Life Gets Better by Wendy Lustbader: a good book with a glaring flaw

It’s always good to encounter work that pushes back against the prevailing “it’s-all-downhill-from-here” narrative, and Wendy Lustbader’s Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older does just that. Lustbader points out that in contrast to the doubts and insecurities of youth, growing older enables us to come into our own, to become more self-aware and confident, less fearful of being judged, and authentically happy.  Not that life gets easier, but that it becomes easier to focus on what truly matters — and that makes it better.

Just as an Impressionist painting becomes coherent only at a distance, a lifetime, Lustbader writes, is a journey whose full meaning only becomes comprehensible over time. This truth is inherently inaccessible to the young, to whom “sorrows in later life seem so relentless that . . . we conclude that old age must be a dire time, indeed. It is only later that we find that fresh life evolves out of each grief.” Continuous renewal seems like a lot to hope for, but hers is a welcome challenge to the equation of aging with physical deterioration.

Being terminally impatient, I particularly liked an epigraph from Adrienne Rich: “A wild patience has taken me this far.” Also a quote from a professor named Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot that sums up a key paradox of later life: “figuring out how to navigate this tension between slowing down and speeding up, between mining the privileges of a well-earned patience and responding to the imperatives of time racing by.” I live with a man whose wildly imaginative bucket list grows longer all the time — more to look forward to, yet more to leave undone and come to terms with.  

Citing Grey Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn — “Interdependence is the truth of our lives.\” — Lustbader is articulate about care-giving and the nuanced relationship between giver and receiver. Eloquently addressing the loss of autonomy that accompanies disability, she writes, “Courage in late life has a lot to do with letting go . . . . Especially when illness exposes us to need, we may enter an unnerving time of appraisal.” This reassessment can bring unexpected benefits. Abandoning preconceived notions about how time should be spent can liberate. Limitations demand improvisation. Lustbader tells of a woman who was told at 71 that she was losing her central vision and that it was incurable:  
“An avid reader, she grieved hard and long. Then she decided to hold a book give-away party. She retained a single row of her most cherished books. To her surprise, three friends offered to visit weekly to read aloud to her. She began keeping three books going at a time, so that each reader could pick up where she left off. One of her readers told me, ‘I look forward so much to these afternoons. It’s the only time I stop rushing around. Plus, there’s nothing like being immersed in a good novel with a friend.’ Reader and listener, giver and receiver, became indistinguishable.”

On a lighter note, Lustbader described an acquaintance in her mid-80s who had stopped leaving her apartment. “A lady does not go out in public without her high heels,” she explained, and she now had severe arthritis in her toes, and “the young are so disparaging.”  The compromise? She bought ugly athletic shoes and took daily spins around the neighborhood — at dawn. I’d rather be stuck in Crocs for life than get up any earlier than I have to, but I admire the way this woman held onto both her independence and her sense of propriety. Recalibrations like these are a dance between pushing back and letting go, for everyone involved.

Life Gets Better is filled with compelling stories and sound advice, gracefully delivered by a compassionate person skilled at helping families traverse, the last stage of life and its conclusion. Self-knowledge can only be acquired the hard way, and Lustbader possesses it in abundance. The significant achievement of Life Gets Better is that it overturns overly negative stereotypes about what it’s like to grow old and confronts overly positive ones about how swell it is to be young. “Our society’s attitudes are backwards,” she says in an interview included in the book’s press kit. “The societal message is that in youth we should be having ‘The time of our lives,’” a stereotype that feeds anxiety and self-doubt in twenty-somethings trying to make their way in the world. It’s no less ageist than its late-life counterpart: old age is devoid of growth or pleasures.

Given all this wise counsel, what’s my beef?  The fact that Life Gets Better begins and ends with the individual, reinforcing the notion that each of us is responsible for how we age. (This post about Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided describes the costs of American’s focus on self-improvement.) “We make our own fate,” writes Lustbader.  Well, yes, but that fate is also shaped by powerful external factors: class, race, and gender. “When we are young, it is difficult to live on our own terms.” True, but it is also elusive for older people unless they’re independently wealthy. Material surroundings mean nothing at death, agreed, but they certainly inform the experience up until then.

