Margareta Magnusson: “Old people must try to find something to be happy about other than the future”
Almost ten years ago, Margareta Magnusson had a near-death experience while visiting her children.
I died seven years ago and it happened so quickly I didn’t even have time to be scared,” she writes in her new book. The Swedish Art of Aging. Her heart valve ruptured, she was taken to the hospital and passed out.
It changed her perspective on life.
“I had to take it as a gift,” she tells me over the phone from her apartment in Stockholm.
Life, how to live well, and imminent death are the themes of the 88-year-old Magnusson’s follow-up, following the hugely successful debut of 2017. The gentle art of the Swedish death cleansing — which was based on the idea that “we shouldn’t leave a mountain of crap for our loved ones to clean up when we die,” she explains.
In the introduction to this latest book, she poses the same question: “Why should your family and friends take the time to clean up the mess in their busy lives when you clearly could take care of it yourself?”
This new book looks at the years leading up to her death (subtitled “Life Advice From Someone Who Will – Probably – Die Before You”), which she began writing during the pandemic when she felt compelled to figure out what everyone day was worth living.
“I like to write and I had to have something to do,” she now tells me in her matter-of-fact way. As an interviewee, Magnusson likes to give blunt, somewhat unadorned answers.
“Perhaps my advice and discoveries are ‘Swedish’ since as a nationality we tend to be quite direct, clear-headed and unsentimental. Aging is often difficult, but it doesn’t have to be if you approach it in a way that isn’t overly filled with drama or fear,” she writes.
Magnusson grew up in Gothenburg, a city on the west coast of Sweden, and spent his childhood summers at the family country house. During World War II, she and her sister were evacuated to the countryside. She grew into an artist and held her first exhibition in her hometown in the late 1970s.
In that decade, when she was in her early 40s, she and her husband Lars moved to America with their five children for his work. The family would continue to live in Singapore and Hong Kong before eventually returning to Sweden.
In their last years together, Margareta and Lars lived in a small fishing village on an island on the west coast of Sweden. When Lars died, Margareta moved to the two-room apartment in Stockholm where she now lives. This new book, she says, is dedicated to him.
Her writing career began after his death. “He didn’t know anything about it.”
I hear a murmur in the background on the phone. As we speak, Margaret’s youngest daughter, Jane, is with her, occasionally stepping in to translate or explain a point to her mother – as daughters do.
“He died in 2005, my daughter says,” Magnusson tells me, and she and her daughter laugh. “I forgot about that,” she says of the exact date. “Anyway, I know he’s dead and I’m sorry he couldn’t read my books,” she finishes in that matter-of-fact tone.
Given that her own marriage has spanned over five decades, does she think there’s such a thing as a secret to a happy marriage?
“It’s a difficult question,” she says. “I have to think about it. I think of the old adage, ‘Never go to sleep when you’re fighting.’ You must make peace before you go to sleep.”
In The gentle art of the Swedish death cleansingMagnusson highlighted the fact that many Swedes try to put their affairs in order before they die – a task most often performed by older women, a group whose everyday lives she says is largely ignored by society.
“Yes, that’s right,” she tells me now. “I think there’s not that much interest in what my generation thinks or what we’re doing. But old women know a lot of things.”
The reactions to this book made her realize that she had much more to say. That and also the fact that Magnusson was enjoying this new career.
“I was very surprised myself, but it was a lot of fun and a lot of work.”
With this new book, she has delved deeper into the details of life as an older adult. She writes of the joy of regularly seeing a friend she has known since childhood who knows “how everything used to be”.
She’s looking forward to those WhatsApp video calls with her friend Lola where they chat online – over gin and tonic. She constantly realizes that the aging process is stressful.
“If you’re talking to your best friend every other day and then suddenly he or she isn’t around, it’s a horrifying experience,” she says. “But I still have a few friends that I’ve known since we were eight, and that’s a gift.”
Her book describes learning to live in the present—a necessity when you’re in your 80s, she says, because “you don’t usually have that much to look forward to anyway. We have to try to find something to be happy about other than the future.”
There’s a study on how to deal with wrinkles and an analysis of why you should ignore plastic surgery and focus on hair care instead.
“When I wrote the first book, I was very surprised that so many people enjoyed reading it. I mean – Death Cleaning… it’s kind of depressing, but not in the way I wrote it.
“I didn’t want to make it depressing. I’d rather people be happy. If they’re dead on, that’s a good start,” she adds.
Some of her friends tell her they hate the loneliness of her lifetime, but she doesn’t feel that way.
“I’m pretty good at keeping myself busy. Sometimes I get tired of having a lot of people around me.”
As older adults, it can be harder to make friends, she admits, “because when people go out to dinner, they need to have couples. Some people think it’s difficult to cover a table when the number of members is odd. Which is very silly.”
In a chapter about living with the sense of the world going under, Magnusson reflects that the world is always going under.
“I think it was scarier when I was young. Back when there was war and many other things happened.
“I’m not sure myself. Maybe it’s because when you get that old it doesn’t seem to matter as much. And you can’t do anything about that. You just have to take it and live with what happens,” she says.
I wonder how she feels about death?
“The only thing that is certain is that we will all die one day. That doesn’t scare me. Life is much scarier. So many terrible things are happening these days. Wars and climate change are the most significant. It’s just awful and we have to live with it.
“Once we die, we don’t have to worry about it anymore,” she laughs, adding, “I don’t think you live after death.
“A lot of my friends still think they’re going to meet their dead husbands or boyfriends, whatever. But I do not believe that. If you’re dead, I think you’re dead. Nothing else will happen, you won’t meet anyone.”
She describes the physical effects of age as something that makes her “a little angry” as she realizes she can’t do certain things anymore.
“Maybe climb a ladder or ride a bike – I don’t think I can do that anymore.”
And there are the things you must accept now that you will never do. Her father Nils, a doctor, was a good tap dancer – and she had always hoped to learn it. But she accepts that she will never learn now.
Despite or precisely because of this bluntness The Swedish Art of Aging is a gently uplifting and soothing read filled with stories of family life when their children were young. It is a portrait of a life well lived.
I ask Magnusson, who just turned 88, if she had to share one secret to aging well, which it would be.
“Have a gin and tonic,” she laughs. “And eat chocolate if you like. Try to make life good.”
’The Swedish Art of Aging Well’ by Margareta Magnusson has been published by Canongate and is available now
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/margareta-magnusson-old-people-have-to-try-to-find-something-other-than-the-future-to-be-happy-about-42326403.html Margareta Magnusson: “Old people must try to find something to be happy about other than the future”