Q. Intimate relationships in old age can be hard to come by, particularly for women. Isn't loneliness a real problem?
A. My mother was extremely lonely being in a community that was almost all women. And she actually had this massive crush on a man named Mel. He was recently widowed and just unable to be happy. She brought him to a dance, and said, "It's time for you to get out there and live." She didn't want to become yet another woman hitting on him. That's when she had a stroke, and Mel held her in his arms. My mother died that evening. And when I saw Mel, he said, "Your mother died being a mensch." My mother was someone who suffered from self-centeredness. In the course of the last years of her life, she began to rise out of it. And it culminated that last evening that she lived.
Q. And yet the problem isn't solved if you can only get a man to hold you when you're having a stroke.
A. [She laughs.] Relationships are hard to come by. There's tremendous loneliness, especially for women. Men can turn around and have a woman in a second — it's totally unfair — because women live longer. One of the solaces is some women actually begin to realize how much fun they can have through their friendships instead of always putting the focus on getting a man.
Q. Is there an action plan to help us age with grace?
A. One big hope is that first and foremost we ourselves examine the ageism that we carry. When I look at someone 80 years old with a walker, do I look away? Am I even interested in that person? Am I making assumptions based on appearance, or am I willing to remember that appearances tell you almost nothing about a person?
Q. How do you counter these prejudices?
A. I challenged my grandmother, who did not want to go to a senior center and be around "all those old people." I said, "There could be other live wires disguised as old people." She went and found four people who were fabulously alive and wonderful. As we get older, we become more and more different from one another because we become more and more ourselves. We have to open our eyes and see each other.
Q. Anything else we should do?
A. If we pay attention to the aspects of life that are better — so we know who we are, we know how we want to live, we know what's important to us — it helps us to keep from focusing on what's difficult.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.