Book Review: Better With Age:
The Psychology of Successful Aging
By Alan Castel
Written by Tamara Frankel
The Victorian poet Robert Browning declares in one of his poems: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” I doubt that my mother was familiar with this poem, but she used to say: “The best in the world is yet to come.” Is it?
In his book Better with Age Alan Castel addresses the many myths and paradoxes about the aging process. He uses cutting-edge scientific research about the psychology of aging, as well as insights from well-known American role models who have aged well, and urges his readers to search for our own role models to emulate in later years. The book is a celebration of aging.
So – what is the secret to happy aging? – being free of disability, having high cognitive and physical abilities, and interacting with others in meaningful ways. According to Castel, old age is not all downhill. Old people are often more satisfied with life than we think. Yes, we may experience some memory loss, but this is balanced with greater wisdom. Reading Better with Age we are inspired to pursue deep satisfying lives at an advanced age.
Is one happier in their 20s or 30s than in their 80s and 90s? Not necessarily. Old age is just one of the phases of life but, like all phases, it must be mindfully lived.
Experience: The benefit of more years
This is not a book about preventing or delaying old age, but rather about showing us how we can age successfully and enjoy the benefits of additional years. Old age is a time for greater creativity. People also have more experience to draw on.
Castel tells the story of Captain Sullenberger, who in 2009, at age 58, had the wisdom to make a quick decision to land his plane, which had been hit by a large flock of birds, in the Hudson River, thus saving the lives of 155 people. In an interview following the event, the pilot said: “…for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal”.
And what about slowing down in old age? Yes, we do slow down but a) slowing down may be advantageous at times (Older drivers are less likely than younger ones to get in high-speed car accidents), and b) there are forms of compensation that mitigate this “slowing”. (Older musicians, for example, know to deliberately slow down in order to make faster parts of the music appear to be played faster, relative to other parts).
Exercise: The one thing proven to keep the mind and the body healthy
Better with Age also provides us with practical suggestions. It shows us what activities one can do to age well, how attitudes and expectations about aging are linked to how we age, and ways to enjoy older age. Walking, for instance, appears to reverse the effects of aging, both physically and mentally. Balance exercises are proven to prevent falls and may be the most essential training activity for older adults. Reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing reduce the onslaught of dementia. And last but not least – “Staying sharp involves staying connected – and not to the Internet.” People with more social support tend to live longer and happier lives.
Role Models of Aging: Find your own role models
This engaging and insightful book further inspires us by examples of older famous people who did their best work when they were older. Claude Monet, for example, began his water lily paintings at age 73. Frank Gehry designed his most creative buildings in his 80s. Others include Mark Twain, Paul Cezanne, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Frost and Virginia Woolf. Closer to home – my architect father became a successful artist when he retired at age 66.
So “Grow old with me! The best is yet to be.”