By Susan Scarf Merrell, published on November 1, 1996 - last reviewed on July 26, 2010
Forget about trying to reverse the process. It's never been a better timeto face up to aging. In fact, getting older truly does mean getting better.
Baby boomers: We were supposed to be the generation that turned aging into a bedroom act, making it sexy to grow old and gray, and get laugh lines. If 76 million of us wrinkled into middle age with style and verve, well, wow, the entire Western World might rethink the need to search for a fountain of youth. Most of us, however, don't seem to have found that sense of contentment with our aging bodies that we expected to. Instead, baby boomers have both masterminded--and fallen victim to--an anti-aging epidemic far more virulent than the average case of mass hysteria. It isn't simply that we're trying to exercise and eat our way to longer, healthier lives. Sales are up dramatically across the gamut of age-fighting weaponry, from wrinkle creams to collagen injections to cosmetic surgery. Nor are the warriors only women. According to a recent Roper Starch Worldwide survey, six percent of men nationwide actually use such traditionally feminine products as bronzers and foundation to create the illusion of a more youthful appearance.
What is it about aging that makes our sagging skin crawl? Are we frightened of looking and feeling old because it reminds us that we're mortal? That we might become infirm? What, in fact, does older age bring and how will it be different for us boomers than for the generations that came before?
The first surprise is that those of us entering the middle years en masse are truly lucky to be hitting our thirties, forties, and fifties now, in the 1990s. Because the state of a civilization has a very real impact on the inevitable path to getting older, every generation experiences aging differently According to aging expert Helen Kivnick, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, the experience of later life is determined partly by biology, partly by history, and partly by society and culture. Never before in history has the phase of later life had the potential to be so long and fruitful. "Old age as we now know it is very new, and doesn't look at all like it used to," Kivnick says. "Because people live longer and with greater independence, they can plan their futures more actively Elders today [those over 65] are breaking new ground."
OLD AINT WHAT IT USED TO BE
If those who are old today are stepping onto untrodden ground, we boomers are about to create a stampede. And chances are we'll be extremely skilled at making old age into an interesting and fruitful time of life. We know how to explore and plumb possibility. We have already been enjoying far fewer societal constraints in our middle years than has ever previously been the norm. Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., a psychologist and aging expert from Silver Springs, Maryland, says across the board we have fewer age-based limitations to hinder us. "It's not simply that we tend to keep our health longer; it's that we also aren't subject to generational restrictions on behavior, career choices, or clothing." If you decide to go to medical school--or rollerblading--tomorrow, you might just do so. If I pick out similar dresses for my five-year-old daughter and me, neither one of us will seem out of place: She won't be dressed "old," and I won't be dressed "young." Our tastes are actually fairly alike. In blue jeans and sweaters--particularly from the back--one often can't tell a fit 55-year-old from his or her fit adolescent kid.
As recently as twenty or thirty years ago, society was much more hierarchical. When a woman's children left home, she struggled to make sense of a future in which her life's task was done, even though she herself remained healthy and alert and capable of making further--and even greater--contributions. In the 1970s, when women in their thirties and forties ventured out to colleges and universities in large numbers, they were breaking norms and redefining their roles. Certainly, I myself would have been extremely aware of the oddity of an older man or woman--even a person so aged as to be in his or her late twenties--sitting in a lecture hall back when I was in college. Nowadays, that's almost laughable: The student in the next chair in the lecture hall could just as easily be a grandparent as an 18-year-old. In fact, if those "non-traditional" students weren't filling seats, many institutions of higher learning would be struggling to keep their doors open.
Middle age doesn't mean what it used to. Mid-lifers aren't ossified and set in their ways; they tend to be open to new ideas and new experiences; the tastes of childhood have matured but the sense of potential and of discovery is still deep and real. A former newspaper editor, who had her first child at the age of forty and recently completed her doctoral dissertation at the age of forty-five, says, "I know how old I am. I'm not in denial about the fact of the years. I simply reject the fears, stereotypes, and caricatures of aging. If you ask me my age, I'll tell you, but I don't think it's the most relevant fact about me."
"I think young," says a globe-trotting artist in his early eighties. "I won't allow myself to feel old, or act old, until they cart me out in a box." Does attitude make a difference? Are we truly only as old as we feel?
