Estelle Strongin, born on May 30, 1911, became a stockbroker in middle age and at the time that this interview was conducted (November 2005), she was 94 and still working every day. She was the widowed mother of two children, a daughter and a son, who lived near her in Manhattan, and the grandmother of three, including Miri Navasky, producer of FRONTLINE's "Living Old." Three months after this interview, Estelle Strongin died of heart failure at home. This is an edited transcript of her interview.
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Are people surprised at your age, and that you're working?
Everybody seems to be surprised at my age. Sometimes they make me feel like that saying that this dog stands on its hind legs, it's remarkable; if you're 94 and can still ride on a bus, you're the human equivalent.
Well, because most people sort of collapse into old age. They don't try to do the things that younger people do. My work fortunately is the kind that you can do in the office or you can sometimes work from home. But I try to be in the office, where you're more in touch with things. You have your computers; you have information being poured out to you daily from your firm. It's more in touch, and I like to be in the office. The market is open from 9:30 to 4:00. That's not a strenuous day.
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Estelle Strongin (94) represents our greatest hopes for living old to our fullest capacity. At the time this interview was conducted (Nov. 2005), she was still working every day. Here, she offers some wise thoughts about life, aging and the ties of love and family.Watch »
What makes it harder for you, being your age?
People's attitude about older people. People are a little skeptical about your ability. ... At dinner parties or at cocktail parties or at gatherings, young people are always very courteous, and for some reason think they have to kiss you on the cheek, but they're very anxious to go on to the next person.
When do things start to change, your perception of growing older?
It's a very gradual thing. You get beyond the point in your 30s where you see wrinkles, and they're a little startling, and then you get used to them. It's very gradual. I think it's hard to feel old. Now, that may just be me, but I'm always a little surprised that I'm this old. I just never feel like a very old person, and I suspect that other people may have that inner spring of youth. I think inside every old person there probably is a young person screaming to get out, but your audience doesn't let you.
Did you go through changes from 60 to 70 to 80 to 90?
I think every decade brings changes, but I was never one of the people to be horrified as the decades passed. At 30, I was delighted. I felt that I had grown so much from 20. At 40, my children were at a different stage. I was at a different stage. I thought 40 was perfect. I'm afraid I thought 50 was perfect. I'm afraid I thought every decade had wonderful rewards, except I have to admit that 90 was a little intimidating. I thought 90 meant the end, and I'm a little surprised that it hasn't.
What my health record is? Just, oh, good God. [laugh] Four cancers, all different. Major heart attack. Chemotherapy. Radiation. You name it, I've had it.
What kinds of cancers?
Let's not get medical. Well, some things have happened to me. I've been debilitated by all of it. I live with a damaged heart. But you learn to live with what you've got. I don't think I wanted to admit that there was any debility.
“I think inside every old person there probably is a young person screaming to get out, but your audience doesn't let you.”
I just didn't want to dwell on it. I wanted to use what I had, not what was gone.
How do people respond to you?
People are very impressed, but that doesn't mean that they want me to be their friend especially. So making new friends at this age is a little daunting. There aren't that many people around this age that are mobile. So you do make new friends who are younger. That seems to be very rewarding.
Does it get isolating?
I suppose I spend a lot of time alone, but I don't feel isolated. I have a lot of interests. I have a lot of good support. I don't feel isolated.
What kinds of support?
Well, I feel that family and friends are supportive and are interested, so that makes it interesting when people are interested.
Did you go through a time when friends started passing away?
Yes, yes. That teaches you to get over your fear of death, because it's such an -- [it] goes together with life, just like ham and eggs. And it's hard. There are losses that can't be replaced. There are empty holes that can't be filled. But it's all a normal part of living.
I understand the fear of death in young people, and the horror of it, even the horror of growing old. I remember being repulsed by wrinkles and gray hair. Now they're just a part of life. And death -- death doesn't frighten me anymore. It makes me angry. Makes me very angry that I'm not going to be able to go on and on forever and see how everything turns out.
You must have lost a lot of people over the years.
Oh! Mother, father, sister, brother, nephews, people who are close and dear -- but are all still part of my life. I haven't lost them. They're not here physically, but they're all very much part of who I am.
What does that mean when you go to work every day?
It means that you are participating; you have some enthusiasm; you have some energy. You've summoned it up from whatever depths they're concealed in.
