Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Many Dilemmas of Aging: A Book Review

A review of 60 on Up: The Truth About Aging in America (Beacon Press, 2007), by Lillian B. Rubin, Ph.D.

Lillian B. Rubin’s new book begins with the sentence, "Getting old sucks!" It is a beautifully written book, based on interviews and personal experience, debunking many of the myths of aging promoted by so many today. This book should be "must" reading for everyone over 50 and for all those who study us, advertise to us, and oversee our care.

Lillian B. Rubin is an 83-year-old psychologist and sociologist who tells it like it is when it comes to growing old. The only problem I see with the book is that, like bitter medicine, it is a bit hard to take. As a reader about to turn 75, I see the truth in everything Rubin says, and am impressed by her fair-mindedness and scientific efforts to look at all sides of each question. Still, even for the generally (or formerly) scholarly and serious me, it is a bit hard to deliberately plunge into reality when I could be escaping into televised baseball or reading or writing fiction.

However, it’s a short book (184 pages, including acknowledgments and end notes), and for me, the plunge was worthwhile. Don’t look at this book as light pleasure reading, but look at it as a source of straightforward information on the aging process from one who has both research data and first-hand knowledge of that process.

I was tempted to include quotations from nearly every page, so here are just a few points I found especially interesting. From the first chapter: "Our revulsion with aging, our flight from it at almost any cost, is deeply ingrained . . . . What do you think when you look in the mirror and see the signs of your own aging? . . . Do you want to turn away, rush off to the nearest cosmetics counter and buy up every cream that promises to remove the lines . . . run to the gym . . . call a plastic surgeon?" We want the outside to match the inside, according to Rubin; we are frantic to turn back the clock. Perhaps we can for a while, but as we live longer, that usually becomes a futile effort. We now tend to live in that uncomfortable place called old age for a long time.

Dr. Rubin quotes geriatrician Kate Scannell, who says, "We are regularly consumed with commercial messages that promote an experience of aging that is far more possible on billboards than in the three-dimensional lives of most elderly people. . . .Our culture’s compulsive spinning of old age into gold can inflict psycho-spiritual harm when it lures people into expecting a perpetually gilded existence."

Rubin goes far beyond self-image to discuss our roles in society and the ways our society attempts to classify older people. Sometimes it’s the "young old" (65 to 74), the "old old" (75 to 84), and the "oldest old" (85 and older). (Of course the idea that I’m moving into the "old old" category in less than two weeks distresses me a bit.) Some use "middle old," "third age," and/or "fourth age." It seems to Rubin–and to me–that fixed categories all have their weaknesses; there are many individual differences.

Still, many of us share certain problems: outliving our savings or pensions, losing social connections, having to care for even older parents when we ourselves are old, spending our children’s intended inheritances, and many more. Dr. Rubin’s interview subjects freely discussed all of these matters. The book even includes a chapter entitled "It’s Better Than the Alternative, Isn’t It?" The answer is "Yes, but . . ." Is it always wise to prolong a life of intense suffering long after all hope is gone? Our inclination is to cling to life as long as possible, no matter what.

Lillian Rubin quotes the Dylan Thomas poem she originally planned to make the epigram of her book:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

However, in writing this book, she learned that "It’s one thing to ‘burn and rave’ at old age and another to do so ‘against the dying light.’" She came to understand "How much our fight against the ‘good night’ costs, how our fear of death imprisons us . . . and contaminates our life, how our denial of it closes us off from the full affirmation of the life we could be living." Strangely enough, the author found that even the deeply religious fear death and take heroic measures to postpone the inevitable.

Dr. Rubin believes that "the growing belief (myth?) that aging is a disease rather than a natural consequence of living has generated a steady stream of ‘good advice’ about how we can beat back the clock, leaving us confused about what’s possible and anxious about what we’re doing ‘wrong’"when we fail.

She favors staying active and engaged as long as possible, but points out that health issues and societal restrictions eventually put an end to that strategy. Even those happy, active seniors living in retirement communities often reach a point when they need to slow down and relax. The earlier years of retirement may be golden, but for many who live to be "old old" or "oldest old," life may become less than golden. As life expectancy increases, more and more of us are likely to reach those stages.

