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.

  • Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone Posted in: Guides to Aging Well, Insights from Bold Thinkers

    More than 32 million adults are living alone. That’s 28 percent of Americans, up from 10 percent in 1950. This remarkable societal shift is having far-reaching consequences, writes Eric Klinenberg, and so far, it’s a mixed bag of success stories and concerns. Some people are deliberately solo, choosing not to commit to domestic partnership for reasons that range from career focus to disinterest in marriage. Others are living alone, wishing they were not. Either way, Klinenberg explains, singles are not independent of community and need others for companionship and support, especially as they age. He discusses the roles of social media, increased longevity and urbanization in this trend, paying particular attention to the effects on women and older adults. This book offers insight into why people choose to live by themselves, what they do to make it work and how we may have to reinvent society to make sure that singles are not actually left alone.

  • 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans Posted in: Guides to Aging Well, Views from the Oldest among Us

    Are there choices to be made today to enrich our later years? What are the keys to a rewarding second half of life? The author asks these questions and more, not of social workers or academics, but of the real experts—those who have lived to 65 and beyond. Inspired by an encounter with an extraordinary 90-year-old, Pillemer, a Cornell University gerontologist, invested five years interviewing more than 1,000 Americans age 65 and over and lays out a blueprint for a fulfilling life. What sets this book apart from other self-help books is the poignant stories of successes and regrets of our older citizens. These are not biographies but rather the lessons they have learned and wish to share with those of us who follow, on topics such as getting and staying married, choosing a career, parenting, and living with and without regrets. If you are ready to grow older fearlessly, this book is for you.

  • Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother and the Lessons of a Lifetime Posted in: Life’s Endings, Memoirs

    National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday” host Scott Simon made headlines in 2013 with his tweets from his dying mother’s ICU bedside, taking followers along for this most intimate journey. Patricia Simon Newman, a glamorous, mischievous and resourceful woman, made the most of life’s challenges and found good in every person she met. And what a cast of characters that was. She married three times and had many loyal friends as she raised her only son. Simon’s tweets ignited debate over whether or not such a personal moment should be shared on social media (most followers were both moved and supportive, while others were outraged), but the book draws us into the saga of a son’s devotion and a family’s shared memories. The memoir takes place between the tweets, unique and universal at the same time. Simon’s homage to his remarkable mother is a warm and life-affirming read.

  • The End Game Posted in: Insights from Bold Thinkers

    We are all growing older, but we are not all aging on equal terms, says University of Arizona sociologist Corey M. Abramson in The End Game. With deeply detailed interviews of a diverse cast of adults aging in California’s Bay Area, Abramson gives readers a very personal view of how disparate education and economics have created what he calls an alarming “geriatric inequality” in America. The interviewees’ real-world experiences illustrate that people aging in middle-class neighborhoods have better housing, transportation, access to health care, social support—even groceries—than those in poorer communities, and that this imbalance has a direct impact on whether a person thrives or simply survives in the later years. Abramson challenges society to consider older adults as individuals rather than as a one-size-fits-all block, because, he says, what affects our elders today eventually affects us all.

  • New Life, No Instructions: A Memoir Posted in: Memoirs

    What do you do when your story changes at midlife? That’s what Gail Caldwell asked herself in 2011 as she faced major surgery with a long recovery and uncertain outcome. Never married, Caldwell was approaching 60 with no children—but with a young, active dog.In this memoir, Caldwell recalls how she drew strength from a lifetime of overcoming the challenges of disease and addiction. A polio survivor, she hoped this surgery would alleviate chronic pain and possibly lengthen her right leg, which was an inch and a half shorter than her left. The “family” she created for herself over the years surrounded her during recovery. Her Samoyed, Tula—with her live-in-the-moment canine ways—inspired Caldwell to get back on her feet and out to the dog park, where she experienced life from a new vantage point, pain-free. This is a reminder of how a fighting spirit, a solid social network and a good dog can make all the difference in life.

  • With a Little Help from Our Friends: Creating Community as We Grow Older Posted in: Guides to Aging Well, Insights from Bold Thinkers

    Will your current home be the right place for you to live out your days? If you’re thinking of relocating—or helping someone else to do so—and hope to find the best living arrangements for aging well, look no further than this book. You may be surprised at the unique ways people are thinking about “community” today. Baker explores the cultural shift that offers older people many models beyond residential care: cohousing, aging in place, living among people with shared interests, to name but a few. She thoughtfully explains the positives and the shortcomings and includes anecdotes from people who’ve chosen each lifestyle. Baker even includes questions to ask before signing contracts, suggestions on how to pay and, if needed, guidance for finding supplemental care. This is a well-researched and illuminating peek into what’s just around the bend for both individual and community.

  • Grandma Gatewood’s Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail Posted in: Inspiring Journeys

    By Ben Montgomery – Chicago Review Press, 2014

    In 1955, Emma Gatewood became the first woman to hike the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail in its entirety in a single season. Ben Montgomery, a distant relative, spins this inspiring tale of courage and determination from Gatewood’s diaries and her children’s recollections. “Grandma” Gatewood was 67 years old: mother to 11, grandmother to 23, divorced from her husband of 30 years and a survivor of domestic violence. Inspired by a National Geographic article that said no woman had accomplished the feat, she first tried in 1954 but was thwarted by broken eyeglasses. Not an experienced hiker by a long shot, Gatewood took no map or compass, not even a tent. She carried a handmade backpack with a blanket and a plastic shower curtain for the elements, relying on common sense and the kindness of strangers. She went on to hike the trail twice more, and her advocacy is credited for its rehabilitation for countless others to enjoy.

  • On My Own Posted in: Life’s Endings, Memoirs

    By Diane Rehm – Knopf, 2016

    For more than 30 years, Diane Rehm, who is now 79, has been the gravelly voice (due to a condition called spasmodic dysphonia) of the “Diane Rehm Show” on National Public Radio. Syndicated across the United States, the two-hour news magazine focuses on politics and current affairs. But it’s Rehm’s private affairs that are the topic of this memoir, as she beautifully chronicles her husband’s passing, how she copes and what might lie ahead. Diane and John had been married 54 years when Parkinson’s disease left them with no place to turn when he asked for medical help to end his life. Rehm writes about the agonizing realization that John would have to starve himself. She shares her despair about his decision and her first year of widowhood—and anguishes about who will care for her when her time comes. Once she retires in 2017, Rehm promises she will spend her days advocating for the right-to-die movement.

  • Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death Posted in: Guides to Aging Well, Life’s Endings, Memoirs

    By Katy Butler – Scribner, 2013

    In this honest mix of memoir and research, Katy Butler shares her family’s experience of illness and death in hopes that we can reclaim caregiving and dying from a broken health system. Butler’s father, Jeffrey, a World War II survivor and academic, suffers a massive stroke, followed by a pacemaker implantation—a hasty decision that will haunt the family for five years as his descent into dementia takes a devastating toll on Butler’s mother’s health. Butler lives across the country and finds herself part of the “roll-aboard generation” of adult children who spend years caregiving via plane and phone. When doctors deny her request to turn off the pacemaker, Butler struggles to navigate a health system designed around reimbursement and life-saving measures rather than quality of life and patient-centered care. An instruction manual for creating a good death, Heaven’s Door deserves serious attention not only from each of us but the entire US medical community.