Three Must-Read Books on Getting Old

08/12/2016 02:37 pm ET | Updated Aug 16, 2016

You’ve Never Thought about Aging

And one day you realize you’re 70, or 80, or your Mom or grandparents are hitting those years. You don’t understand anything because you’ve always avoided thinking about it, as has everyone around you. Come to think of it, you’ve probably never had a long and rewarding conversation with a friend about getting old, old age, or even dying. Just like childhood, or becoming a parent, growing old past a certain age is something unique. Inevitably, your mind, body, sense of self, hopes, and fears will change. People will look at you, or you mother or grandfather, very differently than they used to. And they will treat you differently. The consequences will not be small.

Time to Start

Since time immemorial, we’ve learned to cope with life through the extended meditation only books can offer. And just like every person has a different perspective on life –which will ultimately define their understanding of aging–, every book has its own story and its unique way of telling it. Each of these three books offers up its own world. And when read together, they add up to much more than three.

The down-to-earth, descriptions and prescriptions of Dr. Atul Gawande in Being Mortal are impossible to ignore. He’s both an astute observer and a dedicated problem solver. Then there’s an apparently very different book, This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism by Ashton Applewhite. She weaves the story of aging through the lens of Anglo-American feminism, which means the writing is a moral argument, a plan for action, and a call for deep and personal self-reflection. Lastly, there’s Simone de Beauvoir’s The Coming of Age, the classic that probably started it all this time around. The work recounts the expansive journey of a French intellectual who finds herself growing old. Some may say the three books are irreconcilable. But perhaps life is so rich and layered, that what a doctor, an activist, and an intellectual have to say, even as they disagree –and they often do–, will provide the best possible context to one of the most meaningful stages in a person’s life.

On Mortality

As the doctor that he is, Atul Gawande begins his meditation on old age at the end, with death, and works his way backwards towards the beginning. This book isn’t about baby boomers, empowered by science and living in the richest nation on Earth, seeking to reshape old age as a “new dawn.” Rather, it’s about how at a certain point, which is different but inevitable for all, our bodies begin to give up.

You can’t help but be moved by his descriptions of a gerontologist’s daily rounds. Tiny details, like the difficulty of clipping your toenails as you get older, cleverly capture the maddening frailty you can feel, and the real consequences that come with age. He doesn’t hold back when talking about the hard realities of aging, but he does so without drama, hyperbole, or fear. In fact, he recounts that when seeing a patient, a smart gerontologist is much more interested in toenails than in medical conditions, current prescriptions, or even the person’s blood pressure.

Old age is not a medical issue, but a metaphysical one. Being Mortal argues that where we’ve gone wrong, where medicine, geriatric homes and hospices have failed, is in grasping that bigger dimension. Gawande then introduces us to the hopeful, positive, and brilliant work of those who are revolutionizing continuing care and hospice services. The chronicle of those efforts and their success makes it impossible to finish the book without the idea that change is possible, and that it’s happening right now.

On Ageism

No one has a sharper and more focused view of our culture’s relentless war on old age than Ashton Applewhite. From the way Internet culture spreads misconceptions and flat-out lies about growing old, to the never-ending promotion of eternal youth, she’s onto something big. Her Manifesto Against Ageism is especially helpful in providing a clear context on what it really means to age –particularly when you’re in your 60s and 70s–, on how our society distorts it and then tries to hide it. Most importantly, she gets how the “imaginary“ of old age has such a personal effect on all of us. Borrowing heavily from feminism, she describes how our own views can’t ever be immune to billions of commercials, memes, and clichés that associate “old” with pain, ugliness, decay, and horror. For us to understand how and why the wise, experienced, calm, and beautiful among us are not necessarily those in their early twenties, we need to examine our own heads. It’s our fear and our refusal to accept our upcoming or our current age that has to end, argues Applewhite. This will in turn allow us to question and dismantle the structures that embed ageism in every facet of our society. It’s a crusade that ultimately involves every single person in this planet because, sooner or later, we’ll all get there.

Coming of Age

One day one of Europe’s most eminent writers, Simone de Beauvoir, “felt old.” That’s something she never thought would happen. And whatever “feeling old” meant for her, whether it was a perception, a physical feeling, or a metaphysical state, she was surprised to encounter it. The only way she could confront this “feeling” was to read, reflect, and write about it. The result is a 300-page plus manuscript containing an intellectual and a cultural history of old age, a review of the anthropological and medical information available to her in the early 1970s, and a meditation on the meaning of it all. You’d think the medicine and even the history would be outdated, and yet it’s difficult to find more refreshing writing on a subject so close to us all.

In order to read and truly appreciate her work you must have some affinity for her intellectual roots and allow for her context, that of post-war French philosophy. Her answers aren’t necessarily found in black and white politics, but in a place that’s deeper, even morally opaque. It turns out that growing old and dying has been very complicated for every society since the very beginning, and that’s the book’s enduring lesson. How we interpret old age and what our societies have done with that interpretation is a shifting story across history and cultures. Surprisingly, our society does a much better job with old age than many others throughout history, and yet, the intractable issue of our own fears and our discrimination is no closer to getting resolved. Yes, the issue has that many layers; but in reading De Beauvoir’s words, there is an inescapable sense of our own implication in a timeless debate.

This article was originally published in Nuverz Advice.

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