Going Like 60--Thoughts for Women on the Triumph, Tragedy of Aging

Going Like 60--Thoughts for Women on the Triumph, Tragedy of Aging

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Photo: From “Look at Me: Images of Women & Aging,” University of Sheffiled.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — What a stimulating way for me to turn 60, while pondering what it means to age in the company of 4,000 knowledgeable sources earlier this month at the Gerontological Society of America's Annual Scientific Meeting.

It’s a conference where I’ve covered research on every aspect of aging from dementia to longevity, and I was intent on finding somewhere in the sessions a deeper understanding of what growing old is really for, and how to do it really well — or, as my grandmother used to say, gracefully.

Perceived Age-Body Link

Today's society doesn't make that easy, especially if you're a woman, said Joann M. Montepare, director of the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging and Intergenerational Studies [http://tinyurl.com/lotnb77] at Lasell College in Massachusetts.

Two decades ago, Montepare conducted a study linking a woman's perceived age — how old she feels herself to be — and her body image. Repeating the study recently, she found that women are even harder on themselves now.

"As you compare findings across decades, it's an opportunity to think about how social and cultural factors, always in flux, may come into play," she noted. "New images and messages have arisen, particularly the idea that aging should be confronted and battled. More and more age-related products send the message that aging is something to be treated and contained."

Montepare suggested that researchers may be part of the problem — that focusing on how to mediate and mitigate the ravages of growing old can fuel negative self-perceptions among those of us engaged in graying.

With so many stern prescriptions about exercise and nutrition and general well-being, how can we mere mortals believe we're doing it right?

"Researchers are starting to document increases in eating disorders among aging women," she said. "Ultimately, we need to figure out how to make peace with our bodies. I think it's time we made changing these views the next age battle."

Society’s False Choices

The false choice we are currently being handed by society is between "aging well" — that is, staying young — and giving in to the inevitable decline. But Hanne Laceulle, who writes about the philosophy of aging at the University of Humanistics in the Netherlands, proposed an intriguing third way to think about aging.

"These age-defying narratives and decline narratives are problematic, as if there is no value of its own in later life," she pointed out. "The age-defying narratives in particular are a self-effacing strategy, because ultimately they are doomed to fail."

Why not, she asked, consider aging simply another process of becoming who you are?

As with earlier stages of life, this would allow an elder to succeed at some things — like wisdom or tolerance or humor or love — and fail at others — like hearing loss, say, or a hip fracture.

To me, this idea of freedom to fail as you age is a liberating one. Think of how shamed and embarrassed older adults are made to feel when they fall down, and you can see how unthinkingly we have come to set ourselves up for defeat.

Stopping Age Denial

A new approach to aging, Laceulle thinks, "should be able to acknowledge the potential for growth and flourishing, but also provide a meaningful integration of existential vulnerability, instead of denial or rejection."

In other words, we need to stop blaming ourselves for the physical dependence that comes with age, while acknowledging the loss that an individual feels when this happens. To do this, we need to see aging as a part of life to negotiate like any other.

So instead of "active aging" or "positive aging" or "anti-aging," Laceulle thinks we should take a cue from ancient thinkers like Aristotle and embrace what she calls "virtuous aging."

I like her idea, because it allows for both the triumph and the tragedy of human existence at any stage — instead of insisting that we paper over real pain with happy faces.

"One of the reasons for returning to Greek philosophy," Lacuelle said, "is that it can acknowledge the fact that humans are aimed at flourishing — but also, importantly, acknowledges how vulnerable this striving is."

Barbara Peters Smith wrote this article for Florida's Sarasota Herald-Tribune,  supported by a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation.