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An Octogenarian reflects on art, itchiness and the lifelong process of letting go

Charity Nebbe
Talk of Iowa

There is a great deal written about the different stages of life: coming of age stories, first romances, midlife crises and it's not too difficult to find advice about getting the most out of your golden years.

But there isn't much written about what life is really like for people in their 80s and 90s, even though more and more of us are living that long.

Carl Klaus decided to do his part to shed some light on this phase of life. He is the founder of the University of Iowa's nonfiction writing program and professor emeritus at the university. His latest book is “The Ninth Decade: an Octogenarians Chronicle.” Talk of Iowa host Charity Nebbe recently visited Klaus at his home in Iowa City to talk about his new book and what it's like to be in your ninth decade.

Why don’t “the greats” write in their 80s?

Nebbe: “It's wonderful to get this window into your experiences in your 80s. I'm in my 40s, and my parents are not quite in their 80s, but I think so many of us, we hope to get that far or we love someone who's in that stage of life, and it is hard to understand. It's hard to deeply empathize with what a person in that stage of life is feeling. And you give us just a beautiful window into that.”

Klaus: “Well, you're very generous. But the more I wrote, the more I knew how to do what I was trying to do. Because there is a very real sense in which every book you write, you have to learn how to write in the course of doing it because no two books are the same. And by the time I was a few years into it, I knew how to do it. But here's the surprising aspect of it: the longer I worked at it, the harder it became.”


“Well, because in the last three to four years of my writing, my memory declined profoundly. But even more worrisome, my verbal facility declined. And so the last three to four years were extremely difficult to write. And what I learned from that was why the pros – I mean heavyweights like Philip Roth – stop writing when they were 80. They didn't even try to write into their 80s. Well, in part, of course, Roth had written so damn much, he didn't want to write anymore. But you do not hear much about the big-time writers writing into their 80s.”

The body, fragility and the 80s

“You really illustrate how much chance goes into each one of our lives and each one of our days as you lose friends who – their loss just shocks you because you have seen them so recently, and they were well. It can be one misstep, or it can be one problem that leads to a cascade of problems. I mean, life is so fragile.”

Charity Nebbe
Iowa Public Radio

“What I learned is there is a pivotal time in the 80s, and it comes in the mid-80s. And before that, you can feel in your early-80s as if you were in your 70s still. But in the late-80s, you become much more fragile. And so I managed to be cautionary while still writing the book, but then a year later, I forgot all I knew. Or was simply negligent.”

“Or unlucky.”


The lifelong process of letting go

“I really enjoyed reading about the thought processes that have led you to stay in your home, because that's a source of a lot of stress for a lot of families. And I remember going through it with my grandparents, and one set of grandparents lived in a home that was very dangerous for them.

“As you were taking these notes and chronicling your life in the 80s, you had a lot of challenges – a lot of health challenges – and you had to make some very significant changes. One of them was that, for the most part, you gave up gardening, and you have always been a gardener and had beautiful large gardens, and that was a very important part of who you are. Tell me what it's like to have to give up something that's such a big part of your identity.”

“That's part of being in your 80s. The longer you live, the more you lose of all you cherish: loved ones, best friends. And then what? Activities that mean so much to you.

“And now, finally, to put that in ... in the clearest framework, I'm no longer writing for publication any longer because I don't have the capacity to write well enough. And so I've become a full-time reader and emailer. But it is a process of progressively losing or giving up many, many things that you cherish. Perhaps the greatest challenge, then, is to do that without appearing psychologically undone by it.

“But I still find my pleasures in all of the arts that are accessible to me. Oh, except for the arts of sound which have deprived me of my love of theater.”

“Because of your hearing loss?”

“Yes, right.”

The 80s: Itchiness, maladies and the rest

“There's kind of a funny scene in the book where you're experiencing some terrible itching. And when a friend asks you how you are, you launched this conversation about how itchy you are. You find out that they're struggling with the same thing. But I thought it was a really lovely moment … where you found this connection that we have, as we both struggle with the same thing.”

“Yes. Aging and itchiness. I sometimes worried about the frequency with which I wrote about my chronic maladies because I have a whole raft of them. But were I to say nothing about them, it would be like censorship or misrepresent in actuality. But I can tell you, on the other hand, that you can't make a book out of the bad alone.”

“But it is a very real part of your life right now and the life of almost everyone who lives into their 80s.”

“Yes, but few could compete with my maladies.”

The nature of living long and losing friends

“I had a dear friend who passed away just last year, who lived into her hundreds, and one of the things that she told me was most difficult in her tenth decade was losing friend. after friend. after friend. She said it was just so lonely to see them go.”

“Yes, it is. It's very, very lonely. In the course of this book, I lost all my best friends. And I have no friends left who represent a substantial portion of my life. But that is in the nature of living long. And that loss was eloquently reflected in Swift's ‘Gulliver's Travels’ in the land of the people who live so long that they have nothing but loss.”

You can hear the full conversation with Klaus on Talk of Iowa.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa