If you are curious about what it’s really like to grow old, how your late years differ from youth and midlife, and want to learn the pleasures inherent in the acceptance of aging - even amidst a culture that does everything possible to marginalize the old and make us invisible - you can’t go wrong with the books listed below.
I have read a hundreds of books on aging and although there are other good ones, these few are the cream. They have been published over a period of more than 30 years and are the collected wisdom and knowledge of their superb writers - thinkers and activists who aim a bright, shining light onto the realities of getting old. (13 December 2014)
The Art of Aging, A Doctor's Prescription for Well-Being
By Sherwin B. Nuland, a deeply intelligent and compassionate book about how we grow old.
”We have arrived at a time and place in our lives where we must study ourselves as we have never done before, take care of ourselves, and be attuned to ourselves in ways that are new to us and sometimes burdensome.”
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
By Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon. This is an urgently important book about bringing dignity and more humane care to the last years of life.
"Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to the very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.”
The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life
By Gene D. Cohen, M.D. Although I sometimes think he is overly optimistic about how people can age, this is a remarkably smart book that shatters many of the negative beliefs about getting old.
”...certain qualities of mind and action in adulthood that are developmental in nature unfold in their own good time and offer unique and exciting potential for us as we grow older. Wisdom comes to us this way, largely a developmental product of age, smarts, and emotion and practical life experience.”
The Force of Character And the Lasting Life
By Jungian psychologist James Hillman who died in 2011 at age 85. Published in 1999, this is a soul-enriching book as it was meant to be from one of the wisest people who ever wrote about aging.
"...let us entertain the idea that character requires the additional years and that the long last of life is forced upon us neither by genes nor by conservational medicine nor by societal collusion. The last years conform and fulfill character."
The Fountain of Age
By the mother of modern feminism, Betty Friedan, published in 1993. Hard going to read, but rewarding for the effort.
"The pursuit of youth was blinding us to the possibilities of age. Could denial of our own aging block further growth, foreclose the emergence of a new life otherwise open to us?"
From Age-ing to Sage-ing
By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi published in 1997, and you don’t have to be Jewish to like Reb Zalman.
"As an alternative to inevitable senescence, this book proposes a new model of late-life development called sage-ing, a process that enables older people to become spiritually radiant, physically vital, and socially responsible 'elders of the tribe.'"
How To Be Old: The thinking person's guide to retirement
Adapted by Richard Gerberding with illustrations by Lance Rossi - a modern-language update of Marcus Tullius Cicero's 2,000-year-old masterwork, On Old Age.
”Either death extinguishes the spirit completely, in which case you can disregard it completely, or it leads the spirit to somewhere better, and in this case death is actually something to be desired. There are the only two alternatives, there isn't a third option.”
Journal of a Solitude
Secondarily, these two also by May Sarton: At Seventy: A Journal and Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year
"When I am alone the flowers are really seen; I can pay attention to them. They are felt as presences. Without them I would die...they change before my eyes. They live and die in a few days; they keep me closely in touch with the process, with growth, and also with dying. I am floated on their moments."
The Longevity Revolution
By geriatrician, Robert N. Butler, who died in 2010. He gave TGB an excellent interview about this book in April 2008.
"...the tragic case of September 11, 2001, in New York City. Animal activists evacuated dogs and cats within twenty-four hours after the World Trade Center was attacked, while disabled or older persons were abandoned in their apartments for up to seven days before ad hoc medical teams arrived to rescue them."
The Long History of Old Age
Edited by Pat Thane, this is a fascinating overview of what is known about how (mostly) European old people lived from ancient Greece and Rome through the 20th century.
”Separation of families because of movement around the country or the world is not, as is often thought, a fact only of modern life. In the distant past people did not always live out their lives in one place; and when they left, in the days before mass communication and mass literacy, links with home and family might be lost forever.”
My Twice-Lived Life
By Donald M. Murray, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, until his death in 2006, wrote a wide-ranging and personal column about old age for The Boston Globe.
”But please allow us, children, to talk about what makes you uncomfortable. It is one way we deal with the inevitable. We need to talk about our not wanting to end up in a nursing home, whether we want cremation or burial, when to pull the plug. Denial works only so far, then reality...strips away the illusion of immortality.”
By Simone de Beauvoir and first published in French in 1970 which succeeds well in her goal to express the experience of elders' everyday lives at her particular place and time in history.
”[Old age] changes the individual's relationship with time and therefore his relationship with the world and with his own history...as at every other period of his life, his status is imposed upon him by the society to which he belong.”
Old Age, Journey Into Simplicity
By Helen M. Luke, this is an invaluable reflection on old age through Luke's interpretation of the writings of Homer, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and others.
”As a man grows old, his body weakens, his powers fail, his sight perhaps is dimmed, his hearing fades, or his power to move around is taken from him. In one way or another he is 'imprisoned,' and the moment of choice will come to him. Will he fight this confining process or will he go to meet it in the spirit of King Lear...”
The Sense of an Ending
By Julian Barnes and short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, the book follows the intensely-felt recollections of a man at the end of his life as he reappraises just about all that he ever believed about himself and his very nature.
"Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn't life's busiiness to reward merit, why should it be life's business to give us warm, comfortable feelings towards it end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?"
Somewhere Toward the End, A Memoir
By Diana Athill who won a potful of awards for this honest, forthright and funny take on aging and life.
”She expected old age to make her miserable, and it did, although once she was immersed in it she expressed her misery by complaining about other and lesser things, the big one itself being too much to contemplate – although she did once say that what kept panic at bay was her suicide kit.”
Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying
By Ram Dass, the spiritual teacher who has and continues to help show people of all faiths and no faith ways to growth and peace within themselves.
”As we age, we believe what we're trained to believe about how old people think and live...And yet we have the power to age as we choose, and to use our changing circumstances to benefit the world and how it determines the quality of life.”
The Summer of a Dormouse
By British playwright, novelist and barrister, John Mortimer, who is also the author of the Rumpole of the Bailey series of stories.
"The time will come in your life, it will most certainly come, when the voice of God will thunder at you from a cloud, 'From this day forth thou shalt not be able to put on thine own socks.'"
Travels with Epicurus, A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life
By Daniel Klein. This inquiry into how to live a satisfying old age is brand new in 2012 but I believe it will stand the test of time.
“'Forever Young' was my generation's theme song, and unreflectively I had been singing along with them...But something about this new philosophy of old age does not sit right with me...I suspect that if I were to take this popular route, I would deny myself a unique and invaluable stage of life.”
What Are Old People For?
By geriatrician William H. Thomas who served, for a period of time, as the official geriatrician of this blog and for whom I continue to be grateful for his untiring advocacy on behalf of elders.
"...practically speaking, there is no elderhood into which we can be admitted. This absence cannot be described as a careless oversight. We live in a society that denies the legitimacy of old age and has little tolerance for those who dare to suppose that crones and sages could inspire us as models of healthy human development."
Why Survive? Being Old in America
Another by Dr. Robert N. Butler who coined the term “ageism.” This book, published in 1975, won the Pulitzer Prize.
"Next is the sense of life experience. This is marked by a broadening perspective and by personal growth. One comes, in part at least, to know what life is all about."