This a book those of us readers over 70 are likely to react to with, "That’s so true!" while baby boomer readers may shrug and continue to look for ways to escape aging. More importantly, perhaps younger readers who study us and care for us will learn the folly of making hasty generalizations about aging. Dr. Rubin does not have all the answers, and neither do I, but this is a valuable book that describes old age as it is. We all need to pay attention.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

NFPW Conference, Part II

Here is a breakfast scene from the conference, showing the head table during the keynote speech by Governor Timothy M. Kane of Virginia. I was impressed by his speech. One important point he made was that candidates for political office need to give us more specifics about their proposals rather than just "pie in the sky" ideas, and that the press should ask for and pass along those details so that we can make more intelligent choices.

Each day featured three workshop periods with sessions divided into three tracks: Writing, Public Relations, and Life Skills. Since the specific types of writing projects covered were not of particular interest to me, and public relations is not and never has been my field, I found myself attending life skills sessions. Certainly everyone needs those!

The first session I attended was not clearly related to my own life, but it was interesting. In "Directing your Destiny," Attorney Melanie Lee explained the ins and outs of the business side of launching a career: sole proprieterships, limited partnerships, etc. I'm not interested in starting a business at this point in my life, but I learned to understand some of the issues involved.

I also attended "Dressing for Success," even though I live alone and can do my writing in sweat pants or an old bathrobe, or in the nude if I were that daring (I'm not; I'd probably frighten myself if I walked past a mirror). A few of the styles shown (including short skirts and very high heels) were definitely for the young and daring, but as usual, I liked the more casual, elegant pants suits. That's what I'd wear if I went out in public more, and if I took the time to shop seriously. My wardrobe needs work, but who cares? The makeup demonstration was interesting, too, but I'm too impatient to work at creating a new face. I'm used to the lines on mine.

Probably the most relevant-sounding session was "Growing Older, Not Old," by Debbie Burcham of the Virginia Department of Aging and Betty Booker, who spoke humorously of the myths of aging. My first impression was that the younger Burcham was not exactly in tune with her older audience, which included some of us in our 70's and 80's. I don't think she realized that we oldsters were still around and active. She concentrated more on the baby boomers and their need to plan ahead. Booker told some very funny senior stereotype jokes that kept us laughing. My basic impression is that the over-50 group is so diversified, and perhaps split into seniors and boomers, that it's hard to pinpoint issues and interests. Let's face it: we do grow not just older, but old!

Finally, I went to "Closing the Book Deal" by attorney Kirk Schroder. This was obviously about traditional, not self, publishing, but I learned what publishing and entertainment lawyers do. The tag line was, "Learn how to negotiate the often perilous shoals of publishing and come out a winner." I'm not likely to do that, but I'm sure it's useful information.

All in all, this was an interesting conference, even though much of it was not directed to my life and concerns--I didn't expect it to be. I enjoy learning new things, and I advise other seniors to venture out of their comfortable ruts occasionally, as I do.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo by the author

On a First Anniversary

Today marks a first anniversary of sorts for this blog. While it began several months earlier, it's been equipped with a free counter since September 26, 2006. A free counter provides limited information, but I find these one-year statistics interesting:

Total page views: 8,974
Total uniques: 4,024
(a "unique" is a visotor who has not visited in the past 24 hours)

Of course I've set no records here; I understand that popular blogs get hundreds or thousands or milions of hits per day, and some visitors probably landed here by mistake. Still, for a casual, personal, non-commercial blog, this one has done surprisingly well, in my opinion. The personal satisfaction is priceless.

How about submitting more comments? I would like to know more about my audience.

Monday, September 24, 2007

I'm Back! The NFPW Conference, Part I

Attending the National Federation of Press Women's 2007 National Conference and 70th Anniversary Celebration in Richmond, Virginia, this past weekend was a great experience. These are the women (and a few men) who work "in the trenches" of the writing profession, from newspaper columnists to public relations professionals to book authors, and they are an interesting lot indeed! It's apparent that many women keep writing long into old age, so I felt right at home at this conference. I'll tell more later, but for now, here are two highlights of my personal experience:

On Friday evening, September 21, a main feature of the program was the "Bold Women of the Past: Models for the Future" presentation, sponsored by the Illinois Women's Press Association. The commentator and script writer was Marlene Cook, the director Jill Miller, and the coordinator Cecelia Green. The rest of us were models from periods dating from 1880 to the future, and I represented Jane Addams in the 1900-1910 period.

