In a unique series of studies, Harvard University has followed 824 subjects from their teens to old age. Professor George Vaillant now uses these to illustrate the surprising factors involved in reaching happy, healthy old age.
"Here you have these wonderful files, and you seem little interested in how we cope with increasing age ... our adaptability, our zest for life," one of these subjects wrote to Vaillant, a researcher, psychiatrist, and Harvard Medical School professor, about how he was using this information. Vaillant took this advice to heart. In Aging Well, he presents personal narratives about people from these studies whom he interviewed personally in their 70s and 80s. He describes their history, relationships, hardships, philosophies, and sources of joy. We learn their perspectives and what makes them want to get up in the morning.
We also learn what makes old age vital and interesting. Vaillant discusses the important adult developmental tasks, such as identity, intimacy, and generativity (giving to the next generation), and provides important clues to a healthy, meaningful, satisfying old age. Health in old age, we learn, is not predicted by low cholesterol or ancestral longevity, but by factors such as a stable marriage, adaptive coping style (the ability to make lemonade out of life's lemons), and regular exercise.
Vaillant is empathetic and sometimes surprisingly poetic: "Owning an old brain, you see, is rather like owning an old car.... Careful driving and maintenance are everything." He freely includes subjective observations and interpretations, giving us a richer picture of the people he interviewed and insights into their lives. Aging Well is recommended for readers who are interested in learning about the quality-of-life issues of aging from the people who have the most to teach. --Joan Price --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the book is that only a very limited, and at times inadequate, overview is presented regarding various social and emotional developmental topics. The author bases the entire book on Erik Erikson's ideas about adult developmental stages, which in his interpretation consists of the sequential tasks of identity, intimacy, career consolidation, generativity, keeper of the meaning, and integrity. There is no discussion about the legitimacy of those ideas or whether there are alternative ideas. The principal means of elaborating on those views is by presenting mini-profiles of about 50 individuals throughout the book who supposedly have or have not attained a particular level of development. It is burdensome for the reader to be presented with so many case studies to weigh.Read more ›
There are a lot of things wrong with this book, but I think the most glaring is the author's utterly un-subtle understanding of human nature. Unfortunately in an effort to preserve participant privacy, the author "disguised" the identities of his subjects. What that means in practical terms is that all "examples" of "real" lives are actually composites which have essentially been fabricated by the author. Now, I would be okay with that if the author was a talented novelist with the ability to preserve poigniant detail while sacrificing factuality. But sadly, this is not the case. There is not a single life-story in the book that takes up more than a few pages and for this reason alone, they are all disappointing simplifications. The scant space spent on each life story is even more disconcerting when you think that this guy has access to 50 or 60 years of these people's histories! There is one and only one example that gets an even close to humanizing portrayal: that is the example you find in the excerpt available on-line. (And even that reads like a fairy tale.) Most other vignettes are about 2 pages, surely not enough to do anyone justice, even the most one-sided person. In fact almost every character introduced fits into one of two catagories: Mr. Joe Popular (with loving wife, great kids, super career and cloying "aw-shucks" attitude) or Mr. Sad-sack (with no friends, multiple divorces, no contact with kids and utter career directionlessness). These are fine as arche-types, but after a few hundred pages, you really get the feeling that the author is actually INCAPABLE of reccognizing any greater level of nuance in the human experience.Read more ›
The author became the ultimate caretaker of the data from the largest studies as part of his work at Harvard. As perhaps a sign of the times, the data from that study, which once was recorded painstakingly in ledger volumes now sits in his hard drive (one hopes carefully backed up). Simply learning that these studies existed was an eye-opener for me. What treasures!
Though Vaillant happily draws a number of subjective conclusions from the data in the course of this book, he provides substantial information about the objective facts from which his conclusions are drawn. The reader is educated sufficiently to differ with confidence when so moved. The author's periodic confessions of how his views on various study participants evolved of the course of many years is a rather charming demonstration of aging well in its own right. This book is not intended as a scholarly work, however, and the data are not reproduced in full.
I thought the descriptions of individuals who participated in the study, disguised though they might be, and of the author himself, to be the most interesting part of the book. Though they prevent _Aging Well_ from being a simple "Guide To Enjoying Being Old," the participant profiles provide considerable nuance and subtlety as the author ponders the age-old question, how are we to make the best of our lot in life?