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New Books on Aging

When I started planning this blog late in 2003, I had spent nearly a decade, in my spare time, researching aging. It wasn’t easy in those days. There was not access to old numbers of magazines and newspapers the internet now provides, so I spent a lot of time at library microfiche machines and purchasing back issues.

Most of the books then (the few that existed) were – or read like - academic works; lots of information, but hard to slog through. (Is there a special class required of college professors and science researchers to teach them to write as obscurely as possible?) Aging, beyond recitation of decline, was not a popular topic.

How times have changed. The daily/weekly/monthly media has twigged to the fact that the pig-in-a-python generation - baby boomers who, it is widely believed, invented everything on earth including the wheel - is getting old. Book publishers have realized this too and there is now a tsunami of books about aging.

A large number purport to reveal the secrets of living forever – the anti-aging crowd. A subgenre, of which there are several, contains recipes and fitness advice anyone can find for free on the web. These two topics are not rocket science and no one has anything new to say.

What could be called a sub-subgenre of anti-aging are those writers who apparently have accepted eventual death as a given, but want to tell you how to look young even, it seems, lying in your casket.

Publishers sometimes want to send me books on aging. I accept only those I believe might expand my knowledge and understanding of old age. Other suggestions come to me via blog readers which are almost always more useful. Here are a few books related to aging, recently published or republished.

Fierce with Reality, edited by Margaret Cruickshank, is a marvelous collection of poems and short pieces, ancient and modern, from many cultures about old age from writers renowned and not. It is the sort of book to keep by your bedside and I wish I remembered how this book came to me; I'm sure I owe a thank you to someone. An example, “The Flame,” written by Helen Earle Simcox:

He was
fragile
and trans-
parent
like the
time-dimmed
glass of
an old oil
lamp, but
his pride
was the wick’s
bright burning.
I longed to
steady his
steps, to
guide his
faltering
fingers
but the flame was hot.

Memory Lessons by geriatrician Jerald Winakur is memoir of his years of caring for elders together with his father’s descent into dementia while he and his family navigated the confusing choices everyone faces in this event. The book is also, partly, a rumination on what geriatrics is, should and could be by one of the dwindling number of physicians who choose this practice.

“A geriatrician and the editor of the journal Geriatrics, Dr. Fred Sherman, reflects on the art of observing his elderly patients: ‘Can a woman get out of a chair without pushing off with her hands? That means she can still use the toilet. Can a man put on his socks? If not, he will soon need someone to dress and bathe him.’ Geriatrics is very much about trying to maintain the functional status of our patients, doing the best we can to keep them independent, safe and happy…

“Geriatricians are protective of their patients. We shield them from the hucksters of the ‘anti-aging’ and pharmaceutical industries, even from our own colleagues who, at times, are unrealistic about how easy it will be to put in that new knee or bypass that blocked artery.”

There are dangerously few physicians, fewer every year, who are willing to practice this kind of medicine.

We make the big decisions in our lives and for most of them, there is no going back. After my divorce decades ago, I chose not to remarry, but I have often been curious about the experience of sharing daily life with one person for 40 or 50 or 60 years. I would like to try it, but that won't happen now in this lifetime.

In September Songs, subtitled “The Good News About Marriage in the Later Years,” Maggie Scarf reports on extensive interviews she conducted with about 75 late life couples many of whom say life together is more satisfying after two or more decades of marriage.

“Often, one question that was part of my format – ‘How have your arguments changed over time?’ – evoked laughter on the part of the couple, and a wry admission that their arguments hadn’t changed in terms of what was being argued about. What was different was the presence of humor and the level of intensity involved. I found myself laughing along with them, knowing that if my husband and I were interviewees, our responses would have been similar.”

When a publicist emailed about Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me by Lucia Van Der Post, I declined the book which had been described as advice on living gracefully in old age. She talked me into looking at it and I wish I hadn’t.

Most of the book is shopping and beauty tips of the most expensive and “anti-aging” variety. This is a woman who thinks an $800 pair of grass green Marc Jacobs shoes is “one of the best investments I’ve ever made” and she lost me completely with this advice on “waging war against wrinkles” for women 50 and older:

“You should be using products specifically labeled antiaging or one of the cult creams referred to above.”

