In the film Gigi, Maurice Chevalier sings about the advantages of aging in the song titled “I’m glad I’m not young anymore.” Wendy Lustbader would agree with him. As she puts it in this book, “Life gets better as we get older, on all levels except the physical.” Based on this optimistic viewpoint, the author writes a wonderful book about the value of aging. The book consists of 24 short essays categorized into three sections labeled Hope, Transformation, and Peace. The essays draw on her experiences as a social worker working with the aging (whom she refers to as “elders”). Instead of giving prescriptions for how to live life, it is inspirational. Well-chosen case studies illustrate her points.
If you’re still young, you might wonder what could possibly be better about getting older. Lustbader gives one of the major advantages as self-acceptance. We move from our youth where we are “trying to figure out what we are good at” to a point where we know what we’re good at and may therefore find it easier to make decisions, to learn new things, and to take risks. Since time is limited, we may become more courageous and thus become “true to ourselves.” In her persistently optimistic way, she even discusses the advantages of physical deterioration because as we encounter physical limitations, they “jar…us into prizing that which we can still do.” Aging can be difficult, but Lustbader reframes the negative aspects of aging, helping the reader to view aging in a more positive way. To those who fear aging, this is a relief.
Aging involves many losses, not just physical ones. How does one handle the grief that comes with having lived for many years? In the essay Loss, Lustbader states that “inside all of us is a great pool of grief that keeps enlarging as each fresh loss is added to the others….Grieving does not get easier, but we acquire the skills to bear it and the wisdom to accede to its rhythms.” She says that we become more resilient as we age since “we become increasingly confident that we will be able to bear whatever befalls us.” It becomes easier to go through the grieving process because we have an idea of how long it will take and we know that we will make it through.
Although Lustbader feels that many of our relationships may improve with age, her optimism doesn’t mask reality. She gives the example of siblings who no longer speak to one another. As she puts it, “nothing is guaranteed between siblings–neither friendliness nor allegiance.” The process of aging can, however, heal old wounds. Lustbader says that relationships between couples can improve because couples who’ve been together a long time learn how to “resolve their conflicts more easily and leave less of a hurt residue.”
In her essay about stories, she stresses the importance of finding the “right kind of listener”–someone who takes the time to listen and who doesn’t interrupt. This essay might be a useful one to share with the less patient listeners in your life. The young may not value the telling of stories, but it is so important that our stories be heard that a stranger may become the best audience. Why is storytelling important? If our stories are painful, telling them can help us heal. As Lustbader puts it, “Turning an onerous event into a story changes it into something we can bear.”
One of the greatest fears we have about aging is becoming dependent on others because of lessened physical ability. Lustbader discusses the value of learning to accept help from others. She gives the case of a woman who was going blind, so she gave away her books to friends, keeping only a few. Some of her friends began weekly visits where they read to her. By sharing the books with her friends in this new way, the accommodation made for her disability brought both her friends and her new joy.
From the first essay, I kept thinking of people I wanted to give a copy of this book to. An essay about how difficult the twenties are compared to later life would be perfect for my daughter or a young male colleague; Lustbader’s writing about gratitude and acceptance would be valuable for my mother. It took me longer to read the book because I found so many quotations that were applicable to my life or that of others.
The book is not only beautifully written, but because the perspective is so useful, I found myself wanting to lead a group of senior citizens in a discussion group about the book. Each essay could provide a focus for healthy group discussions. What would a group of seniors feel about this quotation, from the essay on giving and receiving:
“Life improves when we attend to our interdependence… Those who do not miss a chance to make life easier for someone else wake up each day with eagerness and have less fear about their own future.”
How would a group feel about her statement that “we must move through difficulty rather than try to get around it if we wish to be strengthened by life experience”? Does life really get better as we age? After reading Wendy Lustbader’s book, I’m inclined to agree with her that, in many ways, the answer is “Yes.”
Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older
by Wendy Lustbader
256 pages, $16.77