I surprise myself that I can withstand the excitement and the ups and downs of the profession I have chosen; that that doesn't wear me down.
Who do you work with? What ages?
Oh, they run the gamut, but nobody's as old as I am. I think there is this one man in the firm who's about 91, but I don't know how well he functions.
Do people get nervous with you, with their money?
Well, I don't have a lot of clients left. It's hard to get new clients. How many people are going to come to a 94-year-old person? It's usually the people who have known me, or their parents have used me -- it's not a large following. My partner -- my daughter -- has many more customers than I do. But the few that I have seem to have the confidence. I must say that I'm not attracting new accounts, but the old ones seem to be very happy and satisfied to stay.
Why am I still working? Everybody asks me that, so I should be prepared with an answer, shouldn't I? But I usually say, if I didn't go to work every day, my alternative would be to have lunch with some of my 80-year-old friends and listen to them talk about their grandchildren. This is better.
What does it give you?
There's an excitement. And I still, even though I'm 94, I still have ambitions, and one of them is to do the job well each day.
How do people treat you differently at work?
... Mostly they ignore me. ... Well, the young men in the office and the young women have no great interest in me. As a curiosity, yes. The firm gives me a birthday party every year, and they all come, and they all say nice things. But they're not really interested.
Has that changed over the years ... with younger and older generations?
May I ask you a question?
Yes, you may.
If you go to a party and there's a very old lady there, and there are young people who are your contemporaries, how much time do you spend with the old lady, unless she happens to be your grandmother? You don't. I don't see you contradicting me.
No, I think you're probably right.
So you know the answer. (Laughs.)
Do you think that's changed since when you were young?
No. I can remember my darling grandmother was very sick in Boston. I lived in New York, and I did not go to visit her when she was sick. Young people are self-absorbed. I don't blame anybody for being self-absorbed. I was young.
Your daily routines?
Most of it is very routine. You get up; you get dressed; you have breakfast; and if you live alone, you do the marketing and you plan your dinner. You go to work, and you come home, and you cook your dinner. Or if you have a date, I still occasionally go out to dinner with friends a couple of times a week, or we go to a movie or to a theater or to a lecture or a concert or a ballet, and perhaps two, maybe three nights a week, or perhaps a matinee. The rest is routine. The main excitement, I think, is my work. That's why I work -- to have an interest, an enthusiasm and an interest, a feeling of participating. Engaged, participating, doing, accomplishing.
The gap between chronological and emotional age: People generally feel younger. You are young inside?
My son says immature. (Laughs.)
Is it part of human experience that we never catch up with our real age?
That's an interesting concept. I don't know enough to have an opinion about that. I just feel that we go along and do what we have to do each day, what we enjoy doing, and life is always interesting; it's always changing. Perhaps that's why I have enjoyed the stock market for so long. It's always changing: politics, psychology, wars, ... population trends. So there's always something new happening, and that's what makes life interesting and what makes my work interesting for me.
How old do you feel inside?
I can't put a chronological age on it. I feel old. Well, we all have the inner child, but the body betrays us, and the inner child walks around in this old carcass. (Laughs.) But life is still fun and interesting.
My mom says it's weird to watch her children age, not so much her own aging. Are you aware of your kids aging? Is that a strange experience?
I thought that I was going to hate it. At one point of my life, when I looked at them young, I said, "Oh, I never want to see them old and wrinkled." See that built-in prejudice against old and wrinkled? Even coming out of a 94-year-old? It's just there; it's in society. But when you see your children grow and develop in ways that you never dreamed of, that's so rewarding. One thing you learn is, you outgrow the vanity. The wrinkles, the gray hair, the sagging figure -- that does not bother you anymore. I don't care about that in my children. You see them growing and developing into wonderful human beings, and you have had a contribution to this. What a lovely feeling.
Liberating to be free of the vanity?
Oh, yes. Vanity and modesty. In illness, it goes right out the window. (Laughs.)
Yet you are beautifully presented, elegant, lovely.
Oh, thank you. It's part of society. You just want to look normal when you go out in the morning.
Growing old in America -- does it have particular challenges?
I think it does for some people. I had a friend ... and kept in touch with her through the years. She left the country when her children were grown, educated, married and launched on their lives. She said, "I got very tired of being overlooked wherever I went." And she said, "Living in America is very expensive." I went to Spain, where, last time I saw her, I guess she was about 76, and she said, "I go to Spain, and if I walk into a bar" -- it would never occur to me to go into a bar, anyplace -- "if I walk into a bar, people immediately make room for me and include me in their conversation. They would never let me sit alone in a bar. Somebody always comes over to talk." She said, "In America, they look at you and walk right on, even at a party, where you're introduced." So she wound up with a lover. (Laughs.) She said [it] would never happen in America. And she's very happy there.
Aging in America is probably different from [aging] in other countries, but it's the only country I know, and I've been very happy aging in America. I don't think I'd be happy aging in any other country. Would never occur to me to walk into a bar.
Do you make new friends? Do you tell people your age?
I don't have to tell people my age. Even if they guess younger than I am, it's still pretty old. So I have made a few younger friends. It's hard making friends with people my age, because they're not anyplace where you meet them. Either they're dead or not mobile. It's hard making friends because you miss that comfort level of old friends, where you have shared so many experiences.
At a cocktail party, I met someone not long ago, a few years younger than I am, and we both made an effort, because we both knew we both need new friends. And it was hard. We both understood, and we both tried, but that community, that shared experience, where she knew my husband and I knew hers, and we saw the children grow up, it's not the same. It's rather stilted.
Young people are self-absorbed. Are we also fearful of seeing age?
I think young people are afraid of old age and of death, and they don't want to be reminded. And they are self-absorbed. I was self-absorbed. My grandchildren are so lucky, because I remember how self-absorbed I was, and I'm amazed at the attention that I get from them.
It's easy to be that way in our culture. You don't have contact with somebody who's old.
But all family relationships are diluted today.
No. I'm used to the 90s now. And there are some rewards: watching the people you love mature; recognizing the things about yourself that are good, and the things that you have worked on to try to improve, and seeing some improvement; and generally having come to terms with the imperfections of the human race, especially your own, as well as others. Coming to terms with all that, it gives you a calmness. The frenzy of youth is -- (laughs.) Well, I'll just let it hang there.
Well, there are so many good things about being young that it's hard to say that there are some drawbacks. But the self-absorption, it's nice to be rid of that.
If you could have looked ahead, decades earlier, are you surprised by the life you still have at your age?
Yes. I never thought I would survive after my husband died. I did not know how I would function alone, without him.
What would you like to see and not see in this film?
That it isn't frightening; that if you are lucky -- I've been lucky -- growing old and going through a lot of loss and pain and illness can be tragic and doesn't always turn out well, and there are a lot of hardships that I have not had to endure that I'm grateful for, and I think your film is going to have to show that there are hardships in growing old, there are disadvantages, but there's some hope, and there are some comforting things. People on the bus get up and give you a seat. You travel half-fare. You go to the movies half-fare. There are some advantages to being old. You're more comfortable in your own skin than you've ever been before. Maybe that's what your [film] should prove.
As we get older, do we get wiser?
You can't help but get wiser. You observe so many people, so many events, so many relationships, the good ones, the bad ones -- if you can't learn, my God! You have to be wiser. I don't know many old people who aren't pretty wise. I don't know many old people, period. (Laughs.) So --
You have a very engaged family.
Oh, I've had wonderful support from my family. We've had wonderful relationships. I had close relationships with nieces, nephew. No, I've had a lot of support, and I guess not everybody has that.
Your son, daughter, grandchildren are a part of your life?
Oh, they're definitely part of my life. I'm very lucky that both my children live in my city; that my son's office is two blocks away, and he comes and has lunch with me, and my daughter two or three times a week. That's luck.
Would you ever consider living with your kids as you grow older?
I wouldn't do that to them. (Laughs.) Actually, my daughter has asked me to do that, and I said, "I like my son-in-law too much to do that to him." (Laughs.)
I live alone, and I like as little help as possible. I have a rather large apartment, but I only have someone come in four hours a week. I do everything else myself. ... Some people go to exercise class. I find that I never needed exercise class. I found a lot of exercise around the house. (Laughs.) And it isn't always just boring work. It's taking care of things you love, things you treasure owning.
Do you get uneasy about it? Do your kids want somebody here with you?
Oh, they insist that I have Life Alert so that if I fall, somebody will come. And it means that when I forget to press that button that I'm going out, that my daughter or my son or my grandson will get a call from Life Alert: "Where is she?" And they have to start worrying about that.
