Tips for living a happier life in your senior years

Film icon Mae West reportedly said, “Getting old is not for the faint of heart.” While Margareta Magnusson, author of The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly: Life Wisdom from Someone Who Will (Probably) Die Before You, might agree with that sentiment overall, she has other suggestions for managing the aging process.

Book cover for "The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly"
Image courtesy Simon & Schuster Inc.

Magnusson, who describes her age as somewhere between 80 and 100, became an almost instant aging guru with her bestselling book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. In it, she reminds people that they are not actually what they own and that leaving all that stuff around for their relatives to clean up after they are gone is a disservice at the very least. She breaks down how to approach eliminating, donating, downsizing all the things we’ve accumulated over the years to just what we need now. Think Marie Kondo meets the Grim Reaper, but with a humorous, down-to-earth sensibility. 

Magnusson decided to expand on her death-cleaning idea during the COVID-19 lockdown by writing a collection of essays on how to age with grace and dignity and — as the book title implies — a little humor. The insights, while somewhat obvious at times, are good reminders that keeping track of what’s really important in life is something we can all benefit from, no matter how old we are. 

In the chapter, “The World is Always Ending,” for instance, Magnusson writes about how easy it is to get caught up in the disaster(s) of the moment and forget that each day does, indeed, have something in it that’s positive, a mindset that we can control even as we recognize climate issues, government unrest and wars. Sometimes, Magnusson writes, finding these little pluses can feel difficult in a lifestyle that is increasingly diminishing. Thinking smaller and closer to home can help, she notes. She lists books and the world that is open to her thanks to technology as just a couple of examples. 

As a survivor of World War II, Magnusson knows firsthand that what appears to be a disaster of huge proportions can, in fact, turn out differently. She offers this advice, compliments of the philosopher Immanuel Kant: “At every turn and action you must ask yourself, ‘What if everyone did this?’ It is a good rule. It helps me figure out what is right and wrong. Imagine if we all did this? Even at my age it is not too late to start. Then the world will never end.”

In another chapter, Magnusson shows how reframing what we think about our status can help us think more positively. She suggests substituting saying, “I’m alone,” for “I’m on my own.” It’s instantly a statement of power rather than one of loss or implied loneliness. “Why am I saying ‘alone’ instead of on my own?” she writes. “Do I feel alone? I have always enjoyed getting by on my own, haven’t I?” 

While Magnusson’s ideas are not exclusively Swedish, some of her concepts pull from that Scandinavian country. She discusses the idea of kärt besvär, which essentially means doing something that is simultaneously cherished and burdensome. Paying your monthly bills, for instance, could be considered kärt besvär — an annoying obligation that allows you to continue to have heat and reminds you to be grateful you have the money to pay your bills. 

She notes that as people age, they often begin to think of many activities as burdensome, losing track of the upsides to being able to still do them. Seeing these so-called burdens as opportunities or pluses can help, Magnusson says, maintain a more positive attitude toward aging. “I think the secrets of aging well and happily are in finding ways to make your routines dear to you,” she writes. “I may not have a choice in how long they will take me to do or whether I will even be alive a few weeks from now, but I do have a choice to decide how to approach my daily life. Most days — not all days — I’m able to see my daily routine, my daily life, as kärt besvär.”

The Swedish Art of Aging Exuberantly: Life Wisdom from Someone Who Will (Probably) Die Before You By Margareta Magnusson, Scribner, $19.99, 60 pages

Author photo by Alexander Mahmoud/courtesy Simon & Schuster Inc.

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