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New Books on Aging

Posted Feb 10 2009 11:29am

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
and trans-
like the
glass of
an old oil
lamp, but
his pride
was the wick’s
bright burning.
I longed to
steady his
steps, to
guide his
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. ]

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