Nonfiction

To appeal to all those who are growing older—at every age—we suggest some of the best new books on aging, as well as many classics. You’ll find everything from caregiving advice to memoirs, from humor to reflection, plus narratives by authors who set out, in midlife, in search of wisdom and new ways to think about growing older.

  • Tales of a Female Nomad: Living at Large in the World Posted in: Inspiring Journeys, Memoirs

    When Rita Golden Gelman’s husband asks for a trial separation, she realizes that, at 48, she has no idea where her life is heading. With her children grown (and financial security from her career as a children’s book writer), Gelman decides to travel—not as the Hollywood socialite she had been but as a backpacking nomad. She sells her belongings and hits the road. Fifteen years later, she has not looked back. Her one goal is to interact on a very personal level with the people she meets, whether she spends a few weeks in a Mexican Zapotec village or years with a Balinese royal family, with stops in Nicaragua, Israel, Borneo and New Zealand in between. Along the way, Gelman deals with her mother’s aging, discovers her children need her more than she believed and, yes, gets divorced. Tales is more than a geographical adventure. It’s the story of one woman’s spiritual and emotional journey in midlife to find her place in the world.

  • Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America Posted in: Insights from Bold Thinkers

    Americans fear growing older but what we really should worry about is ageism—how entrenched, negative misconceptions about aging affect us from youth through our oldest years. In Agewise, culture critic and aging studies expert Margaret Morganroth Gullette examines the “ideology of decline” that has seeped into the workplace, our society and our psyches. Through personal stories, politics, literature and medicine, Gullette illustrates an overt contempt for older people and a casual dismissal of their life experiences, which have resulted in discrimination, destructive self-images and an overall sense of doom for those in middle age and beyond.

    But all is not lost, Gullette consoles us. She explains how, once we recognize it, we can fight ageism by redirecting how we think about later life from a young age and within our society and our relationships. Agewise is an enlightening read that ultimately promises us that, if we start work now, there’s hope for our future.

  • Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart Posted in: Memoirs

    At midlife, Carol Wall feels restless, even invisible at times. Her kids have left the nest, her marriage is solid and her parents are comfortable in a care community. Wall is an established educator who has resolved a health crisis, but she feels something is missing. Inspired by a neighbor’s garden, she hires a grocery clerk moonlighting as a gardener to tackle her botanical wish list. To Kenyan Giles Owita, horticulture is second nature. As he lovingly tends Wall’s “compound,” an unlikely friendship forms. The author thoughtfully acknowledges her lack of cultural understanding and remedies it, and as the garden blooms, so does the pair’s friendship, transforming both of their lives. You’ll want to hire Mr. Owita yourself.

  • Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose Posted in: Insights from Bold Thinkers

    In Tanzania, when Hadza villagers sit around the fire at night, elders form the inner circle and share their wisdom and experience with the community. Because they see themselves as vital resources, Leider and Shapiro write, they feel that they have earned the respect they get. Western societies offer no comparable role for older people. The authors argue that we need “new elders” who bring a deep sense of purpose to the second half of life and who will step up and claim their seats at the fire. How does one find that purpose? The authors make a number of suggestions in this guide to an inner journey. Leider is a career coach, writer and speaker. Shapiro is a writer, philosopher and educator.

  • Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT? Posted in: Memoirs

    “It was against my parents’ principles to talk about death,” Roz Chast writes in this graphic memoir. When she suggests planning for the inevitable, they react so negatively that she immediately drops the subject—as relieved as they are to have avoided a difficult conversation. With words, drawings and occasional photographs, Chast, a renowned New Yorker cartoonist, chronicles what happens as her parents’ health slowly fails and they try to muddle through, while she’s forced into a caregiving role. Her tale is sometimes heartbreaking, often funny and always brutally honest as she describes—and depicts—her own conflicted feelings. Her mother’s anger explodes from the page, as does her father’s bewilderment while dementia closes in on him. Better than words, her cartoons capture the raw, emotional truths of a dilemma that will be familiar to many readers. Chast’s memoir is harrowing but lit throughout by flashes of humor and her acute appreciation for the absurd.