As the oldest model in the group, with no acting or modeling ability and walking problems, I felt a bit worried and insecure. However, I made it down the runway in my long skirt and gray wig (see the picture above). The most interesting characters, in my opinion, were Marianne Wolf-Astrauskas (Illinois) and Julie Slaymaker (Indiana) as Flappers from the 1920-1930 period, Mary Ellen Kearns (Illinois) as a WAVE in full uniform and Cecelia Green (Illinois) as Rosie the Riveter from 1940-1950, and Lisa and Craig Bishop ( South Carolina) as Elvis and Priscilla Presley for 1970-1980. In fact, everyone who participated was wonderful!

The second big event for me was the final banquet and awards presentation on Saturday evening, September 22. I received two national awards from Meg Hunt, NFPW President, a first place award for 2006 contributions to this blog, "Never too Late!" and a third place award for my first book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor (Infinity, 2006). Old as I am, it was still a thrill to walk across to receive my award certificates as the cameras flashed. The procession of winners was long, but I felt that I was in good company, especially since I've been writing for only a few years.

So there you have it. I think the lessons I learned included more about the joys of writing, the wonderfully friendly relationships among writers, and the benefits of keeping active past age 70. I'm glad I attended the conference, and I may attend again in Idaho in 2008. I hope all seniors will considering joining groups devoted to their special interests, whatever those interests may be.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Photos: Upper left, a happy winner.
Upper right: With NFPW President Meg Hunt.
Lower left: "Jane Addams" with "Flapper" Marianne Wolf-Astrauskas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I'm Off to the National Federation of Press Women's Conference Tomorrow

I'll probably not be posting here for a few days; tomorrow morning, I'm on my way the the National Federation of Press Women's national conference in Richmond, Virginia. I'm going to receive my two 2007 national awards, first place for this blog and third place for my book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor.

One of the more interesting features of the conference promises to be the "Bold Women of the Past: Models for the Future" event on Friday evening. Models from various state chapters will model the fashions from various stages in the organization's past, beginning with the 1880's period. Cecilia Green of our local Illinois Woman's Press Association and Jill Miller of the Witchita, Kansas, Professionakl Communicators (mother and daughter) are the co-chairs.

To my surprise, I am one of the models, portraying Jane Addams in the 1900-1910 period. Jane was an early member of IWPA. Despite my lack of modeling talent and my less-than-authentic costume, I am actually looking forward to the experience.

Come back next week for a report on the conference. I see the fact that I'm actually going and participating as further evidence that "It's Never too Late!"

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ageism Lives!

Thanks to Ronni Bennett, of Time Goes By ( I have just read the latest entry in The Tattler, a blog by Julian. Be sure to check it out at

It seems that a private movie screening in Hollywood was limited to those between 17 and 50. Why should those over 50 be excluded from anything? According to authorities, there are "nine known major stereotypes that reflect prejudice toward senior citizens." They are illness, impotency, ugliness, mental decline, mental illness, uselessness, isolation, poverty, and depression.

I, for one, object. At nearly 75, I don't fit any of those nine stereotypes. In fact, I reject all stereotypes. It's too easy to dismiss a race, ethnic group, nationality, or religion--or an age group--with a single derogatory word, or nine of them! We are all individuals, all human beings worth listening to, regardless of any label or category we may or may not fit into.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Monday, September 17, 2007

My New Book is Coming!

My new book, Seniorwriting: A Brief Guide for Seniors Who Want to Write (Infinity, 2007, $9.95), will be out in early October. This is not a book for those who already write; it's for non-writers who have life stories to preserve for their families and friends.

This book attempts to simplify the process. It contains twenty short chapters in 81 pages. Part I discusses the benefits of writing about life's experiences and challenges to discover, to heal, and to reinvent. Part II presents ten short examples of some of the kinds of writing assignments mentioned in Part I, while Part III is designed to help with the finishing touches and with self-publishing and/or sharing.

Unlike some other guides to life story writing, this one presents no rigid rules, no specific method of organization, such as a year-by-year or decade-by-decade approach. The idea is to promote creativity and self-expression without fear of writing errors or prescribed formulas.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Friday, September 14, 2007

More About Happiness

There are certainly a lot of authorities out there telling us how to age well. The October 2007 issue of Prevention features a section called "The Art of Aging." Somehow, I thought aging was an unavoidable life process rather than an art, but I have to admit that there are a few things we can do to make life better.