Ms. Van Der Post makes a passing stab at recommending less expensive brands of clothing, furniture, cosmetics and more, but her idea of affordable is still pricey and you can tell her heart isn’t in it.

One of the most recent in a new subgenre of books on sex and older women (where are the men on this topic?) is Still Doing It: The Intimate Lives of Women Over 60 by Deirdre Fishl and Diana Holtzberg, both documentary film producers. In fact, the film of the same name came first and this book, says the jacket, is a “deeper look at women who break every stereotype we have about sex and intimacy.”

A lot of first-name-only women are quoted about how wonderful sex is at their age in many varieties and this is probably a good book if you doubt that.

I bought Look Me in the Eye by Barbara Macdonald with Cynthia Rich when Jan Adams wrote about it in her Gay and Gray column here. First published in 1983, it is currently out of print, but can be found for sale around the web.

The essays are a powerful inquiry into ageism, particularly toward women, from one who already, as a lesbian, understood being perceived as other in society. Jan did such a fine job in her column, I suggest you re-read it rather and me writing more.

This post doesn’t begin to survey the hundreds, thousands of new books about aging. The majority are shallow offerings with no serious thinking about getting old in a time when that period of our lives lasts so much longer than ever before in history. But each year there are a few standouts.

One thing puzzles me: the books on personal experiences of aging are written almost entirely by women. Are men unconcerned or uninterested in exploring this territory? Certainly, our culture accepts old men more easily than women, but that doesn’t make this time of our lives less compelling, particularly now when old age lasts much longer than ever before in history, and I’m curious about men’s views.

I read a few days ago that 80 percent of the astronomical number of recent job layoffs are among men. Maybe with time on their hands, some older ones will weigh in with a book or two.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Claire Jean recounts the unexpected events of last Christmas Eve in Family Night.]

Comments

Interesting post today and timely. For any readers interested, NPR's Diane Rehm will be interviewing Abigail Trafford who wrote "As Time Goes By" at 11 AM EST.

Excerpt from website says:

Every day, eight thousand Americans turn sixty years old. Many are re-inventing romance and re-defining marriage in their retirement years. An award-winning journalist on what it means to love and be loved in later life.
Guests

Abigail Trafford, is a journalist, columnist, and former health editor at "The Washington Post" and author of "Crazy Time" and "My Time."

Yes, timely. Let's hope the trend continues! My experience has been that agents still hesitate, at least when it comes to the subject of extreme old age and death, written by new writers without platform. So far, I have been unable to interest agents in the book derived from my blog By Bea's Bedside. I was heartened recently by the success of Lisa Genova who, unable to find an agent, self-published her novel on early onset Alzheimer's, Still Alice. It is now a bestseller. Life events do interest readers. Let's raise our glasses of orange juice to the demise of chic lit!

I too am interested in the extent to which the books on aging seem to be from women. Recently I attended a couple of workshops on aging at an activist conference and these too were full of far more women than men.

I don't believe much that the genders are so very different in our real lives, but perhaps the expectations developed over years of life in the times we live in effect what we do in age. So we get a lot of old women reflecting on our condition and we get men either trying to figure out how to still fix the plumbing despite aging -- or hoping someone will take care of them.

And I suspect that future generations will age with slightly different expectations.

Books on aging by men

The Force of Character and the Lasting Life by James Hillman--a marvelously thought-provoking book on the experience and value of aging, by a leader in the field of depth psychology.

And the books of Dr. Robert Butler, who coined the word ageism in 1968. They may not be new but they are relevant.

Successful Aging by John Rowe MD and Robert Kahn Ph.D. which dismantles popular stereotypes about aging and older adults.

For me the hardest part of getting old is the gradual loss of independence. Now everything that I used to do easily is hard.

No book is going to tell me what I already know. When I try to read a book on aging by a younger author I think, "Just wait until you are there and then write that book." I have found very little that is helpful in books or articles on the subject. The best road map for me is observing people older than I am. I can easily see that it doesn't get better.

