ANNA SALE: This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
And for a moment...I want to go back a few years...to an email that came in to the Death, Sex & Money inbox. The subject was...
AYANA LOWE: Sale doesn’t understand aging. She’s young.
The email was from a listener named Ayana Lowe, who’s 64 and lives in New York City. She wrote in after she listened to an interview I did with model and actress Brooke Shields, and she found that parts of it were...lacking.
AL: I wish Ms. Sale asked Ms. Shields to talk about getting older in depth. How does it feel to be 50 years old in a world that celebrates youth? How does Ms. Shields cope with her changing body and the way people react to her? These are the questions that my friends and I are struggling with. My identity is shifting as I age, and I want more conversation about getting older. The last taboo is ageism. Please start talking about it, Ms. Sale.
These are great questions. And we know that Ayana is not the only one asking them. Over the years, lots of you have written in to tell us what’s hard about getting older.
Oh, the things that scare me? Oh, being alone.
The need to have more friends.
...it is kind of falling down all around me.
I bet I'm not the only one in the world who's not having sex! I mean, it's been 11 years.
I’m not much of an asker. And then if you’re not an asker or a beggar, many times your needs will go unmet.
The sadness. There's sadness that comes with middle age and old age. You go from weddings and births and graduations to sickness and decay and death and losing the people you love. And if you're lucky enough to live a long time, you're going to lose everybody you love.
You’ve also told us about the parts of aging that feel really liberating.
It’s so odd, the things I used to care deeply about.
I manage my own money I can spend my own money.
My time is my own.
I get to decide what to do when I wake up in the morning.
The best part of aging is you don’t have monthly periods anymore.
I’m having a ball now. I’m having a great time.
The United States is a country that’s rapidly aging. According to Census Bureau estimates, the number of people over 65 in the U.S. will nearly double over the next 40 years. There are simply more people reaching their 65th birthday, and they’re living longer. They’re also working later, living alone more frequently, and facing financial hardship. In 2017, nearly five million people in the U.S. over 65 lived in poverty. And of course, there’s now the pandemic. 80% of COVID-related deaths in the U.S. have been among people over 65.
I see these statistics a lot. But I don’t hear much about what it’s like to be over 60. I don’t think that as a culture, we talk enough about getting older, and when we do, we don’t often do it well.
So today, I want to introduce you to Jo Ann Allen.
JO ANN ALLEN: Hey Anna.
AS: Hey, how are you?
JAA: I’m hanging in there baby, how you doing?
AS: [laughing] Good!
Jo Ann has had a long career working at public radio stations across the country .For 18 years, she hosted various programs at our home station, WNYC in New York...she’s currently the All Things Considered host at Colorado Public Radio in Denver. But these days...
AS: How do you introduce yourself? What do you say?
JAA: Ooh, that is a good question. Who am I? I’m Jo Ann Allen, a veteran news anchor and host of the podcast Been There, Done That, the podcast that tells the real-life stories of the Baby Boom generation. Then I'll say to the person, depending on their age, I'll say, give a listen and give it to your parents. [AS + JAA laugh]
On Been There Done That, Jo Ann has conversations with older people about the lives they’ve lived, and the questions that are coming up for them as they age.
JAA: You know, I'm 67 years old and I'm really into older people! I think that people might suffer in silence when there's the emotional tumult as an older person. And I think a lot of older people let things eat them up. If you will. So older people's inner lives, I do often want to know: what's in there?
So we are inviting Jo Ann to host conversations with some of you about what it’s like to be aging in 2020. If you’re over 60, and you want to be a part of this, I’ll tell you more about how you can participate at the end of the episode.
First, I want you to get to know Jo Ann. She’s been at Colorado Public Radio since 2015, after taking a year off to write.
JAA: And after a year of making no money, I needed to get a job. And I looked for afternoon gigs at NPR stations and there was a, there was an opening here in Denver. So that's why I came.
