In a culture obsessed with youth and beauty, aging can be an ugly topic. Instead of avoiding the discussion, the authors of a new book argue that we need to embrace it.
“The conversation can be fun. It shouldn’t be terrifying to age or to talk about it. It should be delightful to think about that chapter in life,” said Martha Nussbaum, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago who is the co-author of the new book “Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles and Regret.”
“Growing older is not just about pain and death,” Nussbaum said. “It’s a long period of active living. To be afraid of it and push it under the rug when you’re younger is a bad idea. You do need to think about and plan for how you will deal with money, work, philanthropy, and how you want to leave things for your children. It’s needs to be dealt with early on. If you wait to 65, that’s too late.”
Saul Levmore, also a professor of law at the University of Chicago, co-authored “Aging Thoughtfully.” He agree that it’s important to have these discussions with loved ones, even though it can be an uncomfortable conversation, especially when it comes to issues like estate planning. “Nothing says that one’s children need to receive equal amounts of wealth,” said Levmore. “I think if people talk about these things they can come up with some creative solutions that reflect the parent(s) priorities. Examples include annuities and funds that can be directed toward specific children and grandchildren, with a third party making the decision about when that person should receive more funds.”
In the book, Nussbaum and Levmore debate the merits of cosmetic surgery, sexuality and retiring. Sometimes they’re in agreement, often they’re not. “Martha and I have very different opinions about retirement communities. I see the benefits of living with similar aged people with similar concerns. Martha finds the idea of these communities grotesque,” said Levmore. “I’m much more sympathetic to the elderly setting up their own rules on how residents have to live, while Martha is really bothered by these communities and their rules. I think these people have every right to run their world the way they want. They’re taking control of their own lives and that’s a good thing.”
Authors Nussbaum and Levmore join host Phil Ponce in discussion.
Below, an excerpt from the book.
THIS BOOK IS about living thoughtfully, and certainly not about dying, gracefully or otherwise. To age is to experience, to gain wisdom, to love and to lose, and to grow more comfortable in one’s own skin, however much it might be loosening. Aging is many other things. For some people, it might be about regretting, worrying, hoarding, and needing. It can also be about volunteering, comprehending, guiding, rediscovering, forgiving, and, with increasing frequency, forgetting. For the financially fortunate, it can be about retiring and bequeathing and, in turn, saving and spending in the preceding years. Many of these tendencies also pertain to people who do not yet think of themselves as aging. But these young friends, relatives, and colleagues often regard their elders as storehouses of wisdom, as well as walking warnings. This quest, to find the good, or even just the wisdom, in the wrinkles, is at least as old as Cicero, whose work is as relevant in our fast‐ changing world as it was two thousand years ago.
If, unlike other species, we learn, record, and widely communicate our errors and successes, and do so in ways that have expanded the frontiers of the human experience and improved the lives of succeeding generations, then perhaps we can also expect progress in the personal realm. We have made advances in agriculture, manufacturing, and aviation. It is less clear that we have done so with respect to partnering, parenting, and choosing political leaders, and perhaps this is because the problems in these realms are moving targets that are not conquered over time through incremental scientific progress. Aging falls between these scientific and interpersonal challenges. On average we live longer and more comfortably than our predecessors. We have more choices, and this book is about these choices.
If we accept that aging is a time of life, then it follows that it is something we have in common. Each of us ages in his or her own way, but we can learn from others’ experiences. As people age, their interests, behaviors, and preferences may change— often in ways that confirm the shared experience. As we age, are we more or less competitive? Spiritual? Frugal? Needy? Envious? Tolerant? Generous? We may need friends to help us recognize these changes, and to think through their desirability. When an isolated individual observes and contemplates, it is hard to discern whether one has become more self‐ absorbed, more accepting of criticism, more frightening to others, or more unreasonable in making demands on family members. Self‐ knowledge might therefore require friendships and conversations, and in this book we hope to set an example in this regard.
We offer different perspectives on topics related to aging, with the aim of continuing the conversation with each other and our readers. Some of our chapters are designed to help families have meaningful conversations about matters they ought to discuss before disability or death intervenes. We encourage thoughtfulness and communication about topics that are often regarded as awkward or private. Few people talk with outsiders about the problems they face in passing on property to their children, especially when children are in disparate financial circumstances, have been difficult, or are embedded in fractured families. Similarly, few people talk seriously about philosophical questions, such as the nature of one’s longing for perpetual influence. Finally, most people are quite aware of physical changes as they age, and yet are uncomfortable talking about their bodies. This may have something to do with the nature of rekindled love and new romance among mature partners. We engage with such topics in these chapters. One of us approaches these topics as a philosopher and the other as a lawyer‐ economist inclined to think in terms of incentives, but we share a conviction that an academic perspective on these topics bears practical fruit.
Other topics are easy to broach, and for these we try to provide broad, philosophical, and policy‐ oriented perspectives. We talk about the all‐ too common problem of wanting to manage things one cannot completely control, including other people. We see aging as a time of life, just like childhood, young adulthood, and middle age. It has its own puzzles in need of reflection. It has unique pleasures and joys, as well as pains. But, perhaps because people are disinclined to think of aging as an opportunity, few works of reflection treat the puzzles that belong to this time of life. Our goal is to investigate some of the complicated and fascinating questions that arise in this time of life; the questions are about living more than about ending.
From AGING THOUGHTFULLY: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, and Regret by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore. Copyright © 2017 by Martha C. Nussbaum and Saul Levmore and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Nov. 9: When Helen Lambin got a small tattoo for her 75th birthday, she had no intention of ever getting another. But the experience “made me feel sort of adventurous and wild,” she remembers.
Oct. 9: Eli Finkel studies relationships and marriage, and in his new book “The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work,” he argues the best marriages of today are the best the world has ever known.
May 2: When an obsession with outer beauty gets in your head so much that it makes you sick, that’s a serious problem, says Northwestern professor Renee Engeln.