  • Jane Brody’s Guide to the Great Beyond: A Practical Primer to Help You and Your Loved Ones Prepare Medically, Legally, and Emotionally for the End of Life Posted in: Guides to Aging Well, Insights from Bold Thinkers, Life’s Endings

    No matter what your age or health, this book by New York Times columnist Jane Brody is for you. With her frank, thorough approach to a subject we usually avoid, Brody helps us prepare for our own and our loved ones’ deaths. As she points out, planning for the end of life is a gift to your future self—and to your family—because it gives you more control over how you will die, and it spares them the anguish of not knowing what you would have wanted. This book offers practical insight on a wide range of topics: what kind of living will is least likely to be misinterpreted by doctors, how to avoid burnout when caring for someone seriously ill, stages and types of grief, what to say—and not to say—to a dying loved one or a bereaved friend, why some doctors abandon terminally ill patients. It also explores myths about organ donation. Humorous cartoons help lighten a serious topic.

  • Grandmothering: Real Life in Real Families Posted in: Guides to Aging Well

    You’d think that becoming a beloved grandmother would evolve so naturally that a handbook would be unnecessary. Today’s households, however, aren’t all Rockwell-esque, and grandmothers must figure out how to bond with their grandkids in these quickly changing times. With warmth and significant research, Grandmothering covers every possible grandparent situation you could think of—and many you’ve never considered. Grandmothers may want to know how to accept adult children’s lifestyles and parenting choices, navigate cultural and generational issues and keep in touch with media-savvy, long-distance grandkids. The book calls upon real-life situations to teach today’s grandmother how to be emotionally available, to offer the right kind of help and to get her own needs met along the way.

  • Counting on Kindness: The Dilemmas of Dependency Posted in: Insights from Bold Thinkers

    In this beautifully written book, mental health counselor Wendy Lustbader describes what it’s like to be old and frail (or to be ill at any age) and have to depend on others. If you wonder why your elderly mother seems cranky and ungrateful at times, or why your aging father resists your efforts to help him, you’ll find insights here. For instance, Lustbader points out that caregiving works better if it’s a two-way street—if those who are dependent can feel that they, too, have something to contribute. She describes with great understanding the dilemmas caregivers face.The book is full of moving vignettes drawn from Lustbader’s experience as a counselor. It focuses on the compensations as well as the hardships of the caregiving relationship. An eye-opening read for caregivers and for those who depend on them.

  • How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick Posted in: Guides to Aging Well

    Author, activist and cancer survivor Letty Cottin Pogrebin writes a sympathetic and insightful how-to book for people who are lost when it comes to helping a friend who is sick. Pogrebin uses anecdotes from her own recovery plus the experiences of those she polled in doctors’ offices while awaiting treatment. You’ll find simple ideas that can make you a better visitor, listener and friend, like letting the patient take the lead on how much information to share, and knowing how long to stay. She also includes thoughtful ways to support caregivers and those who are grieving. Learning what not to say can be an eye opener. This is a comfort manual that may change how you treat a friend on the mend.

  • Learning to Be Old: Gender, Culture, and Aging Posted in: Guides to Aging Well, Insights from Bold Thinkers

    In this feminist take on aging, Margaret Cruikshank maintains that our later years are shaped largely by our culture, and not for the better. She challenges stereotypes of old age and suggests that if women—and men—want to age comfortably, they must reject the common assumption that to be old is to be decrepit. The book argues against over-medicating elders and rebuts “alarmist” notions that, as their numbers grow, older people will be a drain on the economy and a threat to younger generations. Cruikshank also explores the process of aging as women of color experience it. She interweaves advice for readers throughout these larger societal issues. Cruikshank is a lecturer in women’s studies and a faculty associate of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine.

