An Homage to Age Lift Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older

By Hood, Alison | Aging Today, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

An Homage to Age Lift Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older


Hood, Alison, Aging Today


An homage to age Lift Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older By Wendy Lustbader Tarcher/Penguin, $25.95, 256 pages, ISBN 9781585428922

In 1968, Dr. Robert Butler introduced the term "ageism," which referred to the negative and separatist attitudes and acts of discrimination or prejudice against older people. "Ageism," he said, "allows the younger generations to see older people as different than themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings."

The late Dr. Butler, who worked long and persistently to combat ageism, would surely give his hearty approval to a new book, Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, by long-time social worker, professor and author Wendy Lustbader (Counting on Kindness; What's Worth Knowing).

In her introduction, Lustbader says her book is "a counterbalance to the negative and stultifying stereotypes about aging that constrain everyone's spirit." And it is. Written with beauty, grace, insight and a glimmer of dry humor, Life Gets Better distills Lustbader's long experience working with elders, and her personal and professional progress, to create a love song to aging. While there's a danger this material could drift into sentimental, even unrealistically rosy territory, Lustbader stays the course, giving equal attention to the joys and the sufferings of growing older.

The book was born of an experience Lustbader had on a trip to New Zealand, during which she grabbed the chance to tell a busload of young people that "everything gets better- you just have to get through your twenties." One of the women, clearly at variance with the belief that youth is the most golden time of life, later told her, "If this [being in her twenties] is really the best, I don't even want the rest of it."

"I have been listening to older people's stories for almost thirty years, hearing them attest to later life as the source of ever-expanding inner and outer discovery," writes Lustbader. Life Gets Better passes along the gift of those stories- as well as her own- to all, but hopes that "people in their twenties and thirties may particularly value this chance to satisfy their curiosity about what it is like to grow old."

In three sections, "Hope," "Transformation" and "Peace," Lustbader composes a compelling narrative that moves with a deft rhythm, contrasting her life stories of aging with insights gleaned from the words and wisdom of the retinue of elders she has known and served through her many years of social work. "Later life," she writes, "is when we need stories most. It is never too late to tell a story and come to peace."

In a poignant case of the power of story, Lustbader shares the experience of Carter Catlett Williams who, in her 70s, discovered, read and transcribed into a book (Glorious Adventure) a cache of her father's letters- missives written to his parents throughout his life, up until his death in 1925 when Catlett was less than two years old. "During this process of discovery [of a father she had never known], she found routes for releasing the pent-up sorrow she did not know that she carried."

Life Gets Better should be on school reading lists, from middle grades to college level and on into the more "adult" classroom of life. "It is time for all of us to discard our negative assumptions about aging, individually and collectively," says Lustbader. This homage to the pleasures of aging just might help make that happen.

[Sidebar]

'Everything gets better-you just have to get through your twenties.'

[Sidebar]

The following excerpt is adapted from Life Gets Better by Wendy Lustbader with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group USA. Copyright 2011 by Wendy Lustbader.

Introduction

"Don't worry," I called out to a bus full of world travelers, all between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. "These are the worst years of your lives.

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