Educational Gerontology reviews Aging and the Art of living

This book is an impressive meditation on aging in Western culture. According to its author, who is a professor of interpretive gerontology at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (Netherlands), living longer does not necessarily mean living better. The title itself suggests an important question: Do we need an art of aging? And if the answer to that question is “yes,” what does such an art mean?

Throughout this book the author offers a gentle critique of an approach to gerontology he calls “chronometric,” that is, measurements of social, demographic, health, and other characteristics of older persons taken from the outside. Whereas a temporal and metrical approach to aging research has been important and useful in many respects, it has also been incomplete. The chronometric tradition has not developed an authentic “art of aging” which can only be created not with materials employed outside the artist such as marble or canvas, but by a person’s own life.

One of my favorite chapters in Aging and the Art of Living is entitled “A Passion for Wisdom and the Emergence of the Art of Aging.” In this chapter Professor Baars tours the Ancient World and important works on aging that were written by poets such as Solon and Virgil and philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus. A highlight in this section is Baars’ reflections on Cicero’s De Senectute (On Old Age) which is generally considered to be the single greatest treatise on aging written in the Ancient World. Modern philosophers and gerontologists who aspire to articulate an art of aging would be well served by reading Cicero’s insights “in defense of old age” composed more than 2000 years ago.

Another strength of this book is its cross-cultural nature. Although I regret to say this, as an American much of the gerontology research and commentary I read focuses on work being done in the United States and written by fellow American scholars. It was refreshing to encounter ideas about aging being explored in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, and the author’s own homeland of Holland.

The idea of achieving a high quality of living into late age is a key theme throughout this book. Although there is no reason to belittle efforts to live longer (since being alive is a precondition for everything we want to do or experience), the author consistently argues that a longer life is only something worth striving for if life is good. Life expectancy or the mere duration of life is hardly an adequate criterion to judge its quality. In the end traits such as recognizing life’s finitude, honoring one’s own personal story, embracing the full range of one’s humanity, nurturing intergenerational relationships, and seeking to live wisely are among the important ingredients for living the art of aging. Simply raising these issues and helping the reader to understand their importance are reasons enough to encounter this intense yet highly intelligent book.