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Heilbrun Finds Life Beyond Sixty a Worthwhile Gift

Book Review

"The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty" by Carolyn G. Heilbrun (The Dial Press, 1997)

In this slim volume, distinguished author and critic Carolyn Heilbrun makes a strong case that life in our sixties and beyond can be one of the happiest times of all. Grown children have become friends with exceptional affection; spouses, despite differences, have become well-tolerated companions; there are old friends, much treasured, and newer, younger friends, whom she regards as essential.

Heilbrun is a feminist and the distinguished author of nine books, including an autobiography of Gloria Steinem. She taught English at Columbia University for 30 years, shocking the academic world by resigning because of sexual discrimination -- aimed not at her, but at students and untenured professors.

This was not her only unconventional move. Much earlier in life she had determined she would end her own life at seventy. When her sixties turned out to be notably rewarding, she changed her mind and was moved to write this insightful book. But she continued to advocate for "rational suicide," when one is still able to carry it out, rather than waiting until too feeble and incapacitated.

Her chapter headings are enticing, and include Time, Sex and Romance, Memory, Sadness, Living With Men, and other choices enhanced by her wonderful wry sense of humor.
  
Heilbrun discusses "unmet" friends, for which one must be a reader. She herself developed a personal closeness with a contemporary poet whose poems, essays, and lifestyle fascinated her, although they never met. This kind of "friend" is more usual for women, she suggests, and adds that it may be because men more often travel in groups and do not become lonely and need this kind of relationship.

A chapter that I found touching is The Dog Who Came to Stay. As a dog lover, I reveled in her comment that adopting one dog does little to combat the cruel treatment to which many poor animals are subjected, but at least one animal is given a loving and safe life. And how true is her observation that a dog is the only exercise machine you can't decide to skip when you don't feel like it.

E-mail as a way of staying in touch with family and friends gets her approval. She especially likes its instantaneous quality, serving almost like conversation. She'd like to put a computer with Internet and e-mail capability into the home of everyone over 65.

Friends, family, dogs, and work are close to her heart; in addition she feels strongly that one must be open to developing a new interest, or engaging an old one in more depth, to fill the increased time available in old age.

Despite her unanticipated pleasure in her sixties and beyond, she did take her own life at 77, when she was still reasonably active and healthy." The journey is over," her note said. "Love to all."

Marge Speidel

Marge Speidel is a freelance writer and former newspaperwoman living in Los Altos, Calif.

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