INTERESTING STUFF – 29 August 2020

Old? No Problem. Live Like You're 20

In the past couple of weeks my email inbox has been filling up with a rash of self-help books for old people.

Before I go a word farther, you should know that I despise self-help books. My animus goes back to the 1970s when I worked on local morning TV shows in New York City where staple guests were the authors of this sort of twaddle.

Over those few years I read dozens of self help books but it doesn't take reading more than two or three to see that they are all the same, sometimes dressed up in either exotic-sounding metaphors or standard-issue aphorisms.

If a book is not the seven keys to life found in an African jungle, it is the stairway to heavenly personal success or the magic of thinking big (or little). They all guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong again in your life if you will follow their prescriptions for happiness AND you'll get rich too if you will just buy the book.

While I'm on that point, a whole lot of self-help books are not about enriching your life but about getting rich, as in dollars – about half of them, I'd judge. Before I would read even one more, I'd want to see proof of the author's net worth.

A fairly recent trend in self-help tomes is advice for old people. Someone in the publishing industry apparently got wise to the fact that the U.S. is graying, our numbers are increasing and now writers can't wait to explain to us how to live.

Usually, when these book promotions arrive in my inbox, I hit “delete” but occasionally I scan the message and a few days ago I came upon a book written by a woman whose mother suffered a stroke at age 92 and who then

”...helped her mother achieve and log 93 new activities between her 93rd and 94th birthdays, just to show you’re never too old to have fun.”

Really? Ninety-three brand new activities to match her age? Unless the author is counting rearranging the silverware drawer as a new activity, I doubt it. (Millie Garfield, feel free to chime in here).

This sub-genre of self-help books – self-help for old people – is not any more about SELF help than the self-help books for younger adults. They are all about the authors' way of life – each one of them convinced that theirs is the answer to all man- and womankind's troubles.

Invariably, the main piece of “wisdom” to be gained from these books is for old people to behave like younger people. Oh, they don't say it as baldly as I have. They tell you to be active, take up running, learn to play an instrument, run for political office in your town. Or, as above, find 93 new activities to do in one year because younger, mid-life people think they know all about how old people should behave.

These writers are people who are not yet afflicted with arthritis, rheumatism, emphysema, heart disease or other ailments of age that catch up with most of us eventually. Or, if not disease, we just get tired out, maybe from all the activities of those over-active mid-years.

It's has been awhile, but as I have often said in these pages over many years, individuals age at different rates of change. Unlike babies who can be expected to speak their first word and take their first step at a specific week of life, old age hits some people earlier than others or later than some others.

Either way, there comes a time when, like it or not, we must curtail some of the activities we have enjoyed for years or give in to nap each afternoon or realize we have already climbed a ladder for the last time or, on some days, just want to sit and let our minds wander around.

There is nothing wrong with any of that although many of the self-help gurus spend 300-odd pages in their books telling us otherwise.

What I think is that if self-help books for old people are necessary (a questionable premise), it is old people who should be writing them. Unless a younger writer is a geriatrician, gerontologist or hospice worker, for example, what does a 30- or 40- and 50-year old know about getting old?

The correct answer is: nothing.


I detest self-help books also. I do like the ”I’m OK, your are OK” movement. aka ”Judge NOT, least you be judged”

I'd be willing to wager that many of the self-help authors do not live as they advise others to do. Hypocrisy is such a human trait. I'll grant you that some are indeed trying to sell their own lifestyle. IF the author is rich, it is probably because s/he is a good writer (or good salesperson) rather than that they have found the secret to life. IMHO: Try as one might, one cannot really understand that to which they have not been subjected. Empathy is gained through experience.

The only self Self-help book authors are intending to help is themselves. I'm cynical about this i guess.

Why do people always think they are flawed? You are what you were meant to be.
If I were to write a self-help book, the first sentence would be, " Are you sure you really need this help?"

Even when I was in my 80's I did not understand what it was like to be old. Now at 95 when all the body parts are complaining to me do I really understand what can happen to a person
Cop Car said best, "Empathy is gained through experience." Who knew!

