The Swedish Art of Ageing Well by Margareta Magnusson (#NordicFINDS23)

Annabel’s Nordic FINDS challenge is running for the second time this month. I hope to manage at least one more read for it; this one feels like a cheat as it’s not exactly in translation. Magnusson, who is Swedish, either wrote it in English or translated it herself for simultaneous 2022 publication in Sweden and the USA – where the title phrase was “Aging Exuberantly.” There is some quirky phrasing that a native speaker would never use, more so than in her Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, which I reviewed last year, but it’s perfectly understandable.

The subtitle is “Life wisdom from someone who will (probably) die before you,” which gives a flavour of 89-year-old Magnusson’s self-deprecating sense of humour. The big 4-0 is coming up for me later this year, but I’ve been reading books about ageing and death since my twenties and find them valuable for gaining perspective and storing up wisdom.

This is not one of those “hygge” books extolling the virtues of Scandinavian culture, but rather a charming self-help memoir recounting what the author has learned about what matters in life and how to gracefully accept the ageing process. Each chapter is like a mini essay with a piece of advice as the title. Some are more serious than others: “Don’t Fall Over” and “Keep an Open Mind” vs. “Eat Chocolate” and “Wear Stripes.”

Since Magnusson was widowed, she has valued her friendships all the more, and during the pandemic cheerfully switched to video chats (G&T in hand) with her best friend since age eight. She is sweetly optimistic despite news headlines; after all, in the words of one of her chapter titles, “The World Is Always Ending” – she grew up during World War II and remembers the bad old days of the Cold War and personal near-tragedies like when the ship on which her teenage son was a deckhand temporarily disappeared in the South China Sea.

Lots of little family anecdotes like that enter into the book. Magnusson has five children and lived in Singapore and Annapolis, Maryland (my part of the world!) for a time. The open-mindedness I’ve mentioned was an attitude she cultivated towards new-to-her customs like a Chinese wedding, Christian adult baptism, and Halloween. Happy memories are her emotional support; as for physical assistance: “I call my walker Lars Harald, after my husband who is no longer with me. The walker, much like my husband was, is my support and my safety.”

Volunteering, spending lots of time with younger people, looking after another living thing (a houseplant if you can’t commit to a pet), turning daily burdens into beloved routines, and keeping your hair looking as nice as possible are some of Magnusson’s top tips for coping.

An appendix gives additional death-cleaning guidance based on Covid-era FAQs; the chapter in this book that is most reminiscent of the practical approach of Döstädning is “Don’t Leave Empty-Handed,” which might sound metaphorical but in fact is a literal mantra she learned from an acquaintance. On a small scale, it might mean tidying a room gradually by picking up at least one item each time you pass through; more generally, it could refer to a mindset of cleaning up after oneself so that the world is a better place for one’s presence.

With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.


18 responses

  1. My library website (which is very fussy about search titles) tells
    me the title here in the US has changed “Well” to “Exuberantly.”


    1. Indeed — an interesting and subtle change of focus.


  2. Well, I’ve got 14 years before I catch my Swedish namesake up, whereas you have more than half a lifetime. I completely agree with her Top Tips, even though my hair may not live up to her requirements: and we’ve both been very conscious of the need to go in for Swedish Death Cleaning – a practice my children find hilarious.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re the same age as my mother was at her death.

      That chapter made me wonder if I’d start dyeing my hair in the near future. A difficult question every woman must answer for herself, I suppose.

      It’s never too early, or late, to think about downsizing — the “stuff” can become overwhelming.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I started colouring my hair when I got a few grey strands because my mother’s hair had not turned an attractive shade of grey when her turn came. A new hairdresser recently persuaded me to give up, and she was right. I still haven’t gone grey – apart from those few strands I saw all those years ago! Not good at ‘downsizing’, though … 😦


      2. My mother dyed her hair from age 40-something to 60-something … a big commitment of time and money! Thus far my grey has been hanging out under my hairline and I can pluck the few hairs that poke through, but I won’t be able to get away with that for much longer.


  3. I was brought up in Sweden and had a house there for quite a while but worked in the US. The whole atmosphere was younger in Sweden than in the US. Old people looked much younger there than in the US.
    I flew through the book and thought most of the tips were obvious. Nevertheless, most of it is fun to read

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting. I daresay it was the same in the UK as in the USA. Also, I think there has been a change in the last 3-4 decades, with people dressing younger and not embracing all the old person stereotypes — “80 is the new 60” and so on.

      I would agree that nothing about this book was groundbreaking, but it was a pleasant read.


  4. Nice review. This sounds fun.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I enjoyed spending time with it.


  5. Does she give tips on how to keep your hair looking good? Asking for a friend (sure). Actually, more like, “Help, I haven’t done that. What now?” This sounds like a fun self-help book to read and cherrypick the advice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She’s not even necessarily talking about dyeing it, just combing, washing and blow-drying it regularly, and finding a flattering style to stick to. She thinks your hair is a better area to focus on than your face, which will inevitably be wrinkled, and can help you look younger.


      1. Blow-drying? My daughter burnt out my hairdryer several years ago and I haven’t bothered replacing it. I shall just have to decide I’m not old enough for that tip yet! I might just go full granny style with a bun and be done with it.


  6. I’d like to take a look at both of her books. She sounds like a lovely person.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. She sounds like a fun person! I want to wear polka dots instead of stripes, but I’m totally going to name my walker! (Not that I have one yet… in case I made it sound like I did.)
    I can’t be bothered to dye my hair, but so far all the grey just blends in with the dirty blonde!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s that classic poem, “When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple” — I think her advice is in the same vein: refuse to disappear.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this review. Have seen this around but automatically dismissed it as a hygge book (which are fine but if you’ve read one, you’ve kind of read them all!) – will look out for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not read any of those hygge books. The closest thing I’ve read is The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell, which is good fun but also very informative. We read it in book club a couple of years ago.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: