2012
 No. 2

 

 

Life Gets Better!

Life Gets Better:
The Unexpected Pleasures of
Growing Older

by Wendy Lustbader

Tarcher Books, 2011

Reviews by Barbara Kammerlohr

Wendy Lustbader has long been a soldier in the war against western culture’s bias against aging. With Life Gets Better, she argues that our fear and dread of growing older is unjustified, and she targets assumptions that youth is the best time of life. In the book’s introduction, she touts the book as “a counterbalance to the negative, stultifying stereotypes about aging. I show the worship of youth to be a colossal error.”

The book is a series of chapters on topics such as self-knowledge, gratitude, spirituality, resilience, and other psychological traits that research has shown to lead to a satisfying life. Lustbader incorporates her own life experiences, stories of her clients and her family, and her knowledge about the late-life developmental stage. In a book full of information and real-life stories about how the aging process actually works, she proclaims that everything about life but the physical gets better with time, and she succinctly points out the reasons.

Here are some of the reasons that buttress her optimism:

  • As self-knowledge deepens with years, we get better at handling relationships and decisions with less frenzy. There is an inner freedom in being less constrained by other peoples’ judgments and expectations.
  • Gratitude for what goes right in life deepens and, as we focus on what is right, our appreciation leads to a growing inner contentment. After the experiences of loss that are inevitable, we no longer take for granted the things that remain. We begin to appreciate and cherish them.
  • Decision-making can be done without frenzy and worry; we can call on deep knowledge from lessons of a lifetime. Memories of mistakes from which we have recovered, misadventures and problems we have solved, are all there to use when similar situations arise.
  • We are less fearful of adversity. After all, we have faced many challenges and noted that most issues eventually work out for the best.
  • As spirituality deepens, petty concerns recede to their rightful place in the background. We begin to learn that the most important activity in life is inside each of us.
  • We have learned the pleasures of generosity and, as we become more interested in others, that interest begins to occupy a central place in how we regard the value of what we do.

However, as interesting as the information on the late-life developmental stage may be, it is the copious number of stories of her friends, family members, and clients that bring spice and enjoyment to reading the book. For every principle she explains, there is at least one, and frequently more, poignant story — like the one below — of someone wrestling with that specific issue.

One example is a story about gratitude:

Physical limitation contains its opposite — freedom — because it jars us into prizing that which we can still do. Our capacities, like standing at a stove for hours, go largely unrecognized until threatened.
A friend in her early sixties has severe arthritis in her hands. She takes care of frail women in their eighties who have lost their way through dementia. Her hands sometimes make it hard for her to accomplish simple tasks, but the women are in no hurry. They are delighted by her humor and kindness, and they love the meals she places before them that are prepared with unfailing thoughtfulness. Alone in her house, my friend sometimes has to force away tears about her own future; but with the ladies, she feels the flush of every competence she continues to enjoy.

In considering the audience for this book, I could think of no age group that would not benefit from its information and wisdom. To those well into this last developmental stage, it explains why life is infinitely more satisfying than we were led to believe by our youth-focused culture. My hope, however, is that it will be more widely read by the entire population, especially by younger people who can then exercise a positive approach to their own aging process. A more universal understanding of this most important developmental stage can also lead to less bias and fear about aging. Readers of Itineraries may want to consider gifting this to members of a younger generation.

Wendy Lustbader is the author of several books and essays that have earned her a national reputation in the field of aging. A medical social worker, she holds the rank of Affiliate Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. She is a skilled psychotherapist and experienced medical social worker. Her other books include: Taking Care of Family Members, 1993; Counting on Kindness, 1993; What’s Worth Knowing, 2004; and Hidden in Plain Sight, 2008.