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Looking for books for older adults? The recommendations on this list include books about aging and growing old gracefully–or not so gracefully, in some cases! These are the perfect books for seniors and older adults who want to read about characters like themselves.
As a reader in mid-life, I sometimes get a little tired of reading only about characters in their twenties and early thirties.
I read plenty of them, but I often wonder why the default age of characters in most books seems to be about 33. And why are there even fewer good books for (and about) older women?
Thankfully, I’ve noticed many more books in recent years geared toward older readers, with characters of many different ages facing issues related to aging–including accepting it, growing old gracefully, and facing the end of life.
If you search for books about aging, and you get plenty of nonfiction reflections (I’ve included just a couple here) and guides, but few books for seniors and older adults who find more meaning in fictional stories.
So most of this list offers novels about aging, ranging from funny stories to thoughtful reflections to romance and even thrillers.
Treatment of Aging and Elderly Characters in Fiction
It occurred to me while pulling together this list that, when it comes to older characters, we’re often subjected to two tropes: the feisty old woman or the dear, wise old man.
It’s not that people like this don’t exist, or that they can’t be enjoyable in literature. It’s that the range of personalities, emotions, and life experiences are just as vast for older characters as they are for young–and that should be reflected.
The list of books below includes characters who are aging in different ways. Some are not very old but are just starting to come to terms with their more advanced age. Others are nearing the end of their lives.
Some are alone, while others are married, wrapped up in life-affirming friendships, or starting new romances. Some are feeling the urge for one last great adventure, while others are reflecting on the lives they’ve lived and their regrets, successes, and legacies.
There is no one way to age, and none of us knows exactly how or where we will find ourselves at that stage of life. But the “third act” of life is one worth reflecting on in literature, and I hope we’ll see more like some of the recent books below.
Must-Read Books for Seniors and Older Adults
Rebecca Winter is a 60-year old photographer, still famous but no longer sought-after, who moves to a rural town in an attempt to save money by renting her Manhattan apartment. She feels lost until she begins spending time with a local roofer, twenty years her junior, and finds a photography project in the mysterious crosses and mementos scattered through the woods.
Quindlen is always a solid choice for excellent prose and depth of feeling, and the light touch makes this a great cozy read.
Arthur Less is a failing novelist on the brink of turning 50. When he receives an invitation to his former lover’s wedding, he embarks on an around-the-world journey to avoid the event. Less is both frustrating and endearing, a bit bumbling, and above all, certain of his own failures.
Light on plot and heavy on wandering musings, this Pulitzer Prize winner can be slow at times–but certain parts also had me laughing out loud.
First meeting at the start of the men’s academic careers in Wisconsin, Larry and Sally and Sid and Charity instantly fall into a friendship that lasts through decades of work, play, children, sickness, travel, conflict, and heartache. These are quiet lives, punctuated with successes and disappointments, driven by ambition, intellectual pursuits, and their closeness with one another.
Stegner brings close the small moments that loom large in personal memories, especially as the four reflect on them late in life. Curl up with a pen to underline the many poignant passages.
This book about a 79-year-old woman who decides to rob a bank along with four of her friends may fall a little into the “feisty old woman” trope, but it does sound like a fun ride. Feeling constrained by the rules imposed on them by their care home, the group of friends makes a plan to fund the exciting life of their dreams–and stand up for other residents who feel similarly constrained.
I expect this book to offer plenty of laughs, but it also speaks to the limited lives that elderly are often relegated to–and to their desire to continue to be relevant and sometimes even adventurous.
Abby and her husband, Red, are spending another lovely evening on the porch of their family home, telling their familiar love story to their children and grandchildren. But this time is different: Abby and Red are aging, and the family must start to decide how they’ll be cared for in their old age, as well as what will happen to the home built by Red’s father.
This book promises to be reflective of lives well-lived and tinged with sadness as the family must face the inevitable difficult decisions and coming losses.
Ruth is a widow living alone in an isolated beach house, and one day Frida shows up claiming to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in, and suddenly she begins to question her own perceptions, her memories, and whether Frida can be trusted. I chose this book because it seems to speak to the vulnerability of some elderly people to be preyed upon, particularly if they are isolated.
On New Years Eve, 1984, 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish sets out for a party in Manhattan. Wrapped in her mink coat, she walks over 10 miles around the city, meeting all manner of characters and reflecting on a life filled with excitement, challenges, and romance. Once one of the most successful women in advertising in the country, she has lived a life of excitement and witnessed the changing city through the decades. Hailed as a “love letter to city life in all its guts and grandeur,” Lillian may have aged, but like the city she loves, she hasn’t changed entirely.
When recently retired Harold Fry steps out to his mailbox, he is surprised to find a letter from a woman he hasn’t seen in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and has written to say goodbye. At the spur of the moment, Harold decides to say his own goodbye in person and walk 600 miles to the hospice where Queenie resides, holding onto the hope that, as long as he keeps walking, Queenie will live.
In this parallel story to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Queenie Hennessy takes her own journey as she faces the end of her life. While Harold is walking, Queenie is writing, reflecting on her past, her choices, and her secrets. This poignant pairing is unique in its multiple perspectives on aging and end of life–one facing the end of her life and the other facing loss and secrets he never knew.
In yet another story about an elderly protagonist taking a walk, 82 year old Etta decides she must see the ocean–3,232 kilometers away. She embarks on her walk with a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots. Soon she is joined by James, a coyote. Her husband Otto finds a note saying she will try to remember to come back. Their neighbor Russell, in love with Etta his whole life, insists on finding her. As each takes their own journey, they grapple with memories, regrets, pasts they can’t change, and futures they still hope for.