Yes and no, says Garfinkel, who heads Gerontology Service, a consulting practice for institutions that deal with the elderly. She finds that we associate aging with dysfunction. A young person in poor health tends to report feeling old, while an old person in good health feels young and active. "It's a two-way street," says Garfinkel. "If you aren't in good health, it's very hard to think young. But if you think young, have good genes, and take care of yourself, you'll probably feel and seem younger than you are."
Believing yourself to be in better than normal condition for your age is typical for healthy people in general. It's not that we're deluding ourselves, it's simply that the interplay of chronological age and physical health is much stronger than we tend to realize. That's why the following statistical impossibility can exist: According to "The Wrinkle Report," a national survey of more than 1,200 people ages 30 to 50, three in four baby boomers think they look younger than their actual years, and eight in ten say they have fewer signs of facial aging than other people their age. "People in their forties and those in their eighties actually say quite similar things," Garfinkel reports. "It's more an indication of physical health than of anything else. If we don't feel bad, we feel great. We're a little bit like the people in Lake Woebegon, whose children are all above average."
AM I OLD YET?
People tend not to feel downright old, no matter what their age. They just get more and more surprised when they look in the mirror and see the ways in which. they're changing physically The fact is that aging tends to be subtle and most losses come hand in hand with small, new rewards. For example, one's first gray hairs may arrive around the same time one earns a major promotion--somehow the equation of loss and gain nets out in a surprisingly satisfying manner. In some way, we continue to expect that the next milestone will be the one that makes us suddenly feel old.
I'm reminded of a birthday luncheon I went to recently for a friend who's just rounded the hump of thirty Call her Sally Sally had anticipated the event with a great deal of fear and anxiety, and was surprised at how little change the actual big day had wrought. I mentioned that I'd felt very few negative changes during my thirties, and said that I felt surer of myself and much happier than I'd been in my twenties. Then Kim, our 43-year-old friend, smiled broadly at both of us and said that the thirties were a wonderful decade. We continued eating for a moment. After a bit, Sally turned to me and said, "How old are you again? Thirty-eight?"
"Thirty-seven," I snapped. Kim's smile drooped--to her, my quick reaction meant that though I was happy to be getting older, I didn't want to be as old as she was. In fact, she's right. I'm enjoying each year far more than I might have imagined possible as a teenager, but that doesn't mean I want my life to pass any more quickly. As much as I like my thirties, I'm not giving up a single year before it's time.
Paradoxically, I do know that, on most levels, the future looks promising. Given all the fear we seem to have of it, the wondrous news is that getting older is a generally positive thing. We don't just accumulate years, we also gain wisdom which enables us to make decisions with less of the fussing and wheel-spinning that marked our teens and twenties. "I often think the excess energy of youth is nature's way of compensating for a lack of wisdom," says Garfinkel. "All that zip means you don't collapse from all the work of chasing your own tail."
As we get older, we know more not only about the world but about ourselves. We have better attention spans and an increased ability to focus. "In general, most non-neurotic older people are content with what they've done with their lives, are happy, have high self-esteem, and a sense of well-being," says clinical psychologist Forrest Scogin, Ph.D., of the University of Alabama. "We become more adaptable and flexible, and have a greater understanding of our own resilience."
Conventional thinking has always emphasized the miserable, crotchety older person, Scogin adds, but in fact unhappiness is far from the norm. Rates of depression tend to decline after the age of 45, for both men and women. (There's a slight--but temporary--blip in men's rates around the time of retirement.) Other research shows that our sense of what we deem most important for happiness tends to alter appropriately as we age, a sign of the true resilience of the human spirit: We may not look as fresh-faced, but we like ourselves more. We actually think fewer negative thoughts. Life becomes simpler.
Our priorities shift in a healthy and adaptive fashion. "We care less about our appearance and more about our emotional well-being, our character, and our involvements in the world at large and with those we love," says clinical psychologist Betsy Stone, Ph.D., of Stamford, Connecticut.
One other rosy aspect to the future is that as physical attributes become a little less stunning, sex roles begin to blur. Men become more accommodating and emotionally expressive; women more assertive and active in meeting their own needs. With a little less passion, a little less division of roles, and an increase in contentment and openness with one another, relationships in later life tend to become far more important, satisfying, and mutual.