I , too, dislike know-what's-good-for-you authors in the self-help genre, but let's don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The self-help movement originated as an attempt to take back the lives and narrative of people from misguided professionals who were not listening. It was and still is a way to put people's own stories front and center, and to gather with others experiencing similar difficulties. Alcoholics Anonymous is an early and potent example, but the list goes on and on up to our current Me, Too and Black Lives Matter movements.

Sure, some authors have profited and taken advantage of the hunger we all have for answers to life's challenges. Especially when professionals have failed to acknowledge reality. It's irritating, but the bigger picture is revolutionary.

I loved the quote from Millie Garfield.

I have stopped self-help gradually, you know the way one heals or dies.

Reminds me of the old maxim that the way to get rich is not to invest in the stock market, but to write a book about how to invest in the stock market.

Oh hallelujah!

I have long felt exactly how you feel about these money wasting self help trash pieces.

No account is taken of individual needs, desires, limits. We are all so different. I am often told I should write such a book and I laugh. To expect someone to religiously follow in my footsteps is farcical. And meaningless.

We all find our paths in life, that is the whole adventure of it. No instructions, no signposts, we make our own as we toddle along. The best thing of all is to share with each other that we are not alone in our struggles and challenges and absolute uniqueness.

I can never tell anyone else what to do. Just share my own journey.


I love garage sailing, and it's always fun to see what self help books the family is selling, and then take a gaze at the owner... and smile.

Today's post reminds me of a song from the early 1970's that went something like this, as I recall, roughly speaking:

....Self Help Books, huh, yeah
What are they good for
Absolutely nothing
Self Help Books, huh, yeah
What are they good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, why'all
Self Help Books, huh, good god
What are they good for
Absolutely nothing, listen to me.......

Your post reminds me that Ram Dass said he wrote a book on aging in his mid-50 and another one in his 80s, entirely different, and he really did not know what aging was like in his mid-50s. I got a lot from Ram Dass, and also James Hillman.

Yes, there's a lot of junk out there, and yet we have some wise, gifted persons writing in the fields of interpersonal psychology, philosophy and specialized topics. Few books have changed my life but some nudged me from being stuck in my own limited perspective, and I want to guard against that tendency as I get old(er).

I agree with Diane about not throwing out the baby with the bath water. All self-help books are not the same. Some are actually helpful.

For example, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky wrote a book called "The How of Happiness" which details things people can do to feel happier, all based on research. Note that she isn't saying "Do this and you will be happy forever." It's more like "Do this today and you will be happier today." The practices she recommends are simple and have nothing to do with money.

Earlier, you lambasted a book called "Successful Aging" because the whole idea that there is successful vs. unsuccessful aging is ludicrous. I agree with you on that, but I read parts of the book and learned a few useful things, such as that I have to take melatonin several hours before bed for it to help me sleep. That's made a huge difference in my life.

When I pick up a self-help book, I'm not expecting it to transform my life. I'm looking for information, a different way of seeing things, some useful tidbits. I pay attention to who the author is and how much I think he or she knows about the subject.

So I would never say I hate self-help books. Like most every other category of things in the world, there are good ones and bad ones. I try to use judgment in deciding which ones to read, then take from them what is useful and leave the rest.

Best self-help advice of my 59y lifetime? I was caring for Mom as she was dying of her aggressive cancer (7weeks was all she got). She walked inside her home, one end to the other, until 3d before she died. The advice?

Don't be angry about what you can't do. Be happy about what you CAN do. I was just 46 then. Great advice Mom. I will never forget!

I so enjoy your Blog :-)

Wonderful posts and insights. For a while I read everything I could get my hands on, after my son's death (auto accident), followed by the death of my dear mother-in-law and soon after, a divorce that I did not want. A few books helped me get through the worst couple of years but I soon realized that my life depended on my own resilience. I stumbled but got up and went on. Life is too precious to continue to be mired in self doubt and pity. Self help books can help motivate for only a short period of time. You have to do the work yourself.

AMEN!! If someone suggested to me that I should start running - or doing anything like that - I might hit them. As I lie here on a hot pack, nursing muscle spasms and pain from a fall last weekend....stupid me....thinking I could vacuum at nearly age 80.