The article contains sections on health, diet, and fitness, but the section that interested me most was "The Happiness Factor: How to Think." "Being optimistic in middle age increases life span by at least 7.5 years." David Snowdon, University of Kentucky Professor of Neurology, says that of course optimists get stressed, but "they automatically turn the response off much more quickly and return to a positive mental and physical state."

I'm past middle age, but I find that the "four habits that longevity experts say are at the heart of a sunny disposition" make sense for everyone.

1. Keep in touch. "People who socialize at least once a week are more likely to live longer, keep their brains sharp, and prevent heart attacks." According to Teresa Seeman, PhD, professsor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA, "Just talking on the phone to a friend has the immediate effect of lowering your blood pressure and cortisol levels." I admit to being somewhat anti-social, but I have found that my occasional conversations with old friends make me feel good.

2. Express Gratutude. "People who write about all the things they are thankful for are optimistic about the upcoming week and more satisfied overall with their lives." Of course I have long believed in the therapeutic benefits of writing.

3. Be randomly kind. Performing at least five acts of kindness in any given day, such as giving up a seat on a bus or buying a cup of coffee for a friend, "boosts your sense of well-being and happiness." Well, I'm one of those who needs to have a seat given up for me, but I always thank the cheerful giver sincerely. I hope he or she feels better. And yes, I did give up my seat to those older and less agile when I was younger.

4. Reappraise your life. "Set aside a little time each week to write about or record . . . an important event in your past. Reflecting on the experience can reshape your perception of it, as well as your expectations for the future," says Robert N. Butler MD, of the International Longevity Center-USA. "When creating [a] 'life review,' you get to list all your accompishments--an instant self-esteen booster. . . . If you can come to terms with past events, you'll be better able to handle tough times down the road."

If you are a pessimist who loves to complain or criticize, or if you feel paralyzed by gloom, you may be cutting years off your life and aging painfully. Obviously positive thinking has its benefits for us all. Writing can be an important step in this journey toward happiness.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

See for more tips on healthy aging.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

About Books and Reading

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discussed the ways people handle and mishandle books. Today, I read many reader responses to that article. These interested me because I found it heartening that so many people care about books and presumably read them at least occasionally.

Various aspects of the question were discussed by readers with many points of view. However, two responses especially interested me. One woman felt ashamed that she disliked and threw away a book that later became a Pulitzer Prize winner. Did she feel obligated to like it? Another had so little confidence in her own opinions and reactions that she was afraid to put them into writing lest she be wrong or another reader be misled. Too bad!

To me, reading (except for texts presenting strictly factual information) involves reacting, reflecting, and forming opinions. Different people will enjoy, or not enjoy, different books for different reasons. Also, a book that is widely promoted and appeals to a majority of critics is likely to be a prize-winner and best-seller, but are those the only books worth reading? I have discovered, and reviewed, some fascinating unknown books by unknown authors.

As for the books themselves, I believe that library books, borrowed books, and valuable leather-bound antiques should not be defaced. On the other hand, key passages and points of special interest should be marked in personally-owned textbooks and books to be reviewed. My best students were usually the ones who used their well-marked literature books to find key passages to refer to or quote for open-book exams and papers very easily. That's why I favor cheaper paper-bound books in general. We should not deface monuments, but we should react to a writer's ideas.

There were responses defending writing in books, as long as you own the books, and others stating that writing in any book, ever, is a no-no. I guess my answer would be, "It depends."

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Importance of Plumbing Fixtures

Unfortunately, I'm not acquainted with any plumbers, but I think that guy who plays one on Desperate Housewives is pretty cute (for a young guy). Anyway, this afternoon a flood of water suddenly fell from the ceiling in one of my bathrooms. Funny how we just expect pipes and bathroom fixtures and appliances to work perfectly forever, so I was dismayed.

I figured out that the problem might come from the condo unit above mine, but I couldn't understand what was going on. My ceiling is wet, stained, and dripping, and the weekend is coming. Alas! This is a self-managed building without a full-time maintenance man.

