Oct. 20 2015

New York City Through an 85-Year-Old’s Eyes

Exceeding Expectations Follows 20 Older New Yorkers Over One Year

Jacquie Murdock is a jazz aficionado, dancer, and fashion maven. Right now, she’s working on her memoir in between modeling for high-end fashion houses like Lanvin. She’s also a legally blind 85-year-old New Yorker.

What’s it like to live in New York City as an octogenarian like Jacquie? That’s the story that Exceeding Expectations, a new project from the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center, will tell over the coming months through a series of narratives, photos and video.

Exceeding Expectations follows 20 different people over the course of a year—all over 80 years old, the group includes people who are married, single, widowed, and divorced, gay and straight; people who own their homes, rent at market prices, and live in public housing; people born and raised in the United States, and those who’ve emigrated from the Dominican Republic, Guyana, China, Pakistan, and beyond. They include a great-grandmother helping to raise her 1-year-old great-grandson, a retired teacher looking for an adventure and a man who was in prison for 30+ years and now advocates for those he left behind. They share a city and a minimum number of years on the planet, and one more thing: they add up to a lot more than their advanced age.

When popular culture and the media portray older people, the images often fall into two categories, says Dorian Block, senior staff associate at the Columbia Aging Center, who directs the project. “You either see frailty and dependency only, or you see people skydiving.” The idea behind Exceeding Expectations is to tell the stories of real people, living their real lives. Older people face different choices and challenges, but many are living just as they were when they were younger. In the first batch of published stories, you’ll meet Sandy Robbins, who started the Shadow Box Theater 40 years ago—which now serves 30,000 kids a year—and continues to manage its operations, and Hank Blum, who has been an optometrist for 60 years and can’t seem to stay in retirement.  

“The wonderful thing about really getting to know old people, day in, day out, is that they come alive,” says Ruth Finkelstein, assistant professor of Health Policy and Management at the Columbia Aging Center, who conceptualized the project and serves as an advisor. “They come into three dimensions, out of our flat preconceptions and stereotypes about them. And they come out as people, really different people.”

With the help of a team of students, photographers, storytellers, and others, Exceeding Expectations has been following their group of New Yorkers since January. “I’ve been to the doctor with them, I’ve been to holiday dinners with their families, to parades and parks and laundromats, to memorial services of people they loved, to court hearings, and even on a date,” says Block. The goal: to develop intimacy and build a deep understanding of their daily lives.

Several students contributed language skills to the project, allowing Exceeding Expectations to follow seniors who don’t speak English: a Mailman student fluent in Mandarin, a Mailman student and a recent Columbia undergraduate fluent in Spanish.

For public health students who often think in terms of entire populations, spending an extended period of time with individuals, and telling their stories, can be extremely valuable—adding richness, complexity, and nuance to population studies. “Storytelling reconnects us with people. It’s human nature to have an emotional response to anecdotes, and statistics don’t always make the same impression,” says Sociomedical Sciences student Lauren Isaacs, who helped to recruit Exceeding Expectations participants and has been following Otto Neals, an artist in Crown Heights, and George Blomme and Doug McClure, a retired couple who hope to marry this year. (Their stories will be published on the site later this fall.)

While specific policy changes are not a primary goal, the team behind Exceeding Expectations hopes the project will put real stories to the issues older people face. “Until we expand our assumptions about who we are to include people of all ages, the institutional and policy changes won’t happen,” says Finkelstein. “It’s only when you understand who all the people are in the world that you can make a world for all the people.” To that end, Exceeding Expectations is working to get their stories to policy makers, community organizations, and advocates.

At the end of the day, Block hopes that visitors to the site—no matter their age—will learn something new about themselves and about growing older. “There’s such beauty in reaching later life, and it’s a victory for our society that we’re living longer,” she says. “When people go onto the site, I hope they’ll think, ‘Wow, I can do more with my life now, and the future is not something to fear, it can be a great place to be.’”

To follow along with Exceeding Expectations, visit their website and subscribe for weekly email updates with links to new stories.