AS: Do you feel at this point, when you think about your working life and your career, how much is financial stability a reason that you're continuing to work a full time job?
JAA: It's all about needing money. I do enjoy my work, but I'm also at a point of where I'm ready to stop having to deal with the news day in and day out. I mean, I'm saving money hand over fist. I mean, I'm, I'm saving money, hand over fist. I mean, I'm just, I'm putting it away as much as I can, which is much easier to do now that I don't have anywhere to go. I mean, I wake up some mornings and I'm like, I'm done. I'm not going to get into this craziness. I'm going to quit. And then I sit down and I look at my social security and I look at my 403b and then I look at my savings and I'm like, hmm. If I stop right now, my lifestyle's going to have to change. So I think I'll keep going for now. So it's, yeah. It's all about the Benjamins. Gotta get 'em.
AS: I love, I can just picture you. You like wake up, you have that feeling of like, ugh, I gotta change this up. And then you open up all the windows and you're like, hmm, now that I see these numbers...
JAA: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I don’t want to be impoverished just to--you know, everyone's lifestyle tends to, you know, go down a little bit when they retire, but I don't want mine to go all the way down as far as it looks like it's gonna go down if I retire right now.
AS: What's your daily routine look like right now?
JAA: Well, it is mostly spent at home. I love working remotely. You know, having been a news radio news anchor for most of my career, it was imperative to go into the studio. And so I never dreamed that I would be able to work from home. And now that I've gotten a chance to do it, I don't want to go back to the studio. Because I wake up in the morning, my shift starts at noon, so I have all of that time, really leading right up to a minute before noon in the mornings that I can get a lot of stuff done. And so it's really great to also, if I need to get up and pee I can just get up and go use the bathroom! I can almost see it from here. It's just over there.
AS: You could even work from your toilet, Jo Ann. Sometimes.
JAA: I could, but I will never tell anyone when I do.
AS: And you live by yourself?
JAA: I do. I've lived by myself now for, oh, maybe 20 years or so.
AS: How do you like living by yourself?
JAA: I really like it. Because I think if I didn't, I would do something about it. At least I think I would! I really like living by myself, because I get to make all of the rules, what I eat when I eat, where I go, where I don't go. If all the lights are on overnight or if I turn them all off. I mean, I just love being able to make all of the decisions that affect me personally. Um, I have to admit though, I have lately been thinking about maybe getting into, like, a “Golden Girls” kind of situation somewhere…?
AS: You have been?
JAA: I have been, yeah. I don't think I want to, as I continue to age, I don't think I want to continue to live alone. I would like to have two or three people around me in the same house who will be able to take care of me, for example, if anything happens, and I them.
AS: How did you start thinking about that? Like when did you start noticing, “Huh. It might be nice to have roommates”?
JAA: When I had a health scare recently. And it turned out to be not something that I needed surgery for. At first we thought I would need surgery. So if I had needed surgery, it would have been like a month or two of recuperation. Um, and I thought, well, how would I do that? And I thought, well, I can either try and, you know, get one of my relatives to come out and take care of me, or, you know, a friend in town, which is less likely, or I would have to go into rehabilitation or something, but, uh, or a nursing home, I guess. But I wanted someone near that I knew. I didn't want just to have a home health aide come in. I would prefer to have that comfort from someone who loves me and really cares for me. So I started thinking, yeah, as I get older, I think I'm going to start needing...I'm going to start needing help.
AS: Yeah. Was that the first time that you've had to think about being in a position where you, you needed kind of both physical and emotional support because of your health? Has that come up before in your life?
JAA: No, I had not thought of it before at all until I had the health scare, you know, I kind of was acting like a teenager, like I'm invincible, that nothing can happen to me that's going to be devastating in any way, shape or form. But when I got this news, I thought, oh. I guess I am getting a little decrepit. [laughs] And my health isn't what I'm thinking it’s going to be. So, yeah, that was the very first time I thought about, Whoa, what am I going to do if I need to be laid up for a month or two recuperating?
