If you really want to know what old age looks like and feels like and sounds like — forget playing around with FaceApp, whose AI technology can age your appearance in seconds on your phone. Simply plug in a current photo and the app will generate a falsely wrinkled face, sagging jowls and wispy white hair. But while the app has quickly gone viral, with artificially aged photos of celebrities and friends alike popping up all over social media, such images have almost nothing in common with the true experience of aging in America.
You just can’t imagine old age. You have to live it firsthand.
I was prompted to write it after our next door neighbor, Flo, died last week, at 91, after a final year at home bed-ridden. All we ever saw were visits from her daughters and the Russian woman who was her in-home aide.
Flo was deeply private, with a head of thick white curls and bright eyes. Only at her funeral did I learn she’d been widowed at 44 with three daughters to raise, aided by a large and supportive family.
Living in a place surrounded by seniors — a word I dislike (we don’t call people juniors!) — has shown me what aging really looks like. The same week my first husband walked out, some 25 years ago, was the week L’s husband had a stroke and never spoke again. He later died and she dated a jaunty older man who wore cool sneakers. He died.
She is now so impossibly frail, sitting with her aide.
It’s sobering. It’s instructive.
As someone with no children, I’m acutely aware, should I live into old age, I will need money and physical help to live well, safely and independently, if lucky enough to do so — my 90-year-old father does.
I lost my grandmothers the same year, when I was 18 and never met my grandfathers.
So this is what I know.
But we also have people here in their 80s looking great and living an active life.
Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.
Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?
I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.
She was always friendly, but deeply private.
I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.
The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.
This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.
Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.
When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.
Did you give back?
Were you generous and kind?
Did you laugh often?
Did you mentor?
If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.
Am I leaving a good life behind?
Am I doing enough for others?
Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.
Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.
I’m now in that fabulous place where I’m at the top of my game professionally —- and fewer and fewer terrific work opportunities, certainly full-time jobs with affordable health insurance, are available to me because of my age.
Speaking by phone, I recently had a new/potential PR strategy client — a man — ask me directly: “How old are you?”
I was a bit stunned and finally, laughing, replied: “Over 45. That’s enough.”
I could have said over 50 but imagine….all those extra years!
The Democrats vying for 2020 run a remarkable age gamut. Mr. Buttigieg is the youngest and Bernie Sanders, at 77, is the oldest. The prominent female candidates cluster more in the middle: Kirsten Gillibrand is the youngest at 52, and Elizabeth Warren is the oldest at 69, with Kamala Harris (54) and Amy Klobuchar (58) in the middle. But whether a youngish candidate is bright, brilliant and promising or inexperienced, off-putting and ruthlessly ambitious depends on whether the young thing in question is male or female…
Unfortunately for women, age poses an unsolvable problem: They are seen as too young and inexperienced right up until they are branded too old and tedious. Ms. Warren, for example, finds herself put in the same “old” category as Mr. Sanders and Joe Biden, even though both men are nearly a decade older than she is.
Men who are more or less the same age as Ms. Warren — Sherrod Brown (66), John Hickenlooper (67), Jay Inslee (68) — are not lumped in with the white-hairs. If women in their 40s are “in a hurry,” and women in their 50s are old news, and women in their 60s are just old, when, exactly, is a woman supposed to go to the White House?
I probably use social media more often than most women in their 30s or 40s — who are already swamped climbing the career ladder, commuting and/or parenting.
Yet, here we go, also in the NYT:
“We don’t want to lean out of that, we want the Cami-stans to want to pick it up,” one editor piped in. (For those over the age of 40: a “stan” is a kind of superfan.)
Seriously, enough with this bullshit.
Like anyone north of 40, let alone beyond, doesn’t read?
Watch TV, YouTube, Insta?
I have no kids or grand-kids, so if I want to talk to someone decades my junior, it’s going to be social and/or professional, not familial.