I did the only sensible thing I could think of: I got in touch with my upstairs neighbor and asked a few questions. Together, we figured it out.

The large unit above mine contains four bathrooms (I only have two, but then I live alone; my neioghbor has a family). One of his bathrooms is seldom used. He flushed the toilet in that bathroom as a test, and I got another deluge. Now we know.

So my neighbor promised to lock that bathroom and hire someone to fix the problem. I hope he does ceiling work, too. Something like this can make me feel like a helpless old lady, but as usual, I'll try to look on the bright side. I expect to gain further respect for the noble trade of plumbing, too.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Hair and Hair Dye and Getting Old

By some strange coincidence, I read an article about gray hair and dyed hair this week, the same week I also kept one of my rare appointments with my hairdresser. According to the article, dyed hair is one of the big symbols of eternal youth (I exaggerate, but you know what I mean).

I've never been one to dye my hair. By the time I retired some eight years ago, I was virtually the only woman in my department still proudly flaunting her natural hair color, even though mine was tinged with quite a bit of gray by then. "Natural highlights," I called it. I didn't give in until a couple of years ago, when I was talked into highlights: more or less blonde streaks among the brown and the gray. Since then, my hair has been a variety of mixed colors, sometimes reverting to a dull iron-gray. I seldom pay atttention; I don't have much of a social life, and I usually avoid mirrors.

My mother maintained dark brown hair well into her late eighties, long after dark hair ceased to flatter her sagging face. In bright light, it resembled no natural hair color known to man. She finally let her hair turn its natural white as she neared ninety, and it looked beautiful.

I like white hair, but mine doesn't seem to be heading that way; it's just dull gray. My pale, sagging face surely couldn't stand my former dark brown any more, and trying to keep it that color would drive me crazy anyway. I would resent the required time more than the expense. To say that I have no skill in taking care of my hair is to put it mildly. Mine usually is a mess.

Today I looked at my reflection in a mirror in good light. Guess what? My hair appears to be mostly a sort of strawberry blonde. Perhaps my hairdresser was having a bad day when she did that. Anyway, I just shrugged. Who cares? Since I don't have a Web Cam hooked up to my computer, nobody can see me. I'll just keep typing away on my latest project.

Somewhere past seventy, the struggle to look young seems to become a lost cause. I guess what I plan to do is to age gracefully. And yet--perhaps I could use an Extreme Makeover. After all, my motto and the title of this blog is "Never too Late!"

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, September 02, 2007

About Happiness

I admit that I've never been a fan of psychological self-help books: the kinds that promise true happiness and/or eternal salvation through meditation or self-hypnosis or the teachings of a particular philosopher or religious leader-or a politician, for that matter. I am an admitted cynic and skeptic.

That said, I often encounter reviews of books probably not interesting or relevant enough to make me get out my credit card, but containing a few ideas that start me thinking.

Heidi Stevens' article, "Your assignment: Be happier" in the September 2 Chicago Tribune, is about Happier, a book by Harvard University Professor Tal Ben-Shahar.

According to Ben-Shahar, happiness eludes hedonists, who just enjoy the present with no thought for the future; rat racers, who suffer now in the hope of future happiness; and nihilists, who have no joy or belief in happiness, either present or future. True happiness requires both pleasure and meaning in your life. "Identifying the right activity, and then the right quantity for each activity, leads to the highest quality of life."

Apparently this book reviews several things I have already learned in my long life:

Money doesn't buy happiness. Psychologist Philip Brickman discovered that big lottery winners return to their original happiness levels within a month.

It takes courage to leave one's comfort zone to find happiness, as in leaving a hated high-paying job for less money and more satisfaction.

Helping others is one of the components of a happy life.

I like this exercise from the book, especially for those considerably younger than I: "Imagine yourself at 110 years old, offering advice to your current self. Would you tell yourself to spend more time with your family? Find a more fulfilling career?" That's good advice, especially for what I assume to be the book's primary intended audience, today's college students and recent graduates.

I consider myself about as happy as an elderly, imperfect person in an imperfect world can be, but I've encountered many unhappy people of all ages. This book might help them, especially anyone admitting to being a hedonist, a rat racer, or a nihilist. Anyway, regardless of age, you surely can't go wrong by de-emphasizing money, daring to leave your comfort zone, and helping others.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne