'Aging Successfully' Basically Means Not Aging At All

Stop celebrating the exceptions and start accepting the realities of growing old.
The author with her daughter in August 2016, when the author was 66.5 years old.
The author with her daughter in August 2016, when the author was 66.5 years old.

From where I sit on the aging food chain, 67 is not really the new 42 ― at least not according to my left knee, which still hurts like the dickens some 40 years after I wiped it out on a ski run on Vail’s back bowls. Thing is, it only hurts sometimes, and mostly, I just forget about it.

That’s kind of a metaphor for aging ― real aging.

In 2011, an estimated 10,000 baby boomers began turning 65 every day, and that’s a pace projected to continue until the end of 2019. As the number of U.S. seniors balloons, so has the propaganda that growing older is something we should resist. The ideal has become to age “successfully” or “gracefully,” which basically means looking as if you haven’t aged at all.

I’d like quash this nonsense once and for all. Why do we congratulate the woman who won the gene pool lottery and looks 20 years younger than her age? Why, because of flukes in the MC1R gene, do we bestow the “aging gracefully” label on some, but not others? And why do we glorify the handful of octogenarians who are running marathons and jumping out of airplanes and treat them as if they are the standard-bearers of aging?

More importantly, why do we treat people who have the misfortune of showing the signs or symptoms of age as if they are failing miserably at the aging game?

St. Mary’s College of California researcher Anna Corwin, who recently published a paper saying that using elderspeak (baby talk) when addressing nursing home patients does more harm than good, is similarly incensed by the current view of aging. And Corwin is just in her late 30s.

The “how to age successfully” discourse, she says, creates the idea that we are “morally obligated to do everything we can to be productive and independent and essentially young for as long as possible.”

And, she notes, “Our obsession with how to age ‘well’ and ‘successfully’ ends up creating the feeling for those who become dependent, who need care, who are not independent or productive, that they are ‘moral failures’ in some way.”

Corwin, who has written a chapter in a forthcoming book on the topic, boils it down to this: “The ‘successful aging’ movement and all its advice and research on how to ‘age’ really boils down to a conversation on how to NOT age.”


‘You don’t look your age’ isn’t a compliment.

At 67, I am frequently told that I don’t “look” my age. It is said as a compliment, but in reality it’s a perception problem based on the belief that there is something bad about aging.

Put another way: If I am 67 and this is how I look, then this is what 67 looks like. Yet in the speaker’s mind, being 67 is a bad thing, and therefore, it’s “good” that I don’t look my age.

It’s worth repeating: I do look my age. This is what 67 looks like. Do I look old? Depends on who I’m standing next to.

Wouldn’t it be better to be honest about what aging is really like for the majority of us? For one thing, it’s a bridge most of us will one day cross.

Aging, for me, is a means of sticking around long enough to do all the things I want to do, like meeting my future grandkids.

For the immediate future, that means doing things like eating right, exercising and keeping my mind engaged. And in the future, it may mean repairing and replacing body parts that have worn out. It does not, in my case, mean changing anything else.

At 67, I carry a few more pounds than I once did. I’m not rushing to any plastic surgeon’s office to have anything nipped or tucked, but yes, I have wrinkles and sags where tight skin used to be. I can no longer stay awake past 11 p.m., nor do I want to. And sleeping eight hours straight is a fluke of nature unless medications or exhaustion are involved. I wear one type of glasses to read and another type to drive. And I quantify how much I want to attend an event by how difficult the parking will be.

Some foods I once loved, such as anything deep-fried, no longer love me back. Sun, my teenage self’s best friend, has become my adult self’s Public Enemy No. 1. And I just took my last pair of high heels to the thrift store, along with a turtleneck cashmere sweater that I haven’t worn since I moved into that menopausal “I’m hot all the time” zone.

Side note: I actually am eager for the “I’m cold all the time” zone that people much older than me inhabit.

My 45 years of slouching over a newsroom desk mean my back hurts periodically. But my feet are my real nemesis. With bulging bunions and bouts of plantar fasciitis, they are my body’s Benedict Arnold, a traitor to the cause of things I enjoy doing, like hiking.

Every week or so, I hear about someone from my past or their spouse being diagnosed with a serious disease or dying. Sometimes I catch myself playing the obituary game, where I scan the death notices hunting for the cause of death for anyone younger than me. For the people in their 90s who grace the death notice page, I count how many were predeceased by all their loved ones. I’d rather be among the former than the latter. Death is not a road I want to walk down alone.

I chalk all this up to the aging process ― real aging, not the kind on display during a local news story about a nonagenarian triathlete. Good for the triathlete, but he is the exception, not the rule.

I have always cherished my closest friends, the women my kids call “Auntie” and with whom I confide my deepest thoughts and secrets. Of our wolfpack of six, I am the oldest. As one friend likes to say of me, I get to go first through all the milestones that come with aging.

I remind them that someone has to ― and it beats going last.

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