, 2009
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As I began Henry Alford's "How to Live: A Search for Wisdom From Old People," I thought I knew what I was reading. After laying out his thesis that the elderly will prove fonts of wisdom, Alford writes, "And so I have decided to interview and spend time with as many fascinating senior citizens as I can." Ah, I thought, Studs Terkel for the 21st century: This should be good. Then I had a second thought: What if it's "Tuesdays With Morrie" redux? Hmm, might not be my cup of decaf.

The first interview suggested I was in for a combination of Studs and Morrie. Alford travels to New Hampshire to visit 97-year-old Doris Haddock, otherwise known as Granny D, who, at the age of 89, walked across the country in support of campaign-finance reform. Granny D proves both interesting - along with cleaning up politics, she is minorly obsessed with road kill - and inspirational - explaining her obsession, she points out that "if you are afraid of death, you are afraid of life, for living your life leads to death. Until you face death and see its beauty, you will be afraid to really live."

Then "How to Live" takes a turn. Alford's decision to interview his mother and stepfather seems reasonable enough, for they are "the two older people whom I've spent the most amount of time with in my life." However, his mother appears to have little to say, and his stepfather offers a litany of woes: alcoholism, divorce, and a recent collapse into depression upon the death of his first wife. The night of the interviews, the stepfather is hospitalized after taking too much Ambien; soon thereafter, Alford's mother asks for a divorce.

All of a sudden, instead of Studs and Morrie, we've got David Sedaris lite. Alford's mother is "a woman who has on more than one occasion professed that electricity is created by tiny men who live inside our walls." His stepfather, who "looks like a character actor from a movie filmed in the shadier parts of a Moravian castle," is "one of the country's few authorities on coal gasification." Why the tale of their divorce takes up so much space in a collection of wisdom-generating conversations with old people is beyond me.

The interviews do continue. Alford talks with the famous (Ram Dass and Edward Albee), the semi-famous (Granny D and Eugene Loh, father of NPR commentator Sandra Tsing Loh, who has made his frugal eccentricities a staple of her repertoire), and the unknown (feisty leftist therapist Charlotte Prozan, whom he meets on an Alaska cruise hosted by the Nation, and Katrina survivor Althea Washington, whose steadfast grace in the face of tremendous loss is one of the most moving parts of the book).

Out of these conversations, he creates a checklist for wisdom: "reciprocity, doubt, nonattachment, discretion, and acting for social good." Plausible? Sure. Ground-breaking? Maybe not, especially since Alford, an award-winning humor writer, often seems more interested in dramatizing his anxieties than drawing conclusions.

The aftermath of the divorce plays out alongside the interviews, featuring not only dotty mom and depressed stepdad, but Alford's plucky sister, who goes by the too-quirky-to-be-made-up name of Kendy. Their escapades seem meant to provide a droll and poignant counterpoint to Alford's quest for wisdom, but I just found them distracting. By the time Alford turned to the wisdom of his 17-year-old dying cat, I was yearning for Studs Terkel.

Jane Brody is no Studs, but her new book, "Jane Brody's Guide to the Great Beyond," offers its own brand of wisdom. A senior citizen herself and a New York Times health writer for over 40 years, Brody is certain that a "good death" is possible, but only if we plan for it.

Combining copious research and numerous anecdotes in a kind of "What to Expect When You're Dying (or When Someone You Love Is Dying)," Brody covers everything from health proxies to hospice to funerals to grief. She explains the mechanics of organ donation, describes the signs that death is imminent, and offers suggestions for how to talk to a dying child. The book includes sample forms, checklists, and books and websites for further information.

Brody values quality of life. She thinks it was right to allow Terri Schiavo to die; she is against feeding tubes (unless a patient is likely to survive); she prefers hospice and palliative care to last-ditch treatments; and though she offers a balanced account of the pros and cons of assisted death, she is clearly not against it. Her emphasis on quality of life feeds into her primary focus on quality of death. While Brody is careful to point out that everyone dies (and grieves) in a different way, and the most important thing is to follow the dying person's lead and meet his or her individual needs, she persuasively argues that proper preparation and care can create the space for death (when it is not sudden, which is 90 percent of the time) to be a meaningful, peaceful, pain-free event.

The book has its faults: It is repetitive at times, and occasionally inconsistent. But if you're looking for wisdom, this is the book to read.

Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor, and consultant who lives in Arlington.

HOW TO LIVE: A Search for Wisdom From Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) By Henry Alford

Twelve, 262 pp., $23.99

JANE BRODY'S GUIDE TO THE GREAT BEYOND: A Practical Primer to Help You and Your Loved Ones Prepare Medically, Legally, and Emotionally for the End of Life By Jane Brody

Random House, 287 pp., $26

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