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A Concord therapist contemplates how to age well during a pandemic

Katharine Esty maintains her fitness by working out with hand weights in her apartment, for now.
Katharine Esty maintains her fitness by working out with hand weights in her apartment, for now.Peter Gunness

Katharine Esty’s plan was to devote this spring to an author’s tour celebrating her 2019 book, “Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness.” But for the 85-year-old therapist from Concord, as for just about everyone else, plans changed when the pandemic descended.

Now, instead of discussing her findings about octogenarians’ perspective on aging with bookstore audiences and reading groups, she’s inadvertently enacting her own private experiment in how to live well in one’s 80s, as she waits out the pandemic and contemplates what it means to have a fulfilling life.

Self-isolating in her apartment at a senior residential community in Concord, just a few miles from the home where she and her late husband raised their four sons, Esty has had to find stores of initiative and resilience within herself. She’s had plenty of time to think about how seniors are coping with these new and unpleasant restrictions.

The inspiration for the book came at a low point in Esty’s life five years ago. Physical limitations were beginning to arise, and then something much worse happened: She learned her husband, John, was dying of kidney failure.

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And so she set out to interview a diverse group of more than 100 men and women in their 80s from all over the country, to understand how they sought fulfillment in their senior years.

“The biggest finding in my book is that nine of out 10 people in their 80s are very happy, often happier than they’ve ever been in their lives,” Esty said. “They are leading full lives: able to travel, run marathons, do all kinds of things. Many are pain-free and healthy.”

Katharine Esty’s book, “Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness,” was published in 2019.
Katharine Esty’s book, “Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness,” was published in 2019.

Esty envisions the pandemic as “a black cloud all around us. I think the hardest part of this for younger people is the unbearable uncertainty. But those of us in our 80s have survived so much. The Depression, World War II, Vietnam, financial crises. We live with uncertainty every day. We’ve learned to accept that life isn’t going to go on forever and we need to live in the present.”

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Grief, too, is not so new to her cohort, Esty said. “Younger people may not have known anyone who died, and suddenly they are hearing about all this tragedy and loss. By contrast, everyone in their 80s and older has lost friends or spouses or loved ones. We’ve learned to manage losses and have learned to grieve, which is really a skill. We are all survivors of loss of some kind.”

For Esty, the pandemic brought a surprising gain as well: the full-time presence of the man she was dating. He was living on another floor of the same senior complex, and when rules were put in place requiring residents to self-isolate, the two of them had to make a decision: Did they want to be apart indefinitely, or together indefinitely?

“Neither of us wanted to be alone, so he moved in, and it’s been a huge pleasure,” she said. “I feel lucky to have his company. We find a lot to talk about. We watch TV together, play word games, and teleconference with our friends.”

With new COVID-19 cases finally on the decline in Massachusetts, the pair is now allowed to walk around the grounds of their senior complex. For the most part, however, they are still self-isolating.

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As she thinks about next steps while continuing to consult with clients in her therapy practice and keeping a blog, Esty draws upon the metaphor of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending it with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold.

“The broken item, once mended, becomes more beautiful and strong than it was before,” Esty said. “That’s like aging. There is a priceless beauty to having lived all these years, survived, managed losses, and made our peace with the world.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.