Aging Gracefully

Eleanor Roosevelt had this to say about aging:

“Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.”

Her words are famous. Celebrated. Loved by so many over the years that it’s possible to buy posters, t-shirts and even underwear inscribed with them. And yet, few of us seem to view our own aging with the pride and open-mindedness expressed in that quote. Instead, we often behave as if we’re ashamed of our age.

For example: I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone denigrating their middle-aged muffin top, beer belly or arm wings.

Conversely, I’ve never seen someone lean toward a mirror, notice a new line or fold and exclaim, “Awesome! Now I’m even hotter!”

When it comes to our own faces, figures and hair, many of us fight like street cats to stop time in its tracks. We shell out big bucks for cosmetic procedures, steam it up in spa treatments, slather on expensive anti-aging lotions, sunscreens and make-up. We divorce entire food groups and blend strange ingredients into gray-green smoothies. We dress to flaunt our most attractive (read: youthful) assets.

For most people, the former first lady’s beloved quote might as well be “…but beautiful old people (other than me) are works of art.”

Yet there’s a terrible price that comes with all that striving, psychology experts say. Our efforts to stay young are often accompanied by feelings of “age shame,” says Harriet Lerner, psychologist and author of many books including “The Dance of Anger.” This shame, she adds, is especially acute in women.

 As an example, Lerner points to the old “don’t ask, don’t tell” social policy regarding women’s ages. That policy, she says, is alive and well in many social circles.

“Women have long been shamed for growing older—which is, after all, everyone’s wish,” she says. “Women have actually been taught to conceal their age, to joke and even lie about it, to treat it as a shameful little secret.” And that little secret can be toxic to our souls.

“By hiding our age, we perpetuate the notion that there is something shameful or lesser about growing older,” Lerner says. “We further shame and disempower ourselves and all women by agreeing that it is best to conceal the number of years we have been alive.” One way to start breaking free from age-shame is to be straight-forward about your age, she insists. “To invite joy and happiness in, we can break the vicious circle of shame, silence, stigma and secrecy that surrounds who we truly are. And that includes how old we are.”

Though society’s youth-obsession continues to rage, voices like Lerner’s are slowly helping to shift our negative views on aging. 

“We’re beginning to see hints that people are recognizing that there’s beauty at any age,” said Pamela Mayberry, associate director of the Ithaca College Gerontology Institute in Ithaca, New York. She points to the Dove “Real Beauty” advertising campaign – which features photos of women of all ages, skin tones and body types – as an example of this trend.

To explore this idea, I Googled “Gorgeous Oldsters” and was heartened by the images that popped up. There, as expected, were the glamorous, gravity-defying faces of Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren and Denzel Washington. But there also were the weathered, spirit-filled faces of everyday strangers from around the world. Elderly Ukrainian women with twinkly eyes and color-soaked headscarves. Elderly Indian men with coffee-dark skin and heart-melting smiles. People who look their age but are being presented as indisputably beautiful.

 If you’re feeling shame, guilt or stress about your own aging, it may be time for some self-exploration. The following questions can help you see where your aging-negativity is coming from, and how to turn it around. 

1.  What thoughts am I listening to? Are they helping or hurting?

Given our society’s messages on aging, it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing only the negative aspects of growing older. But focusing on these will keep you trapped in a cycle of worry and self-criticism. We don’t have control of everything but we do have the power to change our thoughts. When a critical thought pops into your head, acknowledge it, then see if you can turn it around into something positive.

Don’t let someone else write your internal script for you. Keep focused on the positives in your life and reap the benefits of more happiness and peace of mind!

2. Am I keeping myself from doing things that I enjoy?

Don’t let age keep you from participating in activities that you enjoy. You might need to modify an activity or even find a new one, but it’s worth spending some time to find things you can do that bring you happiness. 

Maybe you used to love ballet classes but find them a bit too demanding now. What about trying a swing dance or country-line dance class? You’ll still get to enjoy dancing and music, and they’re a great way to make new friends as well! 

Evidence shows that people who engage in hobbies and leisure activities experience less depression and live longer. Taking care of yourself by devoting time and energy to the things you enjoy is a powerful message to yourself that you are important and worthy of care.

3. Am I staying connected and keeping my relationships strong?

Aging can bring changes in relationships — children grow up and leave the nest, retirement ends the daily interaction with co-workers, and loved ones pass away. Isolation and loneliness are real problems for many older people and can have serious emotional and physical consequences. 

So, how do we stay connected and engaged? There are many things you can do to maintain an active social life. Volunteering for a cause you believe in is a great way to start. Take a hobby you enjoy and find a club or group to join that shares your interest — gardening clubs, book clubs, card and game playing groups are all popular activities. Take a class at the local library or community college and learn something new while making new friends!

Meaningful relationships and a strong social network improve mental and physical well-being and longevity. And don’t forget about the fur babies! Having pets has been shown to help reduce stress, lower blood pressure and increase physical activity and social interaction. 

A guest post by Kate Taylor

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