AS: Did having this moment where you realized you might need help from someone else, did it, um, did it make you pause and think for a minute, “maybe I don't love getting older as completely as I thought I did”?
JAA: No. No. I love without a doubt up and down, over and under in and out being an older person and getting older. So even with all of the ailments and the problems, all of that is not what I would prefer to have happening, but I am more than willing to accept it so that I can continue to grow older. Because every day is kind of a fascinating moment in time of where, I look in the mirror and I see my mother. And that fascinates me, because I remember her when she looked that way, she didn't seem as spry as I am. So I, I see myself as my mother in the mirror, but I see Jo Ann because I look a little bit... a little bit more alive than my mom did? You know, I look like my mother when I do my hair in a certain way.
Coming up, more from Jo Ann, and what we want to hear from YOU--if you’re an older listener.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Jo Ann Allen grew up as the youngest of seven in Mobile, Alabama. For the most part, her family has stayed close to the Gulf Coast...so in many of her moves around the country, from Wisconsin to New York, and California and Pennsylvania, she’s had to build new communities wherever she’s landed.
Now, in Colorado, Jo Ann finds that her social circle is pretty small.
JAA: I don’t have much of a community Denver. Most of the people I know are through work, but with the pandemic, it's been really tough to get together with people obviously, but I, I just never built a community here. And I think it's in part because I'm feeling transient. You know, it's been, it's been five and a half years or so, but I still, this is not where I'm going to end up.
AS: When you made the decision to leave the East coast, where you had lived for a lot of your adult life in your early sixties to move somewhere new, totally new for a job, did you know other people who had done a similar thing or did you feel like you were, um, doing something that you didn't know a lot of other people your age who had done?
JAA: I didn't kno wa lot of people period who did what I was doing. You know, so many folks, especially in New York, don't really see beyond the Hudson River. They might go to Jersey! You know, but there’s still that mentality, at least when I was still there in the early 2000s, um, of where are you moving to? You're leaving New York! How can you leave New York? Just to move because you want to try something new was not on the minds of many of my colleagues. And I realized that I was tired of New York and I also just wanted to do something different, stayed in radio news, but I wanted to just be in a different environment.
AS: It's invigorating.
JAA: It is, and you learn things that you won't learn if you stay where you are. And you get to meet different people. So I just, I just like seeing and meeting new people, experiencing different things and learning a new way of working and being. Which is not something I could have done if I was involved with someone.
AS: Ah. You said you last lived with someone 20 years ago. What was that situation? Who were you living with?
JAA: I was living with a girlfriend on the Upper West Side of New York. She was-- is--a musician. Um, and I don't know what else to say about it, actually! 20 years ago, it was, I'm trying to think back on the relationship. Cause we're such, we're such good friends now that I think of her as a friend. You know how people always talk about their exes? I almost never say that word because I don't have an ex, you know. A lot of lesbians end up friends when the, the romantic part of it is over. So I don't think of them in terms of romantic and romance. I don't even think about romance! It just, it's not even something that's a part of living for me. It's weird. It's really, really weird when I think about it. Cause that's such a big part of life, being involved with someone being, being coupled. Taking their lives into consideration, remembering the...the intimate and the sexual moments. You know, none of that comes rushing to the fore with former relationships.
AS: Well, it sounds to me from how you'd talked before, like, you've got clarity that you are living life the way you want to live life. That living on your own and not being in relationship really works for you.
AS: Or not being in a romantic relationship, I should say.
JAA: Yeah. Yeah. I do have, I do have clarity about where I am right now in my life.
AS: Are you finding that you're more, uh, do you experience less uncertainty now than you did in previous periods of your life? Or are you--because it sounds like you're describing having a certain kind of confidence. Um, but then I'm also wondering if you're coming up against things that you've never run into before and are experiencing uncertainty in new ways.
