116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Octogenarians are the fastest-growing demographic in the industrialized world, but until recently there were no non-fiction books detailing their day-to-day experiences. What is life really like after 80? If we make it that far, how can we do it well?
Thankfully, Carl Klaus, founder of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, has written a moving essay collection that answers these questions and more. “The Ninth Decade” (University of Iowa Press) chronicles eight years of Klaus’ life after 80, with each essay covering a six-month time period. In this e-interview, Klaus talks about the importance of continuing to challenge oneself, the mind/body connection, and more.
Q: This collection is a beautiful chronicle of your life after 80. How would you describe the book to someone? Why is it important that we examine life at all stages?
A: “The Ninth Decade” chronicles not only my life after 80, but also the life of my loving companion Jackie, strikingly different from me in her physical well-being, practical outlook and sociable temperament. It also includes cameos of our 80-year-old friends and relatives near and far, as well as bios of notable 80-year-olds.
Thus it offers a comprehensive and detailed story of advanced aging — the only work to do so — making it a uniquely important source of information about the distinctive opportunities and challenges of 80-year-old existence for people on the verge of that decade, as well as for specialists devoted to care of the aged.
Q: There are a number of powerful themes addressed in your essays, including how our identities are often closely tied to our professions. You mention “how one’s aging and the ever-changing circumstances of an institution or profession ultimately produce a disturbing gulf between one’s present and one’s past,” and that you wonder “if a lifetime of work leaves us unfit for the satisfactions of a leisurely existence.” Can you tell us about how you learned to relax a little more, and what advice might you have for those who are still working?
A: Learning to relax about the changing circumstances of our professional lives is especially important in enabling us to enjoy the pleasures of a leisurely existence. The most important way that I learned to do so was by writing frequently about the changing circumstances of my life — so often I became familiar and accustomed to the diminishment of my professional life and eager for the pleasures of a leisurely life. Writing, in fact, is a mind-altering activity, a way of learning and familiarizing ourselves with new ideas.
Q: Cooking delicious food seems to be a regular thing at your place. How has your relationship with food changed over the years?
A: Cooking has, indeed, been a significant part of my life for so many years that I might well be considered an irrepressible “foodie” — living to eat and to enjoy the pleasures of tasty food. In days of yore, before I was beset by advanced chronic kidney disease eight years ago, I was free to cook and eat whatever I pleased. But now my diet is so severely restricted that the tangy dishes I have written about in “The Ninth Decade” are primarily a means of enjoying them again imaginatively — virtually rather than actually.
Q: What was the most challenging part for you when it came to keeping a holistic, honest account? Did this project surprise you in any way?
A: Producing an “honest” chronicle was not difficult, since I was never tempted to censor myself or tidy things up, for what would be the purpose of doing a chronicle that wasn’t completely honest? Doing a “holistic” chronicle was impossible given the wide-ranging and often unrelated issues and topics included in each six-month installment. During the last few years of work on the project, I was most surprised by a severe decline in my stylistic versatility, making it often quite difficult to get my thoughts into words, phrases, and sentences as readily and forcefully as before. A sure sign of age-impaired writing ability.
Q: I was impressed by how you continue to challenge yourself to learn new things. For example: At one point you and your partner Jackie are both suffering from difficult health conditions, but you do things like take in a silent movie at a local movie house and participate in a course on cognitive aging. What have you learned about the mind/body connection, and why is it important that we keep challenging ourselves?
A: Having grown up in a family of old-fashioned MD’s — my father, two uncles, my older brother, and two cousins — I was inclined for many years to think that one’s bodily well-being is largely determined by bodily factors such as adequate sleep, physical exercise, healthy diet and good hygiene. But in recent years, Jackie and I have had several surprising experiences that led us to realize the profound connection between mind and body. Indeed, I’m now fascinated by the advice of contemporary gurus and gerontologists, who believe that life span is increased by an optimistic, caring and joyous embrace of old age — assuming, of course, that one’s condition in old age inclines one to embrace it. I can hardly imagine a more fabulous influence of mind over body than willing it to live longer!