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Reading Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister

I’m impressed to learn that this book was written by a 70-year-old Benedictine nun, which gives Gift of Years both strengths and limitations.

The book reads like a series of sermonettes. We get the “what” but not the “how.”

And I think the author assumes her audience shares her values and opportunities. She seems to have a solid grip on the spiritual dynamics of growing old. But she writes about areas where her lack of experience seems obvious: dealing with health issues (especially the health care system), finding meaningful work after retirement, and making friends when you don’t have time or opportunity to develop a shared history.

Not everyone finds meaning in helping others. Some people are better suited to working and donating to charities rather than taking a hands-on role in the charities. Some people want to relax and be door-greeters at Wal-Mart or (as she suggests) teachers’ aides at a local school (not an easy job to get). But a lot of people will find those roles meaningless, degrading and more stressful than the high-powered jobs they’re denied.

A good book if you’ve got strong spiritual values, a solid support system, most of your health and financial sufficiency.

If you’re 80 years old and still running marathons between visits to the grandchildren, you’d probably love this book.

When I read books like this, I’m reminded of the benevolent attitude of slaveowners from the pre-civil war days. “Of course they’re happy,” they would say. “They have everything.” It’s about convincing yourself that oppressed, disenfranchised people in some way deserve what they get; can change their experience by changing their mindset; and ultimately feel happy because they’re determined to be cheerful and optimistic.

Makes me feel a little ill.

To say this book is “optimistic” is like saying the sun is a little warm on a July day in Florida.

On page 24: “Most older people retain their normal mental abilities, including short-term memory, their entire lives.” Actually the rate of cognitive impairment is something like 40% at age 80 and 50% at 85. More than half stay competent, but barely.

p 25: “Only the old can make age a bright and vibrant place to be.” p 60: “First the job goes, then the house goes, then the precious things begin to go, one little piece at a time to the children one old box after another to the thrift shop folks. Then the privacy goes, then the dog and the cat, the desk and the papers, the trips and eventually the car. Then, finally, for the first time, the self goes.”

Her answer is that we have a choice about coping well or poorly. That’s news? For some of us, the loss of privacy, cat, dog and independence define who we are. Encouraging people to “make light of” these changes seems condescending.

It’s one thing for someone to downsize from a large house to a small apartment gracefully.

It’s one thing to adjust to “retirement living” by saying, “There are people I can help here,” although this statement is exactly what many educated people say when they are about to enter a federal prison. But it’s another to decide you will cope gracefully with abusive treatment in nursing homes and even in families.

The author trots out the old party line about cultures that value aging and honor their elders. Few of those cultures exist anymore.

And if you’re going to look at those cultures, look at the societies where elders were left behind when they were too weak to keep up on tribal journeys. Some societies killed their elders during times of famine. That’s kinder than keeping them in nursing homes.

But the biggest complaint I have is that this author encourages us to become our fullest selves – but only if we happen to have selves that are suited to charity work and children. Volunteer work can be very rewarding for many people of all ages.

However, some of us prefer to work for money and donate to the charities; in fact, some of are pretty lousy volunteers! And it is simply not true that nonprofits are looking for volunteers. It’s nice to have the choice to be a volunteer, but one of the frustrations of being over 50 is that you’re often not valuable in the world of work. Those who are denied the experience of contributing by earning a paycheck won’t feel satisfied with volunteering.

A much better view of aging comes from Susan Jacoby’s Never Say Die. She’s not afraid to come right out and say it. Sometimes aging is worse than dying. Less spiritual, perhaps, but a lot more realistic.