Luckily, I still have friends in their 20s, 30s and 40s and really enjoy their companionship. I’m delighted when they choose to hang out for an afternoon or catch up for a long phone or Skype chat. I offer advice when asked (and sometimes when not!) but our concerns are hardly wildly different — where’d you get that fantastic lipstick? How’s work? How’s the new house? What are you reading these days? Mammos hurt!
Friendship, in my world, need know no boundaries.
Work, illegally and so annoyingly, does.
I don’t Venmo (I use PayPal) but I actually do know what it is.
The next time you assume someone older than you is de facto ignorant of a word or phrase or reference, ask.
Then be pleasantly surprised — or have a useful conversation in which you share your knowledge.
My past two posts here have been about two talented, driven American journalists — photographer Peter DaSilva and the late Marie Colvin. I’d say Peter, with whom I’ve also had a personal friendship for years, is to some degree defined by his attention to detail and compassion, while she was clearly driven, among other things less visible, by ambition and adrenaline.
As the decades pass, as work becomes less (one hopes!) an uphill climb and plateaus out to a succession of accomplishments, large or small; as one begins and grows one’s family (or doesn’t), our essential values and character become ever clearer to ourselves and to others — the words or phrases used to sum you up.
Are they what you want(ed)?
I think about this a lot, maybe because I work as a journalist and my role, often, is to observe a stranger and make some decisions about who they are and why they are that way.
I’m endlessly fascinated by what people do and how they enact their values — or don’t.
A few things that define me:
A passion for story-telling
Whether here or in print or through the photos on my Insta account or sitting around a table with friends, I love to find and tell stories. Maybe it’s the Irish in me.
A momma-bear instinct to protect people I care about
Do not ever mess with someone I care about. I don’t have children, but those I love get a fierce loyalty.
An endless desire to travel and explore new places
I have already been to 40 countries and have so many more experiences I’m eager to try: Morocco, Japan, Greece and the Amazon, to name only a few.
Never a very political animal
Journalists are expected professionally to remain fair and objective, and so can’t be seen favoring one side or another (although I tend to be liberal.) I can’t vote in Canada since I left years ago and can’t vote in the U.S. as I’ve chosen not to become a citizen. I pay fairly careful attention to political issues but generally don’t have a dog in each fight.
A lover of luxury
Guilty! I wear cashmere and silk, drink champagne when there’s an occasion, and my favorite words ever just might be “Taxi!” and “room service.” Growing up watching my maternal grandmother run through her huge inheritance gave me absurdly expensive tastes, impossible to satisfy on lousy journalism wages. Challenging!
Also cheap as hell
Which is how one can afford some luxury, even if not earning a huge salary or income; I’ve stayed in the same unexciting 1960s building, in the same one bedroom apartment, for 30 years. I don’t love either of these things but I do love our view, our town and a 38-minute train commute to midtown Manhattan. Staying put and not splurging on a larger home and all its furnishings and maintenance and taxes and repairs has helped me save for retirement and travel, my two key priorities.
I work to live, not live to work
I wrecked my 20s being a workaholic and made several people quite miserable as a result — whether some of my editors, friends or boyfriends. It was all I cared most about. By 30, I was a burned-out wreck. I enjoy the work I do, but would happily stop tomorrow, having done it since I was 19. I have so many other interests — music, books travel, art, design, sports — and have accomplished enough in my career I don’t feel compelled to add notches to my belt nor be (uuuugggggghhhhh) “productive”, the great American obsession.
Zero tolerance for the pompous, whiny and entitled
I never leave home without a book or magazine or pile of unread newspapers. Reading is my oxygen.
What are some of the qualities or values that define you?
Sandwiched between two ruthless brothers in a household where verbal cruelty was a competition sport, I was easy game. My parents — the should’ve-been referees — were, instead, the audience. With the rebuttal they should’ve been providing to my brothers’ barrage of relentless brutal nowhere to be found, I had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. In the void of any contradiction, every harsh word became truth.
Few events will make you as deeply, weepingly grateful for your body’s health and strength than than the loss of some of it — or the potential loss of all of it.
