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Age Is in the Spotlight– What Is Old? Too Old?

Let’s celebrate aging!

Left to right pictures of Tina Turner for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Joe Biden at the G7 Summit, and Martha Stewart on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Left to right: Tina Turner © Alberto Venzago/Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Joe Biden © Kiyoshi Ota/Pool Photo via AP, and Martha Stewart © Ruven Afanador/Sports Illustrated

Martha Stewart, 81, glowing in a bathing suit, graces the cover of this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. That makes her the oldest woman ever to be on the cover of the magazine. I love it when assumptions about aging like ‘no one would be interested in a picture of an 81-year-old woman in a bathing suit,’ are challenged and disproved. More thoughts on this photo later, but let’s give a big hooray for smashing ageist notions.

As someone who’s working hard to expand what is possible for all of us as we age, I want to celebrate some of the highly visible older people today. They are among those who are expanding our horizons and creating the possibility of a totally new old age for many of us.

Carefree elders dancing on the couch while listening to music.
Image designed by © Carlo on AdobeStock

My interest in questions of what is old and what is possible for older people began in earnest for me when I turned 80. I wanted to know, “What is it really like to be in your eighties today?” My search for some answers led me to interview 128 men and women in their eighties living in all regions of the country and at various economic levels, as well as many of their boomer children. To my own surprise, I found that most older people are living pain-free, active lives and that they are happier than they ever expected. What struck me over and over was the stunning variation in lifestyles — which belied the stereotypes of older people — rather than the common threads. My research culminated in my book Eightysomethings — A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness.

What’s too old?

I am still asking, “What’s too old to work, too old to be in politics, too old to be a leader, too old to be creative?” And the answers have changed dramatically over the last decades as improvement in lifestyle and healthcare have allowed us to live longer. Life expectancy in the US has grown from 67 in 1950 to 79 today. Today, older people have more options but they also continue to confront ageism. Here are a few people who are breaking boundaries and expanding possibilities in ways we should applaud.

Professional Engineer team working in industrial manufacturing factory. Engineer Operating lathe Machinery.
Image designed by © NVB Stocker on AdobeStock

I have been reading about Jane Fonda, 85, for decades as she starred in movies beginning with Cat Ballou, spoke out against the Viet Nam War, and promoted exercise. This last year she has appeared in four new films. In an interview for People, she said, “This chapter of my life is the happiest I’ve ever been.” She then went on to share that she has recently undergone chemotherapy for non-Hodgkins lymphoma and that “chemo was hard.” She added that there have been tragedies in her life all along but she has been resilient. And she ended that interview by saying she had just done 1100 steps. She shows us what 85 can be.

And there was Stewart, beaming, and looking unbelievably gorgeous, reminding me she was a model in her 20s. She reported she prepared for the photo for weeks by forgoing pasta and doing a lot of Pilates. Of course, Martha Stewart has been going from success to success her whole life — even five months in prison for obstructing a federal security investigation wasn’t a career stopper.

In discussing the photo with readers on Facebook, some questioned why put her on the cover at all, but most were glad of the inclusion if that’s truly what Martha Stewart looks like at 81. As Patty Powell Clavette, 54, of Gonzales, Louisiana, notes, “(Martha) says there wasn’t much airbrushing, which is good…I can’t celebrate a non-realistic view on aging.” I agree with Patty and wish older people including celebrities didn’t feel they had to go to such efforts to look young. I look forward to the day when we all get comfortable looking our age and wearing a bathing suit.

Senior female friends enjoying a day in the cottage near the river.
Image designed by © Mediteraneo on AdobeStock

The paradox of aging is, that the vast majority of us, despite all the losses we may have experienced and our older bodies, we grow happier in our 70s and 80s than we were in our 40s, 50s, and 60s. Every day I see older people who are truly beautiful. People who have never had a facelift or a tummy tuck but have character and kindness written all over their faces.

Boundary Breakers

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the actress who starred in Veep and played Elaine on Seinfeld, wondered “Why the hell are older women not heard?” And she decided to do something to change that. In March, Louis-Dreyfus aired a new podcast Wiser than Me that brought attention to the voices of people over 70 like Carol Burnett, Amy Tan, and Isabel Allende. But it is not yet clear if the podcast has enough of a following for a second season.

Tina Turner, who recently died at age 83, is another who has pushed the boundaries for decades. First, as a beautiful, strong, super-talented Black woman singer and performer who redefined rock music. She was the first Black artist and the first woman to appear on the coveted Rolling Stone cover in 1967, and later at age 73, she became the oldest person to be on the cover of Vogue. She broke the ancient barrier of silence about domestic violence when she spoke up about the horrendous treatment she had endured in her own marriage. And she smashed gender stereotypes when she unabashedly owned her own sexuality.

Elder volunteer counting hands before activity.
Image designed by © N Felix/ on AdobeStock

The spotlight is on President Joseph Biden, too. “Is he too old to run again” is a question in the media as well as at dinner tables in millions of homes across the country. An opinion piece caught my eye in Mediate on April 24th entitled, Can Political Media Cover Negative Effects of Biden’s Age Without Being Ageist. My answer to this is a loud and clear, “You are ageist when you judge people by the number of years they have lived.” What really matters is the competence of a person. We should ask about Biden, for example, “Has he made good decisions? Has he appointed good people?” What have been the results of his leadership? And then support him or don’t support him according to the quality of his performance.

And, finally, there is me. After successful careers as a teacher, diversity consultant, psychotherapist, and mother, I hit a peak in my mid-eighties with my fourth book, Eightysomethings, a column in the New York Times Opinion Page, and an appearance on CNN. I believe that life for most of us after seventy can be one of ongoing development, purpose, meaning, creativity, and joy.

Elderly Sri Lankan cheerful woman sitting in her garden taking care of blooming plants in pots. Farming and gardening.
Image designed by © artiemedvedev on AdobeStock

Writer Anne Bernays said, “Old — a state of being, a state of mind, a state of grace, a state unto oneself.” Let us all enjoy our good fortune to be living in this era of the new old age. And let’s make the most of it.

Eightysomethings is now out in paperback. Get your copy today!

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