JAA: Let me think for a moment. I think what's, um, challenging me today, as well as the rest of us, is COVID. Is the pandemic. I'm running up against stuff that I have not experienced before. Um, being deathly, deathly afraid of getting it. You know, I just, the thought--the thought of getting COVID just, I don't know. I can't even, I can't put it in words. So everything that I'm experiencing right now in terms of a challenge or, or different, or I don't know how I'm going to react to it...it has to do with COVID.
AS: When you think about the prospect of getting infected, of contracting the virus, um, for you, what, what makes that so scary?
JAA: Physical suffering. Um, and the confusion that apparently accompanies the disease. But more than anything, it's, it's...the pain I've heard COVID patients describe is something I do not want to experience. I do not want a painful death. If it comes to that. I mean, I want a peaceful, just kind of slide on away, or I want it to be quick, you know, I want to get hit by a bus. And I do think about, obviously I think about death and dying, the older you get, you think about it more, but I don't want the suffering. I don't want to linger on a ventilator or, you know, because I just don't...I just would rather exit stage left.
AS: When you think about some of the questions you have about what this phase of life is introducing into your life, or what it is to be in your late 60s in America in this moment...like, what are some of the questions that run through your head right now?
JAA: Hmm. Will it be safe after COVID is over or when the virus has been eradicated? What will it look like? I'll be probably a couple of years older. Um, will I feel safe enough to go outside without a mask and be in a group of people, especially young people? That's a question, a big question I have. So, so on the one hand I'm like, you know, will I be safe? Will I be okay? But on the other hand, I'm going to make sure I am safe and okay. And I might still wear a mask. And I might still social distance. Um, so COVID is one. Um, another is, what will the economy be? Will Social Security still be there? Because I've paid into it, but will, my financial future be in question as I get older? Will my body--how will my body continue to break down? Because it is breaking down. And I often--this is one thing that I am curious about--how am I going to die? There's a part of me that goes, “Hey, I want to know!” And then there's a bigger part of me that says, Oh, no, I don't want to know. Um, and I also am just very, very, very curious about what's after death. I'm even more curious about that than I am, how am I going to die? Because I was raised Catholic, but I'm not Catholic. And I really never believed all of the precepts. So what is after death? I don't think of it as heaven and hell. I don't, you know, I sometimes think of it as nothing, but how does nothing exist? So I'm just-- I just wanna, I'm curious! I don't know if I want to know. I'm just, I'm curious.
And in the spirit of curiosity, we want to hear from you. Jo Ann is going to be stepping into the host chair and recording some interviews with some of you older listeners in our audience about what it’s like to be aging, and what questions are coming up for you...especially in this moment. So if you’re over 60, tell us: what’s your life look like right now? And how are you feeling your age differently this year compared to last year?
There are a couple different ways to get in touch with us. You can write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call us and leave us a message. That number is: (917) 740-6549. Or, you can record a voice memo on your phone...and email it to email@example.com. You can find all that info in our show notes. And we might get you on the phone for a conversation with Jo Ann sometime in the next few weeks.
And if you’re not over 60, you can still help us, by spreading the word...and sending this episode to someone in your life who is.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Anabel Bacon produced this episode. The rest of our team includes Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Special thanks to Ayana Lowe, Kay Powell, Carol Martin, Isaac Jones, Kaari Pitkin, Paula Szchuman and Wayne Shulmeister...all of whom helped shape this idea behind the scenes.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Twitter @annasale, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
And thank you to Margarita Graeber in Ocala, Florida, who is a sustaining member of Death, Sex & Money. Join Margarita and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
If you’re over 60, don’t forget to send in your stories for Jo Ann to firstname.lastname@example.org. Then, after you have, go listen to her show Been There Done That. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts... I particularly recommend the episode called “Betty”...where Jo Ann interviews her sister about her experience of contracting coronavirus earlier this spring. There’s a link in the show notes to that episode.
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.