I say this with the hindsight of someone who, before the age of 40, never saw a damn doctor for anything more intense (ouch!) than an annual mammogram and Pap smear. Since then I’ve had both knees “scoped” — i.e. arthroscopy — which removed torn cartilage (the price of decades of squash games, now verboten), a right shoulder repaired (minor) and my left hip fully replaced.
It’s a funny moment when — as I was being wheeled into our local hospital’s OR for my breast lumpectomy in July — the female, Hispanic (so cool!) head of anesthesiology recognized me and vice versa. That’s comforting, but also a bit too much surgery.
I really hit my limits in March 2017 when I arrived at the hospital with chest pain so intense I could barely tolerate the seatbelt worn for only 20 minutes to get to the ER. Turned out I had a 104 degree temperature and pneumonia I had been ignoring. That meant three days in the hospital on an IV and coughing so hard I thought I might pass out.
I sweated so much I was thrilled to be able to shower there.
I apologized out loud to my exhausted body, the one I’d been abusing and taking so for granted.
As someone who came of age during second-wave feminism and in Canada, I never spent a lot of time fussing about my body and how it looked. I like to be stylish and attractive and have always loved fashion. But freaking out about the shape or size of my body?
I care most, still, about being healthy, strong and flexible.
I love being able to hit a softball to the outfield and savored my four years being a nationally ranked saber fencer — in my late 30s. I hope to get back to downhill skiing, horseback riding, hiking.
Social media has made the endless and relentless scrutiny of our bodies even worse than it’s always been — policing our size and shape is such a useful way to distract us from essential issues like the size of our paycheck.
Shaming women for being fat(ter) than someone would prefer us to be (MDs only, thanks) is just another way to undermine us in a culture that demands insane “productivity” and only makes beautiful clothes for women smaller than a size 10 — when the average American woman is now a size 14.
Some of the most “beautiful” women I’ve met — those externally chic and spotless — have been ruthless and unkind.
So my definition of beauty, and human value attached to a body, isn’t only rooted in what we see on the outside.
In it, she raises the essential unfairness of treating people who are older — whether they’re in their 40s, 50s — or 80s — as “other” and as lesser, people with less economic, physical, emotional and spiritual value to the larger culture.
And, as many women know, or soon learn, getting older is often a disaster in North America. If you’re still working, you’re supposed to pretend to be much younger and get every bit of cosmetic/surgical aid possible to make sure you appear that way.
I work in a field dominated by people in their 20s and 30s, eager to make their name, get ahead and claim a spot.
I also work in an industry — journalism — divided against itself in some deeply unhelpful ways. Digital media have claimed the lion’s share of audience and ad dollars, leaving “legacy media” (i.e. newspapers and magazines) with shrinking staff and budgets.
That also means many newsrooms and offices are hemorrhaging people like me and my husband, professionals with decades of experience and insight into how to do these jobs with excellence, integrity and efficiency.
Yet, now hundreds of newbies are also crying out for mentors, and finding none.
Because those of us who would have become their mentors by working together have been bought out or fired, blocked by age discrimination from acquiring the new jobs we need, dismissed as being “digital immigrants”, both illegal and unfair.
It’s a pervasive prejudice that weakens every workplace that indulges in it; diversity of age, wisdom, skills and experience also matters.
And I hate the word “seniors”, as if an entire group of people were an undifferentiated mass of old. We don’t call younger people “intermediates” and, usually only within an athletic context, do we call them juniors.
I also live in an apartment building where everyone owns their home, and a building dominated by people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s always been like this, even when I was 30 and moved in there.
Some people would hate this and flee as soon as possible — all those walkers and canes and even, very occasionally, wheelchairs. All that white hair! All that…age.
It’s not an unusual sight to have an ambulance pull up or to get to know someone’s aide.
It’s never really bothered me.
Consider the alternative!
I lost both grandmothers the year I was 18 and never even met either of my grandfathers so I enjoy talking to people a few decades further along than I am, seeing how they cope and enioy life, whether off on a cruise to Alaska or just sitting with me beside our shared swimming pool in the sunshine.
Several are still working.
They know my name. They commiserate when my arthritic knee puts me back in a brace or physical therapy.
As I’ve said here, I have no close relatives and poor relationships with my own parents.
As I age, I have slightly less energy than a decade ago, but it means I’m more thoughtful about when, how and for whom I work.
Drama is something I eschew.
I go to spin class and lift weights. I pray, daily, for continued good health.
Love this Swedish TV show about a cop who’s definitely not young
Jose and I are also very lucky to have friends in their 20s and 30s, people whose company we really enjoy and who seem to genuinely enjoy ours as well.
They don’t just pump us for contacts and job help, but we talk about politics and travel and books and music and money — all the things friends talk about.
It’s a great pleasure to watch our younger friends navigate life and, when asked, (and sometimes when not!), we’ll share our own experiences and strategies. Since we have no children or grandchildren, we really value this emotional connection with those younger than us.
It’s also a benefit of older age to have left much of early adulthood’s angst and anxiety behind.
We’ve been lucky and careful, and have saved enough to retire. I just pray for a few more decades to enjoy it all.
A favorite TV series, about an older Swedish detective
Once you become an adult, certainly if you’re female and choose an unconventional life — maybe not marrying or not having children or working in a creative field — you might crave a role model.
Someone who took the path less traveled by, and thrived.
As American poet Robert Frost wrote, in 1916:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Mainstream, mass market American women’s magazines are too generic, hence unhelpful.
Impossible to relate to corporate warriors like Sheryl Sandberg or Arianna Huffington in their $4,000 sheath dresses and multi-million-dollar lives.
In North America, older women are typically offered a depressingly bifurcated path — turn dumpy and invisible or spend every penny on Botox, fillers and plastic surgery. Look younger, or else!
Neither appeals to me, so I’m forever in search of inspiration, i.e. role models.
In June — where I’ll be celebrating in Paris — I’ll hit a milestone birthday.
Since my mother and I don’t speak and my stepmother died nine years ago, I don’t have many older women to talk to intimately about what lies ahead.
So it was a great pleasure recently to run into a friend from my dance classes — I was out walking in our small town in the sunshine — and catch up with her, a woman about to hit her next milestone birthday, a decade beyond mine.
She really is an inspiration to me, about to fly to Japan, again, where she’ll be teaching writing and staying with her partner, who has a home there. Last time we met up, she was off to Barcelona to visit one of her daughters.
She always looks terrific, trim and fit, wearing flattering colors and — most importantly — has a real infectious joy and spirit of adventure.
I lost both my grandmothers the year I turned 18, so it’s been a long, long time without a much older woman in my life to talk to.
But our apartment building is pretty much an old age home, the sort of place people move into at 65 or 75 or 85 after they’ve sold the family house.
So I watch people decades older than I navigate their lives, whether romantic, professional or personal. We don’t hang out, but we do socialize and chat in the hallways or lobby or driveway, our shared spaces.
One woman — in her late 80s, maybe older — on our floor, has a fab new Barbour tweed jacket and looks amazing, even with her walker. I told her so, and as I walked away, heard her say, happily: “That made my day!”
Older people get ignored. They aren’t listened to. Their needs and desires get dismissed.
That’s not what I want! That’s not what anyone wants.
My father, at 88, is still blessed with enough income and health to be traveling internationally and deciding where to live, still on his own. In his own way, he’s a role model — my husband, a late-life surprise baby, lost both his parents when he was still in his 20s.
I know the elements of a happy later life, especially after retirement, will be many of the same things as today:
good health, enough money to enjoy some pleasures, intimate friendships, a strong sense of community, a well-tended marriage.
I’m also deliberately trying new-to-me things and learning new skills, like CPR and how to play golf. I debated trying to learn German, but I admit it — I wimped out!
Like both of my parents, I enjoy knowing several much younger friends — people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, each of us at a different stage of life, perhaps, but often struggling with similar, life-long issues, whether intimacy, work or how to handle money well.
We don’t have children or grand-children, (putting us very much out of step with our peers.) So we enjoy others’ when we can.