On the down side--and, of course, there had to be one--we begin to slow on all fronts. It becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the energies of a two-year-old, or to add up a series of numbers in one's head. Memory grows less efficient as well. In fact, it's a process that begins between the ages of 18 and 20 but is so slow and subtle that it doesn't become noticeable until around the age of 35. And when we first face the fact that memorizing what we need to do that day is getting difficult, we adapt. We start making lists and otherwise reorder our approach to retaining information. "You tell yourself it's not so important to remember things," says Garfinkel.
In truth, the worst part of getting older appears to be ageism--the intolerant attitudes of younger people. According to Scogin, "People grow impatient with you for your slowness, even though that decline in speed is appropriate. Think of that driver who makes you crazy when you're trying to get some place. That person isn't being op-positional, as it appears to you. His or her reactions are slower, so it's natural that he or she would drive more cautiously" Of course, older people are as heterogeneous as any other population, Scogin adds: "Some are hot-rodding down the highway, some are doddering along. One can't ever generalize."
BETTER, NOT OLDER
Okay, so if we're supposed to be satisfied with our aging selves, does that mean it's wrong to help nature along, to try and slow down the ravages of time? According to Stone, author of the forthcoming Happily Ever After: A Guide for Newlyweds, "Dying your hair or having collagen injections doesn't really have anything to do with avoiding getting older per se; it's about wanting to feel good about yourself and feel attractive. It's like wearing beautiful lingerie: Nobody else knows you're doing it, but you feel indulged and valuable. That's a reasonable thing to do."
But such self-improvement can go too far, Stone explains. For example, if a person values his or her attractiveness to the exclusion of other personal characteristics, then the person is loving him or herself from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. "That's a problem," she says.
According to Kivnick, who researches how the lives of very frail elders can be improved, the most important thing we can do to ensure a comfortable and interesting old age is to plan for one. Not simply financially, although that's obviously important. Most of us will spend a good twenty years or more in healthy, active post-retirement, and just expecting to sit on one's heels and rest is hardly a realistic plan for happiness. Don't just daydream about planting a garden, says Kivnick. Learn about gardening, and be ready for the day you'll be free to spend all afternoon with your hands in the dirt. Plan to stay involved in your community, with your family, with whatever has interested and intrigued you thus far. "Perhaps the most important and neglected aspect of getting older is the need to continue giving to others," Kivnick says. "The most unhappy people in the world are those who use retirement to withdraw from involvements, expecting that using their time to concentrate on themselves alone will make them happy They end up miserable."
Researchers at the Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development concur. Having family and friends isn't the answer to a happy life, but engaging actively with them is. And it seems possible that this involvement can help you live even longer.
It's also essential to know yourself. Your personality isn't likely to change so much that it becomes unrecognizable as you get older. Thus you can begin to speculate about the future in practical ways. It's never too early to start considering the basic questions: What's important to me? What life do I most want to live? With whom and where? Would I prefer to stay near my own family or to be in an elder community? Do I want to travel? How will I remain connected to the greater world? What contribution should I make? Once you're no longer bound by the structure of a formal paid job, the whole world can be your oyster.
There's no time better than the present for beginning to imagine an enjoyable, wise, active, and fruitful later life. Such planning can only add richness to the middle years as well. Says Kivnick, "How we are old depends very much on how we are young."
PHOTO (COLOR): Joanie Kiernan, 39, knows about makeovers. As a Redbook beauty editor, she made sure models put their best faces forward. More recently, she helped renovate Giorgio's, the New York City restaurant she manages, and which serves a mean Rigatoni Joanie.
PHOTO (COLOR): Trebor Lloyd, 50, had always been drawn to the arts. He'd been an actor, a director, and a writer. Then, thanks to a paralegal course, Lloyd became enchanted with the art of persuasion. So at age 42, he decided to go to law school. Last fall, Lloyd started his dream job at a law firm which specializes in intellectual properly.
PHOTO (COLOR): Marianne Giordani, 43, knows about life lessons. The eldest of five, Giordani left Detroit at age 19. But after a year at the University of Chicago, she headed for New York City and worked as a theatrical set painter before returning to college at age 35. Giordani is currently an English professor working on her Ph.D.
PHOTO (COLOR): Esther Ritz, 54, mother, grandmother, lawyer, ex-fundraiser, and ex-real estate developer, says she believes in "bending with life." Now the Texas native is studying to be a landscape designer. "I always advise people to follow their dreams and to stay out of the sun," she says.
Susan Scarf Merrell is the author of The Accidental Bond: The Power of Sibling Rivalry, out in paperback this January. She has just completed her first novel.