I think there are some very good reasons why most of the books on aging (including two of mine) are written by women. Firstly, midlife is a much tougher hurdle to jump for women than it is for men because we undergo a massive hormonal change (causing a cascade of other changes in our bodies and psyches), whereas men's hormonal changes are smooth and gradual over many years.
Secondly, since we have lived under a patriarchy for centuries, the role of the male elder - especially in public life - is already well defined. The role of the female elder, except as 'grandmother' within the family, is still quite a new concept. (Remember that a hundred years ago women often didn't live more than a decade beyond menopause.) So elderwomanhood is still a 'work-in-progress.' And I like to think that I, along with a number of other female authors in this past decade, all of whom have written well about women and aging, such as Jean Shinoda Bolen, Angeles Arrien, Berta Parrish, Daphne Stevens, Deborah Vaughn, Pam Blair and Suzanne Braun Levine, have been helping to lay some of the foundations for it. I hope we all get on your booklist eventually, Ronni.

I just received Joan Chittister's "The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully", which one critic (Andrew Greeley) cites as "the best took I have read on the subject of aging." I have read her columns in the Natl Catholic Reporter and think she's brilliant. I listened to her in an interview with Bill Moyer, and said to my spouse, "I think she should be President." So far I have just scanned it, but it looks great.

Are we forgetting some of the best things written about aging by men:

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep...

"Do not go gentle into that good night..."

"I hear the mermaids singing each to each...I do not think they sing for me.."

And Philip Roth...

As you say Ronni, "the books on personal experiences of aging are written almost entirely by women." But, I'm not sure that this is necessarily a drawback. While men's personal experiences of aging do differ from those of women, when it comes to health and social issues these differences are not so great that both genders can't benefit from information provided by current books and other materials, even though they are primarily written by women. That said, I believe that there is one area of aging that definitely needs to be covered from the male perspective: "How do men feel feel about aging and how do these feelings affect their ability to cope with the aging process?."

Since women are usually more willing than men to discuss their personal feelings, female emotional reactions to aging have been discussed in a wide variety of venues. On the other hand, the reluctance of men to reveal their personal feelings has resulted in there being little coverage of how they feel about aging and how these feelings affect their ability to cope with the aging process. So, for all we know, appearing to be unconcerned or uninterested in exploring the aging process may just be a coping mechanism to hide this reluctance to air their feelings. Then again, maybe not. Maybe they are unconcerned and uninterested. Whatever the reason, a study of this aspect of the male aging process would be difficult, but I think any meaningful results would be very interesting and quite helpful to aging men.

I want to read the book on positive aging that Ronni Bennett could write if she only would. :)

I found this piece of special interest coinciding with a variety of aging experiences I'm sharing with several patients of both genders right now.

The challenges of unexpected health events, adjusting to various levels of care with some becoming more independent again, and others having to settle for less; the differing ways with which family members interact and cope, are just some of the ways I'm consciously living with the aging processes of many others. This daily exposure stimulates thoughts about my own personal life.

I'm often disappointed when I read books on aging as I find little new. Maybe because I've already lived so many of the experiences both personally and professionally. A few authors do find a way to more clearly articulate than I might, what I believe to be true.

There are always exceptions, but the women -- spouse, adult child, significant other -- seem to be more apt to be curious or want to explore issues beyond those immediate strictly medical ones. I do think part of this is generational.

I think males in the generation of my adult children may be more prone to expressing themselves. Of course, to a certain degree, doing so also could likely be reflective of their family dialogue when they were young, and then as young adults.

I agree with Chancy, and have said so here before, a book on aging by Ronni Bennett would be one of reading interest.

Aging is such a personal experience and each one does it according to their genetic and attitudinal make up that folks who write books about aging really are generalizing. The best thing about aging is being able to do so and if one is lucky enough to do it well and stay alive without extrodinary events occuring...that is the best life of all. "To be is a blessing - to live is holy" as Rabbi Joshua Heschel said..."and to save one life (like Captain Sullenberger) is to save the whole world" - as the Torah teaches...what more can we ask?
Thank you Ronni for giving me a chance to use my brain!!!!

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