I like having chosen the road less traveled, with its many twists and turns.
But a compass and a guide are helpful.
Do you have role models to help you figure out your life?
Who, and how?
Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her practical tips, offered through one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, have helped many other writers and bloggers worldwide, quickly increasing their sales, reader engagement and followers; details here.
On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.
My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.
Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.
Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.
I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.
In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.
Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.
We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.
We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.
I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.
Self care can take many forms:
— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials
— dressing well
— a barbershop trim or shave
— regular medical and dental checkups
–– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself
— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)
— drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self
This piece in The New York Times piqued my interest:
American consumers are putting what little extra money they do have to spend each month into eating out, upgrading their cars or fixing up their homes, as well as spending on sports gear, health and beauty. Spending at restaurants and bars has jumped more than 9 percent this year through July compared with the same period last year, and on autos by more than 7 percent, according to the agency.
Analysts say a wider shift is afoot in the mind of the American consumer, spurred by the popularity of a growing body of scientific studies that appear to show that experiences, not objects, bring the most happiness. The Internet is bursting with the “Buy Experiences, Not Things” type of stories that could give retailing executives nightmares.
Millennials — the 20- and 30-something consumers whom marketers covet — would rather spend their hard-won cash on out-of-town vacations, meals with friends, gym memberships and, of course, their smartphones, many surveys suggest.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as we’re finally, gratefully, at a point in our lives we need very little additional stuff. We’ve renovated two rooms of our apartment and own an array of sports gear, art supplies, camera equipment, the things we use for pleasure and for work. (We do need to replace our old car.)
It’s a huge relief.
I’ve never been a mall rat, the sort of person whose favorite activity is shopping. I enjoy it and sometimes take an entire day to do it, but rarely come home with more than one or two things, and usually nothing huge or expensive.
Like everyone, I have specific weaknesses — anything seriously antique, jewelry and lovely things for setting a pretty table.
We’ve also saved really hard for years for our retirement, so can now release a bit more of our income for pleasure; saving 15 per cent a year is no fun, but — yes, really — it adds up.
I’m more eager now to spend what extra money we earn on travel, dining out, enjoying the many plays, concerts, dance performances and conferences available to us in and near New York City. We do not have children or grandchildren, nor, as many of our younger friends do, huge student debts to discharge. Frankly, we feel like outliers — we are very far from 1%ers but we’re not panicked about money the way many people are; the average American has saved stunningly little for retirement.
In the next few months, we’ll attend a weekend workshop (for business purposes); travel back to Canada (by car), attend a few shows and concerts. We hope to be back in Europe after Christmas for several weeks.
My Dad heads off soon for a month sailing with a friend in Greece; at 86, with a new hip, he’s lucky enough to have the good health, strength and finances to keep enjoying his life. In this regard, he’s very much a role model.
How many things do you want to own? How many experiences would you like to enjoy?
Unless you’re wealthy, every expenditure of money means making a choice — the time needed to invest in earning the taxable income to buy the stuff, store the stuff, clean and polish and upgrade the stuff — or an amazing afternoon/evening/week/month/year creating indelible memories.
We spent a recent Sunday in Manhattan (a 40 minute trip into the city from our home) seeing a show, On The Town, on Broadway, and splurged on box seats, at $101 each. I felt like royalty — they offered amazing sightlines and no squished knees; we sat in comfortable elegant Louis XIV-style armchairs. Before the show, we stopped in at Sardi’s, the classic, old-school bar and restaurant, for a Bloody Mary and a snack.
What a lovely, lovely day, creating memories we’ll cherish for years to come.
I’ve never once regretted any of the money I’ve spent on travel or meals or a day of skiing or a game of golf. But I’ve deeply regretted the money I’ve wasted on a pair of too-high heels (worn once!), clothing that just looked like hell or a really boring book that was, after all, a best-seller.
Nothing that arrives in a box or bag is ever as pleasurable and satisfying to me as walking down a Paris street or having tea with a friend in London or catching up face to face with my sister-in-law in Toronto over a very long lunch.