One day I went off to do some marketing and came back with two heavy packages and saw an ambulance out front and said, "Oh dear, I hope that's not for me." I walked in, and the super was there, and I said to him, "I hope that's not for me." And he said: "Yes, it is, Mrs. Strongin. The Life Alert -- you didn't press your Life Alert when you went out." They got no answer, and they sent the ambulance.
You would hate having somebody here?
I would not like it because I would have to get involved in their life, and I don't really want to do that at this point. It isn't as though I'm ... isolated. I work from 9:30 or 10:00 till 4:00. I'm interacting with people. So when I come home, I'm tired, and I wouldn't like to have to interact with somebody at that point.
Have you had conversations with your kids about a health care proxy?
My son, who has power of attorney in case anything happens to me, asked me to sign a paper that would authorize termination in case of a hopeless-looking condition, and I said, "No, I'm not signing that." There are a lot of cases where doctors have said, "This patient has three months to live," and they've lived 30 years. The body is a healing machine. It heals so much by itself. The swelling on the brain goes down. The body does it. They're not God. They can't always know exactly what's going on or how desperate it is. This was during the [Terri] Schiavo case. And I said no, and my son the lawyer asked me why. And my daughter said: "In case you are impaired for weeks and months, do you want Landey [Strongin's son] and me to come to the hospital every day and weep over you for weeks and months at a time? Is that what you want for your children? I don't want it for my children. I've signed it."
And I said, "I don't care." (Laughs.) I said: "First of all, it will never be weeks and months. My body would terminate quickly. My heart would see to it that it would be quick. And I don't want somebody making that God-like decision for me, period."
Maybe that's just not being willing to give up control over my life. The only way I can explain it, is that I don't think that medicine knows everything perfectly, and that while there's life, there's hope. It's part of my general optimism, I guess, and confidence that if it were that hopeless, my heart would intervene and say, "The end," and I'm willing to let it go at that.
Why do you think so many people sign those?
Because they don't want to see their children suffer. And I said to them, "I don't care." (Laughs.) "Suffer." (Laughs.) ... I've always said, if I can open one eye and see somebody that I love, I want it. That's all.
Can you imagine changing your mind?
Yeah. Pain. If I were in terrible pain, I would end it. But see, there's that control again. I'm sure it's a matter of control. That's what I decided.
Since you've been a widow, have you wanted to date and meet people?
I happen to have been married to an extraordinary man. He just had everything: 6'2", gorgeous, looked like a Greek god, brilliant, witty. Just worked all the time, but that was his only defect. (Laughs.) It would be hard. It would be hard. And I wasn't so young when it happened -- 15 years ago. I was close to 80. Seventy-nine, 80. If I were young, probably I would have.
Well, my theory about love is that being loved is not the important part about love. It's loving that's important. I don't know how to make you understand that. Being loved ... is sort of pampering your ego. You're not growing in any way when somebody pampers you and loves you and adores you. ... I don't know what hormones it stimulates, but the feeling of loving somebody, it's so enlarging. And you will do anything for the person you love. That's when you grow, when you begin to submerge yourself into loving that other person. So that's the important part about love for me, is loving, not being loved.
Are you dreading winter?
Oh, winter. I can't go out in the cold weather. I can't breathe in the cold. The doctors don't know why, but it's partly because the cold air goes into your lungs, and the lungs are near your damaged, swollen heart, and -- so I do dread the winter. And my daughter, knowing that, just brought me, like, a 1,400-page book to read. (Laughs.)
My grandmother described a melancholy at end of autumn.
The day gets shorter, and the night gets longer, and the dark starts coming at 4:00, 4:30. We all know the Swedes are totally melancholy because of their long nights. And I have a six-month night coming up, basically. ... And my children, of course, when they come, are annoyed because I don't keep all the lights on in this large apartment. (Laughs.) They come in, and they say: "Bad enough you're in here. Why are you sitting with all these dark rooms?" But somehow the spring always comes, so hopefully it will come again this year. What did Edna Millay say: "April will come again"?
Do you give much thought to what's ahead? Do you think far down in your future?
Yeah. What will I do if -- when my vision goes? That will be hard. So I like to say flippantly, "Well, I'll just have a tall, handsome Columbia student come and read to me, that's all." I'll manage.
You'll keep putting one foot in front of another?
At some point I may not be able to do that. But as long as I can open an eye and see someone I love, I want it. So if I can open one eye and see you there, sweetie ... (Laughs.)