How important is good health? Heading into this project, I presumed it was a sine qua non of active old age. That’s what common sense would dictate, right? Paradoxically, it’s not what I’m observing in my interviews.
Take Bill and Ruth Stein, who run a bookselling business in New York. They’re pretty crippled. As the pilot of a B-17 bomber, Bill was the last man to parachute when it was shot down over Belgium and broke his ankle badly. Set in a German POW camp, it’s been operated on many times, and Bill’s just had his second knee replacement. Ruth now has post-polio syndrome, aggravated by scoliosis, so she has to rely on a walker or an elbow if taking more than a few steps. Bill’s in chronic pain. Ruth says she’s not, though there’s a giant bottle of Advil on her bedside table.
Many might see this as a legitimate reason to settle down on a chaise by the pool, but not these two. The Steins do have a pool, at the house in the New York suburbs they drive to on Thursday nights after three days meeting with customers. They do 80 lengths every morning (or half an hour on the treadmill in the winter). To Ruth, their disabilities are a reason they keep working rather than a justification for them to stop. “I can’t play golf; that’s never been an option,” she points out. “Because I am rather physically impaired I cannot do the things I would want to do. We would do a lot more traveling. Even going to museums is a pain.”
Instead, they have adapted their way of working to their restricted mobility. Customers come to their book-filled apartment-cum-showroom in the city. “It’s not just straight work. We feed them, it’s a social event,” she explains. Many have become good friends, joining the Steins’ diverse and ever-expanding social circle.