Ellyn Lem

Aug 27, 2020

Gray Matters

Finding Meaning in the Stories of Later Life

Rutgers University Press 2020

As Baby Boomers reach the tipping point of aging into later life, the record numbers of seniors int the 65 and over crowd generates greater interest and in aging and its representation. Gray Matters: Finding Meaning in the Stories of Later Life (Rutgers University Press) draws upon diverse cultural representation from movies, films, books, and art, and juxtaposes these narratives of aging with surveys from over 200 seniors aged 65 and over from around the United States to explore questions of meaning in older life.

Topics include transitions in family relationships, work and retirement, intimacy and sexuality, memory and memory loss, health and finances, and choices about the end of life.

Through the interplay of cultural representations and real-life experiences of older life emerges an acknowledgment of the diversity and complexity of experiences in older life. It is a thought piece that examines the personal experiences of older life in the context of how those experiences are often represented in various cultures, and in the ways that older life is structured through our social institutions.

A theme throughout Gray Matters is the foregrounding of the voices of seniors to tell their own stories. Even in selecting research and literature, this book maintains a focus on the experiences of those who are 65 and older rather than allowing other perspectives to overshadow them. By presenting experiences as well as depictions of aging and research on aging, this book brings forth rich conversation to many of the assumptions and stereotypes about aging that often go unquestioned.

The result is an intimate experience that very consciously complicates ideas of aging, expanding the stories of over-65 experiences beyond a binary of “successful” aging or not, and questioning the cultural and socioeconomic assumptions that underlie such oversimplifications.

Gray Matters allows a richer story to emerge, creating space in which common fears associated with aging are explored from those who are experiencing them, which produces some surprises and some reasons for hope without being reductionist. If you are interested in a contemplation of authentic and diverse experiences of aging and older life you will enjoy this book.

Ellyn Lem is a professor of English and gender studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Waukesha.

Michelle Newhart, PhD, is a sociologist and author whose work focuses on medical sociology, aging and the life course, and research methods. She teaches at University of La Verne and Mt. San Antonio College.

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