What I Wish I'd Known About Being Old: Psychologist/Sociologist Lillian Rubin

The renowned 84-year-old sociologist, psychotherapist, and author reflects on old age and why caregivers shouldn't try to be saints.

Lillian Rubin would like you to know that 80 is not the new 60. In her latest book, 60 on Up, Rubin tries to dispel that and many other myths and slogans of the "new old age," including that "thinking young" and "brain nutrients" will somehow stave off age's inevitable corrosion. As she says in the feisty opening of her book: "Getting old sucks! It always has, it always will."

Why spoil the party? Isn't Rubin -- a woman who sold her first painting at the age of 82 and published her 12th book at 83 -- living proof of the vitality of the new old age? Yes, she says, but those kinds of glories are only half the story. She set out to tell the rest in her book, and she has found that others at the "golden age" appreciate it.

"People in their 70s and 80s write to me saying they are getting affirmation and truth from the book," she says. "Now they're not quite as befuddled by the '80 is the new 60' stuff. They think, 'I've always known that's not true, and now somebody else has said it's not.' I want them to get that. I want them to have their experience validated rather than adding to the constant flow of words and images that invalidate their experience and make them nuts."

Rather than finding a fabulous new lifestyle, Rubin says, in a society that devalues age, the elderly are usually barred from finding a useful identity -- often even from applying their vast knowledge and skills in volunteer work. "I look at people who are my age or even younger, and they look as if their life is finished. Nobody tells you how to live in old age, how to be old," she says.

Rubin's book also validates what many caregivers are afraid to feel: that it's a tough road for them, too. "It changes the personal dynamics and creates enormous conflict in the family," she says. "The adult children worry -- they want to be helpful and also want to be relieved of the burden, and who can blame them? They've got a whole other life they have to be living. And this is burdensome, no matter how much you love your parents."

As a result, she says, family caregivers can't really help but feel both guilt and resentment at times: "Guilt because you never do enough, and resentment because you're doing too much and you may have kids to send to college and you can barely afford that, let alone the expense of taking care of your parents."

What helps? "Counseling can be useful if only to give someone a place to be able to say, 'I hate it. Right now I hate him or her, I hate my life; this is not what I bargained for.' Because I personally guarantee that there's maybe one person in 100 who doesn't have those thoughts -- and that person qualifies for sainthood."

As a caregiver to her mother and now to her husband, Rubin has another piece of advice: "Take care of yourself, because you cannot do this if you're not taking care of yourself. That means there are times when you have to put yourself first. It's not selfish; it's crucial if you're going to keep doing your job."

Read the full interview with Lillian Rubin.

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