As Lustbader’s language in the interview shows, she’s not averse to framing the issue in political terms. But she never addresses what gives rise to the grim scenarios she seeks to repudiate. Why is it inconceivable for the high-heels addict to imagine any response to her walking shoes besides scorn, when from the window of her childhood home Lustbader admired an older neighbor’s morning constitutional? What makes it so hard to ask for help when we need it? Reactionary policies that frame access to a modicum of health care and financial security as wasteful “entitlements,” and that have Americans from mid-life on terrified of becoming “burdens” to their families, their doctors, and their government. In fact, government should protect its citizens against these fundamental fears, just as it protects us from spoiled food and unsafe buildings. Resources for older Americans are not inherently scarce; their allocation reflects political priorities. Gratitude and optimism are essential in late life, but anger and collective consciousness have their place as well.

I’m sure Lustbader is acutely aware of her good fortune (family, job, financial security) and she’s earned her intimate knowledge of late life with 30 years a social worker in the trenches.  But she disappointed me by omitting any discussion of the ways in which our attitudes towards aging are socially constructed.  Variables that powerfully affect the life course and over which individuals have diminishing or no control — race, class, and gender — go virtually unmentioned in Life Gets Better. I wish Lustbader would broaden her important argument and engage on a political level. An argument that begins and ends with the individual ignores the larger factors that make it hard for the vast majority of Americans to age calmly and confidently. For them, life won’t get better.

Comments

Truly appreciate this commentary, Ashton - for exactly the issues you raise. A fair and honest reflection of what's missing from a book I want to read.Working with a group of 55+ women, I am finding that there is a constant need to reframe the depressing stuff out there. I am always on the look out for models and examples and writings that give richness to the narrative of our aging - the group is hungry for images that express a wide range of views. This book is a contender for our discussions but such a thing to miss - the influence of histories of oppression on our experiences of aging in America...


One thing that we are considering is differences in experiences in aging for LGBT people vs. straight people. One significant difference - which looms large and complex - is the tenacity with which one needs to hold on to identity, to self-definition, and expressions of these facets of ourselves...Just as one may be facing times of dependency on others...this vulnerability may be experienced with supports within which gay affirming practices may be slim to none.

On the other hand, a sort of twisted around story of aging and identity -  my father's dementia means a loss of short-term memory (and short term in the long run might be as long as 15 years ago). He is happy to see me when I visit, he just wants to know when my wife and I are going to find nice men to marry us - as we are such nice women who have somehow been passed by... He simply does not remember that I am a lesbian. And pressing this fact, reiterating that not only are we lesbians but we are already married - to each other -seems like just too much homework to demand of someone who has done enough homework in his lifetime. So, I am his straight daughter. Our loss.


Surely your father's loss as well, but your response seems the compassionate one.

I asked Wendy Lustbader's publicist to forward the review with a note from me and received a gracious response thanking me for the thoughtful review.  She went on to say, "I did leave out political and socioeconomic issues purposely, intending to focus on the realm of the spirit. However, these dimensions were much on my mind, and there is a quiet critique of our consumer culture running throughout the book. Also, the study which I cite in the introduction (Stone, et al, 2010) found that psychological well-being increased with age regardless of socioeconomic status -- a really amazing finding. Nevertheless, as my mother-in-law always said, "Rich or poor -- it's good to have money." This is undeniably true, and many aspects of life are made easier with available cash. My point is that the most important qualities of a good life are internal -- the nature of one's relationships, the capacity for empathy, a sense of meaning and purpose, uses of time, paying attention to the beauty of the world when it is evident, and appreciating the gifts of still being alive. "

At one point I bought the domain name "botharetrue.com" for this project because the subject invokes so many paradoxes.  Money can't buy happiness, that's for sure.  But I think it's vitally important to raise political awareness around ageism, or nothing will change.

Yes, this is a gracious response. I think - unfortunately beating a dead somethingorother  - that "the nature of one's relationships" is the very point you are making... that the nature of one's relationships is not always in the control of the person who is aging. Good gravy - if that were so, we could eliminate the issue of "vulnerability" from the dialogue. We can do our best to cultivate rich and satisfying relationships but I do not want to lose the message that we are not in control of the kindness of strangers nor the meanness of oppression as it is played out in our interactions with caregivers. This said, what is our responsibility to those who are old? To take them seriously - perhaps this is the most important job we have, to keep our end of life's bargain?
My children were most comforted when their father died by the notion that god gives and god takes away - that this simply exists as a truth. We do not expect to be different in this final summation. Interesting in that neither of them are the least bit religious, and yet, this notion helped everything make sense. Just the opposite of self-determination is it? That we can receive, we can make, but we cannot determine?...