This poignant story from Haruf set in Holt, Colorado, brings Addie Moore and her neighbor Louis Waters together. Both widowed with grown children far away, they find companionship and understanding of their lives and the futures they still want to have.
Ove is a solitary curmudgeon who is set in his ways and unreserved in his criticism of anyone who crosses his path. But behind his rough exterior is a sweet, sad backstory and a soft-hearted man committed to his morals who is about to have his world rocked by several people (and a cat) who refuse to be held off by a few cranky words. Ove is by turns funny, sad, and heartwarming.
Felix Pink is a retired widower who volunteers as an Exiteer–someone who stays with terminally ill people as they die by suicide. It is a mission of mercy and compassion, and the volunteers operate on just the edge of UK law. When one of his visits goes horribly wrong, Felix is dodging the police and trying to find out what actually happened.
Don’t let the ominous cover and dark description put you off. They really don’t do this book justice–it is surprisingly delightful. Felix is lovely and well-meaning, and many of the other characters are as well, which makes for many chuckle-worthy interactions. Dark themes and shady characters are a part of it, yes, but this is much more like a A Man Called Ove than an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
An amazing cozy read about a woman named Penelope, who discovers that her father’s painting is worth a small fortune. Her adult children have their own ideas about what she should do about the discovery.
The Shell Seekers moves between past and present, revisiting various times in Penelope’s life, including her Bohemian youth during World War II. Penelope is truly an unforgettable character. I loved the slow reveal of her life told over decades and I know that I’ll be rereading this in years to come.
Billie, Mary Alice, Helen, and Natalie have been assassins for the Museum for forty years. Originally formed to hunt Nazis, the Museum targeted the world’s most evil people. But as the four women set out on a cruise to mark their retirement, they realize that they are now the targets. Using their lifetime of old-fashioned experience, they have to turn the tables on their own employers in order to survive.
The outrageous storyline, the 60+-year-old assassins taking down bad guys, and the satisfying premise (how can you not cheer for Nazi hunters?) all made this irresistible. Perfect for anyone looking for a fast-paced, light, and funny thriller.
After living a quiet life alone with his cat and working as a postman, Albert Entwistle is informed that it’s time for him to retire. He realizes that he’s about to lose the only way he connects with other people, so he sets out to change that. Albert starts trying to make friends, and he also thinks it may be time to share who he really is–and find George, the love of his life who he lost years before.
I loved listening to Albert’s journey to connection and acceptance. His deep shame and fear about his sexuality being discovered were so sad and affected his entire life–in ways that were probably not uncommon. Albert is a lovely character and he forms a number of delightful friendships.
Elizabeth and Jo are friends who live in a small town on Ireland’s west coast. When Elizabeth’s physician husband dies and leaves her with a mountain of debt, Jo asks her daughter, Lucy, to take over his surgery while Elizabeth sorts things out. Lucy arrives from Dublin with her teen son and seems in need of healing herself. Jo lets the two in on her secret: midnight plunges in the ocean bring peace.
As the three try to sort out their lives, the midnight swims become central–and become a community rallying point when Jo has her own challenges to face. Charming, heartwarming, and filled with wonderful friendships.
Missy Carmichael is lonely and full of regret. At 79, she spends her days alone in her big old house in England, nursing sherry and past hurts, and missing her son and grandson in Australia, and her estranged daughter. When Sylvie and Angela, along with Angela’s young son, push their way into Missy’s life, she is both hesitant and hopeful. And when a dog is brought into the mix, she gets more than she bargained for.
Readers who liked A Man Called Ove will enjoy Missy Carmichael. The circumstances and voices are different, but the heartwarming and unlikely friendships feel much the same. This is delightful on audio; Angela’s raw bluntness alongside Missy’s genteel fussiness occasionally made me laugh out loud.
When aging movie star Evelyn Hugo recruits Monique Grant, an unknown reporter, to write her biography, Monique can’t fathom why Evelyn would want her. She is quickly drawn into Evelyn’s winding tale, from her rise to stardom, her multiple marriages, and the dramas of her life.
Evelyn is an enigmatic character–fascinating, confident, and powerful. It’s no wonder, since she and her story are based on several of Hollywood’s leading ladies.
I loved the peek behind the curtain of the careful construction of Evelyn’s public life versus her private life. This was juicy, smart, and unputdownable.
Most of David Sedaris’s essay collections are pure entertainment with a hint of sharp observation that always makes them feel smart. Calypso follows this path, but it’s darker and more poignant. The familiar Sedaris family is aging, and with age comes all the attendant self-reflection and life changes.
This plays out differently for each family member and affects their relationships with one another. In this collection, most of the family feel closer to one another than they ever have before, with the exception of Tiffany, whose suicide shadows most of the essays here. Sedaris’ writings on Tiffany’s suicide, as well as aging, politics, addiction, and regret, make this essay collection darker and more reflective than many of his previous. He is still dryly funny, and the ability to prompt regular laughter while writing about such serious topics is a particular talent.
Twenty-six years ago, during the infancy of heart transplant surgery, Amy Silverstein received a new heart. Now in her fifties, that heart is failing, and she again waits for a new heart. Her wait requires a move to California with her husband, and with them, nine of Amy’s closest friends sign onto a schedule to keep constant vigil at her bedside. They pass the baton to one another, flying in from across the country for their times with their friend.
This is a brutally raw memoir of suffering and friendship. Amy is unflinching her examination of herself and what it means to be a sick person, dependent on others, and what it means in such a situation to find the balance between caring for yourself and caring for those who surround you.