But maybe if I had taken up running earlier, I'd be able to vaccuum without falling backward; tripping over a chair leg. Who knows?

I agree that books written to help older people ought to be written by older people!

Yesterday, I took your advice Ronni, and spoke with someone (a cousin) we are just finding each other on a page I posted, where family can gather and post pics, reached out and like you and Kathy felt a connection and just talked, and talked, it was great. So, it is my self help by feeling a sense of mentoring, we have a couple to look back on, how they took off to LA from Chicago in 1930 with the Depression, and now a meeting and sharing of 90 years, and many traits we may still share.
What, I'd say is talk about aging with your children, cousins, etc. I am reminded of a Museum of Science exhibit on aging, glasses smeared with Vaseline, walkers, and weighted jackets, all to let kids feel what elders were feeling, we can't shut people away, need to talk about life and death, and living our lives with purpose. VOTE.

Exactly... self help books are written for 30, 40, 50 yr olds to permit them to believe they have control over their lives. And to enrich the authors for writing something w no substance.

Best advice (from my 85 yo mother):
Don't *should* on yourself, and don't let anyone else *should* on you, either.

Hear ye, hear ye! B

My mother bought a self-help type book titled "Good to Go" a few years before she became totally incapacitated. I thumbed through it, and wished she had read it, instead of just putting it on the shelf for "later". It was basically a list of things to do while you still could that would make your passing less onerous for your survivors - write or update your will, designate beneficiaries, consider DNRs, etc. I'm not sure if this falls into the self-help or help-others catagory, but it would have been useful.

I agree with Nancy Wick...
Some self help books are helpful, some not.
After reading many, some are memorable...
Living in the Light by Shakti Gawain, was so important when I read it In my 30s, I carried it around Like a bible for years.

All books by Pema Chodron, which are Buddhist teachings...not self help.

Women rowing North, written by a woman in her 70s, got a lot of buzz, started book groups...

I could go on.

For the most part, I totally agree that self help books are just a waste of money. And a way for the author to make money.

Then I remembered , The Feminine Mystique (1963), Betty Friedan (1921-2006). Would this be considered a self help book? This book changed my life.

Perhaps when you are young, and have not been exposed to choices or ideas for life changes, a book can inspire you?

When we are old, we know what makes us tick. We know what we want and who we are. We know what we need to make us function and feel good about ourselves. Maybe we can still do these things, or not.

Self help books tell us what the author thinks we should do to fix what we might not think is even broken.

Bruce Cooper--Who is it that has determined what we should be?

Millie--Thanks for the hat tip and many of us are extremely happy to see that you are still around to give input from our elder.

Elle--Wisdom runs in your family, I see.

Nancy Wick--You are giving us the difficult task of defining what we mean by "self-help books". The first that I recall reading was, "The Power of Positive Thinking" by Peale. However, I'm sure that self-help books pre-dated that book by centuries (possibly millennia).

Victoria--In my own definition, I did not consider "The Feminine Mystique" to be self-help; although, as I recall, the book was useful.

Oh my. I once tried to edit a self-help book. I kept telling the author to dig deeper, but she just didn’t know how. We parted ways.

It’s all about our culture in this country with the obsession with youth and apathy and fear towards the old.

Old age is aging gracefully and not doing a damn thing if you don’t want to, but sitting in a chair and listening to the birds. To me, it’s the ultimate freedom.

My wise mother got in the habit of saying "I know what it's like to be your age. You don't know what it's like to be mine" sometime around her 90s. She lived to 102, and while she dispensed other pearls of wisdom, that was one that I really tried to internalize as I sat in the passenger seat beside her on that ride.

Oh Ronni, I love your rants, especially when I agree! 😀

Isn’t reading a self help book a bit of a contradiction?
Unless you wrote it yourself, of course.

When I was in my 20s, I could not see how people lived beyond 70. I'm sure I had suggestions for them! But I certainly didn't write down anything. Just kept living, and now as I near 70, I see that my suggestions would not measure up to the life I'm currently living. Does that make sense? My life now is much simpler than it was then, and I like it that way.

There is a saying in a 12 step program I belonged to for years. Take what you want and leave the rest. That's been true for me when I have read self-help books.

I loved all of these comments and find truth in each one which is sort of like a self help book. Pick and choose and do what works. These are not orders, they are suggestions and you pick accordingly based upon what your body and soul allows you to do. Not rocket science. Stress less. Acceptance more and yes, Ronnie is so correct that age hits each and everyone of us differently. We all pick a different path, our own way. I don't judge. I don't expect others to do it as I do. Loved this topic...and true confessions AARP really annoys me when it features sky divers. Kudos to them but please feature the other survivors whose courageous act might just be summoning forth the strength to get out of bed and make coffee. Fie on AARP. My rant.

Cheers and hugs to all,


Spot on Ronnie!!

My husband and I have been going to estate sales on Friday mornings for a few years now. I look mostly for books and ephemera and my husband looks mostly for records. I cannot tell you how many copies of the top selling self help books show up at these sales. Those and the "cure your (fill in the blank)" books can be found in the majority of all the homes we visit., even when there are virtually no other books. Hope springs eternal . . .

Someone told me once that she had finally stopped reading beaucoup self-help books when her spouse said to her one day, "Everything isn't in the books. you know."
I think I know the kind of self-help books which you're describing here and they really are a waste of time and money for me, too. The ones that purport to have all life's answers. I think the degree of their value for others may hinge on the readers life experiences up to the time they read the book and other aspects of themselves.

Younger friends of mine are actually passionate about this 10,ooo steps a day thing. Pressuring themselves to get their steps in every day. Having an app on their phone that counts their steps. I feel sorry for them, but I remember when the whole fitness movement started in the ...1970s, was it? I was into it for a while, and just lost interest. Not my thing. I’m glad I stopped while I was still young, because I’ve noticed that all the people I know who continued running and working out have had knees, hips, shoulders replaced, and I still have all my joints intact. I put all this in the same category of self-help.

Critical thinking is called for. You don't swallow a self-help book hook, line, and sinker. You pick out the ideas that appeal to you, the flickers of light, the new perspectives. As someone above said, don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

I remember reading many of these books when I was young and trying to find a way to feel like I fit in somewhere in the world around me. The only sentence I can still remember from any of them came from a book called "Toxic Parenting" which said something to the effect that "the fact that you did not get the parents you deserved, while regrettable, was nothing personal." I don't know that the message would have been helpful to anyone else, but it helped me past a hard place and allowed me to move on with my life.

I'm the author of three books that could loosely be described as self-help: The first, Diet Breaking is about people's (mostly women) dissatisfaction with their bodies and how this is exploited by the diet industry. It is based on my personal experience as an average-sized woman and my professional experience as a psychotherapist and equalities trainer. My second book, You Count, Calories Don't was co-authored with a registered dietitian and is a guide to healthy eating; you might be amazed how many people do not know.

The third book, Ageing with Attitude was co-authored with my husband, a qualified life and business coach and staff development specialist. We were both aged 69 and by that time I had run a project for older people for five years and he had been chair of a social and sports club for older people for seven years. This book was an antidote to the myths and stereotypes around ageing and a guide to the future.

Believe me, these books were well researched. And a labour of love. I did not expect to get rich from them - and I didn't! But I did hope that people would enjoy them and gain some awareness, which is the best a therapist can hope for.

Except: being a life-long political/social activist they gave me some satisfaction that I was making a positive contribution towards a more equitable society. If you like, that was my hidden sell.

«Unless a younger writer is a geriatrician, gerontologist or hospice worker, for example, what does a 30- or 40- and 50-year old know about getting old?», you said. My feelings exactly!
Children are taught to grow and behave, adolescents learn to be adults, young adults are taught their professional skills and parenting. But nobody "teaches" older adults what happens when you get old, either the losses or the gains that mature age brings. Only older people can tell, and my experience as a gerontologist (took my master's at the age of 68) tells me that older people, in my country, don't like to talk about old age. I wonder why....

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