Growing old: Local writer says it’s the best part of life

Wendy Lustbader - Courtesy Photo
Wendy Lustbader
— image credit: Courtesy Photo


In a culture that places a high value on youth, islander and author Wendy Lustbader says that contrary to that notion, by almost every measure, life improves as people age.

Lustbader, the author of several books, including “Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older,” will speak at Vashon Community Care’s Telling Stories series on Sunday. She will talk about her work in the field of aging as well as lead a conversation about what islanders would like to see on Vashon to ensure that aging here is fulfilling and meaningful.

A popular speaker at conferences in the United States and Canada, Lustbader worked for almost 20 years as social worker at Pike Market Medical Clinic in Seattle. She is now an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work and continues to write, including on Vashon, where she intentionally maintains a low profile.

Lustbader calls the worship of youth a “colossal error,” and says that her work and extensive research into growing older show a different truth.

“Ask anybody,” she said in a recent interview. “It is a very rare person that those (early adult) years were the best years of life.”

Stressing that she does not have a Pollyanna view of aging, she acknowledged that growing older has significant challenges; the physical body declines, children leave; there might be economic challenges, and there is grief and loss. But there is also much more to the story, she said.

“Knowing who you are as a person, feeling less of a need to keep comparing yourself with others, starting to know what your worth is … it gets stronger inside of us as we go through hard times,” she said.

In their 20s, she says, people grapple with issues of identity, purpose, relationships and figuring out the big questions of how to put together a good life.

“As we get older, we live the answers to those questions,” she said.

The information she has to share is not just for elders, she says, but for people in their 20s and 30s who want to know what it really means to grow old and for people in their middle-age years who might like to see that time as part of a “grand progression,” rather than a time of dwindling.

As for Vashon and seniors, Lustbader says the island poses significant challenges and the community should address them.

“A lot of work needs to be done to make it work better for people to grow old here,” she said.

Transportation is one of those challenges, she said. Also significant is that people often come to Vashon for the privacy, and the space between neighbors can be large. While that might be an asset at some ages, it can prove difficult for elders. This is true for her, she said, speaking personally. At age 60 and as a writer, she values her privacy, but expects that could change.

“If I have to outlive my husband, that is going to be kind of scary,” she said.

Linda Milovsoroff, the director of development at VCC and the coordinator of the Telling Stories series, said VCC hopes to be a central part of that conversation and will want to continue it after the presentation. It is an important one to have here, she noted, given the demographics of the island.

“Vashon has a higher percentage of people 55 and older than anywhere else in King County,” she said.

Milovsoroff added that when she first began at VCC several years ago, she kept hearing about Lustbader as an excellent speaker in the field of aging, but learned that she kept a low profile on Vashon. Milovsoroff added that she has read and appreciated some of Lustbader’s books because they include the perspective not just of the caregiver, but also the elders’ point of view and what it feels like to age.

“I was so honored she came out of hiding,” Milovsoroff said. “The talk will give people hope about later life.”

Lustbader is familiar with the work of VCC in part because her husband, Dr. Gary Grosskopf, serves on its board, and she has strong feelings about the need to support the agency. All of the proceeds from her talk will go to the center.

“I love our care center. I love that we have one,” she said. “And I love that it accepts people regardless of their ability to pay.”

VCC’s job would be much easier if it accepted only private pay patients, Lustbader said, but its mission is to serve all people.

“That is why I am so committed to them, and that is why the whole island needs to be committed to them,” she said.

Lustbader’s talk will be at 4 p.m. Sunday at Bethel Church. Tickets, available by donation, are available at VCC and the Vashon Bookshop. They will also be available at the door.

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