  • 365 Thank Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Daily Gratitude Changed My Life Posted in: Guides to Aging Well

    Can two simple words change a person? At age 53, attorney John Kralik is in despair. His family life is in turmoil, his career and finances in ruin. Yet it is a simple thank you note that sparks him to think about the things in life for which he might be grateful. Kralik decides to set aside a little time each day to consider the people who have made a difference in his life and to send them a heartfelt, handwritten thank you. He writes to virtually everyone he can think of—friends current and former, professional acquaintances, shop clerks, doctors. The results are immediate and far reaching. His outlook on life changes. He becomes solvent, repairs relationships, even loses weight. Sentimental but never preachy, this story of midlife revelation and redemption is inspiring to anyone who may be stuck in what has been lost or taken from them. 365 Thank Yous is a quick, easy read that surely will send you looking for a pen and stamps.

  • Still Foolin’ ‘Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? Posted in: Memoirs

    By Billy Crystal – Henry Holt, 2013

    Fans of actor, comedian and filmmaker Billy Crystal, rejoice. Crystal, an amazing storyteller, has written a laugh-out-loud memoir, chock full of tantalizing name-dropping of stars from film, jazz, baseball … you name it. Readers get to share in Crystal’s gamut of emotions as he admits that after his father died, he “never felt young again,” and as he waxes sweetly sentimental over his wife of 45 years. Colorful language (at times, downright bawdy) and details about his anatomy leave nothing to the imagination. He’s funniest in his curmudgeonly missives about the downsides of aging—dental work, insomnia, spilling his food, grandkids. Crystal’s talent is that he gets us to laugh not only at him but also at our own aging selves. Enjoy the ride!

  • Life Is a Gift: The Zen of Bennett Posted in: Memoirs

    By Tony Bennett – Harper, 2012

    Tony Bennett looks back at the route he has taken to achieve his personal Zen and encouraging us to follow in his footsteps. In this memoir, Bennett, at 86, reminisces about his musical career, his family and his love of all things beautiful, which inspired him to paint. A folksy everyman in many ways, Bennett is a great storyteller. He reveals his philosophy on achieving excellence in art and attaining fulfillment in life: stay active and engaged and strive to be a lifelong learner—both, proven methods of successful aging. While not pretending to be a full account of his life (there are several other books that do that well), Life Is a Gift includes plenty of tales about Bennett’s encounters with other musical legends over the years. Intimate at times but not overly profound, the insights shared by the mega star reveal a humble, grateful man who never stops honing his craft. An inspiration at any age.

  • What Are Old People For? Posted in: Insights from Bold Thinkers

    By William H. Thomas, MD – VanderWyk & Burnham, 2007

    “Our culture declares that adulthood is forever, that old age means decline, and that perfection is lodged in remaining young,” writes geriatrician Bill Thomas, a self-proclaimed abolitionist of the old way of being old. Adults (not to be confused with older adults or elders), he writes, are fixated on the perception of youthful vitality. They are not just defying age with wrinkle creams and medical miracles, they are denying it—living in fear of “old” from a very young age. This seminal book shows how this negativism is destroying quality of life not just for elders but also for families and society. Thomas challenges how we think about community structure, advertising and, especially, institutionalized nursing care, which is “plagued by loneliness, helplessness and boredom.” In Thomas’s world, elderhood reclaims its due respect and all generations are richer for it. This game-changer is a must for anyone who plans to age with dignity and purpose.

  • 65 Things to Do When You Retire Posted in: Guides to Aging Well

    By Mark Evan Chimsky – Sellers Publishing, Inc., 2012

    If there is a milestone birthday on your calendar or if you’re shopping for a gift for a retirement party, this book could be the perfect find. Noted by the Wall Street Journal as one of its picks for best guides to later life, 65 Things is inspirational, funny and wise. Jimmy Carter and Gloria Steinem are arguably the most well known essayists featured here, but many of the others are professionals in the arena of post-career life. What should you do with free time and vitality to spare? Among the topics covered are risk taking, volunteering, bucket lists and expectations for retirement. Even if you are far from your last day on the job, you’ll find food for thought here. There’s a bonus too—all royalties benefit cancer research.

  • Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship Posted in: Memoirs

    By Isabel Vincent – Algonquin Books, 2016

    Edward is a bereft widower in his 90s; Isabel is a middle-aged reporter whose marriage is on the rocks. As a favor to his out-of-town daughter, Isabel agrees to look in on Edward to make certain he honors his promise to his late wife: to keep on living after she’s gone. Edward’s marriage was a sweet, sad love story that he shares with Isabel over dinners—menus included at the top of each chapter—that he meticulously prepares, which leave the reader salivating at the imagery. Isabel confides in Edward as well. There’s a special connection as both have lost spouses, but Edward’s antidote is the slow and thoughtful creation of these exquisite meals, and the joy of sharing them with others. The time they spend together has Isabel rethinking her life; she now savors, where she once was indifferent. A dear gem of a little memoir that may have you looking for an Edward of your own.

  • 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith Posted in: Insights from Bold Thinkers

    By Sonia Arrison – Basic Books, 2011

    Longevity experts suggest that the first person who will live to 150 has already been born. If you knew that person was you, would you do anything differently? What would you study in school? When would you start your family? How would you invest? In 100 Plus, we meet the scientists and thought leaders who are the catalysts for the increased health spans of tomorrow. There are no snake-oil salesmen here. Arrison has written a provocative and easy-to-understand work that covers the science and technologies of superlongevity, addressing the likely impacts on religion, childbearing, education and employment. We learn not only what might happen to our bodies but what stands to occur in our societies as we attain longer life. Prepare to be enlightened or maybe terrified—the possibilities could challenge us to rethink what we thought we knew about generations to come.

  • Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake Posted in: Guides to Aging Well, Memoirs

    This Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist has a knack for telling her life story as though she is talking to an old friend in this memoir on turning 60. Whether looking to the future or glancing back, Quindlen writes with humor, comfort and hope about motherhood (the challenges of raising teens versus raising children), overcoming loss (her mom died when Quindlen was 19) and marriage (and the white lies that save hers). With typical candor, she writes about her gratitude for the opportunities she’s had, thanks in part to the women’s movement, the changing role religion played in her life, and her thoughts on aging and retirement. The appeal to midlife women is great, but there is a universality to her ruminations that gives her writing a mirror-like quality to women of any age. Best read as stand-alone essays to give the messages time to resonate, Anna Quindlen is better than therapy.

  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer Posted in: Insights from Bold Thinkers

    By Siddhartha Mukherjee – Scribner, 2010

    In this fascinating, exhaustively researched volume, the author takes on the disease that has destroyed—and intrigued—humans since the start of recorded time. Mukherjee is an oncologist, medical educator and clinical researcher. His book is “an attempt to enter the mind of this immortal illness.” And so he does, tracing the history of cancer through extraordinary personalities and their work, including Sidney Farber, father of chemotherapy, philanthropist Mary Lasker and William Halsted, who developed the modern mastectomy. Case histories movingly illustrate his points. One of the most poignant is of a woman named Germaine, whose suffering taught Mukherjee that “to keep pace with this malady, you needed to keep inventing and reinventing, learning and unlearning strategies.” In 2015, PBS released a documentary based on the book, created by filmmaker Ken Burns.

  • The Late Starters Orchestra Posted in: Guides to Aging Well

    By Ari L. Goldman – Algonquin Books, 2014

    As a boy, best-selling author Ari Goldman made memories by singing at synagogue with his father. But in high school and university, Goldman put his energy into writing, not music. He got a low-level newspaper job and worked his way up. At 26, missing the joy music had brought to his life, he found a teacher who promised that learning to play the cello would “bring back his voice.” Goldman did not stick with it then, but in his late 50s set a goal that he would play the cello at his 60th birthday party. He accomplished this feat in part due to the Late Starters Orchestra (LSO), where adults of every description gather weekly in an old New York City coat factory with musical instruments, all committed to learning to play later in life. From the LSO and Goldman, we learn that taking up a challenge even when you’re older can be incredibly rewarding. This is a story of perseverance and hope for all readers, no matter your age.