In your teens, 20s, 30s and 40s, life tends to follow fairly predictable patterns: finish your education, find a partner, marry, have children, buy a home….if you can even afford them, as so many can’t now thanks to crippling student debt and stagnant wages.
If you’re lucky enough to remain healthy and keep finding good jobs, you might be acquiring capital for retirement and watching your income rise. Nothing guaranteed, of course!
But my point is that, for a good long while, the trajectory — traditionally — seems fairly clear, and usually, upward in terms of acquisitions, growth and success.
My old dreams, thankfully, have been realized: to own my own home; to have a happy marriage; generally good health (and access to good care); lasting, deep friendships. I was lucky enough to have three staff jobs at major newspapers, doing work I enjoyed, and several magazine editing jobs, and then published two books to good reviews.
I’ve traveled widely, to 41 countries, including places in Africa and Asia. I love to travel and am debating disappearing into a Paris rental apartment in 2020 for months. I love Paris and I miss hearing and speaking French.
We only get so much time….
The next bit, if I am lucky enough to remain healthy and solvent, is much less clear to me. Many women my age are corporate warriors earning a fortune, too busy for friendship, or doting grandmothers, cooing over their family. I’m in neither category and that is sometimes both disorienting and very lonely.
I still have to bring in money to meet our exorbitant health insurance costs, although I’d happily hang it up now. I still enjoy writing but have been chasing writing income since university and am heartily sick of that.
New dreams include more global travel, possibly writing a few more books, starting a business of PR strategy and another to sell my photos to interior designers.
Will any of these happen? Who knows?
It’s a luxury, I know, to have achieved so many of my younger dreams.
It’s a challenge, now, to think of new ones — and to gin up the requisite enthusiasm and energy for some of them.
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.
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.
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.
His bicep still feels like a wall, solid and strong.
His energy and curiosity have long since out-paced that of his peers.
He just spent a month sailing in Greece with a friend.
But, for the first time, during a recent visit, my 85-year-old father finally, suddenly, felt old to me. And, to his clear dismay and surprise, to himself.
We’ve never had a smooth, easy relationship. He’s missed many of my birthdays and we rarely do Christmas together. He made it to both my weddings and walked me down the aisle.
We’ve had arguments so loud and ferocious I debated cutting off all contact with him.
But he’s my only father.
And I am, in many ways — competitive, stubborn, voraciously curious, a world traveler with a host of interests, artistic — very much like him.
A film-maker and director of television documentaries, he rarely hesitated to piss people off, preferably on their dime, a trait I’ve also inherited in my work as a journalist. Gone for months working while I was growing up, he’d bring home the world — literally: a caribou skin rug and elbow length sealskin gloves from the Arctic, Olympic badges from Japan, a woven Afghani rifle case, a hammered metal bowl from Jerusalem.
In the 60s, when I was at boarding school, his gold Jaguar XKE would pull into the parking lot and whisk me away for a day of fun., often a long walk through the countryside.
We’ve since driven through Mexico and Ireland, shared a tent while driving across Canada the summer I was 15 and drove from Montreal to Savannah, admiring the Great Dismal Swamp in the rain. Much of our time has been spent in motion.
We rarely, if ever, discuss feelings. It’s just not something we do.
But it’s sad, frightening, disorienting — inevitable — to suddenly see him tired, limping, sobered and chastened by mortality after a lifetime of tremendous health, good luck and international adventure.
Or this meteorite, that streaked through the skies above Russia, and was lifted from the bottom of a lake. It’s said to be 4.5 billion years old, the same age as our solar system.
This week on PBS, I also watched — and loved — the latest instalment, 56 Up, of Michael Apted’s amazing series of documentaries, which began in 1964 with Seven Up, in which he interviewed and filmed 14 London children of varying social and economic backgrounds.
Every seven years, he has re-visited them and filmed them again, to see how they were doing — at 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and now, at 56.
It’s a compelling examination of how people change, (or don’t), over time.
Today, “reality” television is so normal as to be cliche, an alternate universe in which people seem to think nothing of confiding to millions of strangers while staring straight into a camera lens. It was once quite a radical notion to broadcast people’s everyday lives, and their most intimate feelings.
Who were you at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 or 56?
I know many readers of this blog are still in their early 20s, so all those decades have yet to arrive.
I have few photos of myself as a younger person, most of them taken between the ages of six and 14. After that, it’s as though I vanished; my parents divorced and I spent most of my time divided between boarding school and summer camp.
I don’t remember anyone taking my picture between the ages of about 14 and 26, although I have one from my college graduation, which neither parent attended. In it is one of my then best friends, Nancy, whose last name I can’t even remember now.
Which is sad, as my life was a wild adventure in my early 20s — starting my writing career, traveling alone through Europe at 22 for four months, and then winning a life-changing fellowship in Paris at the age of 25. I do have, somewhere, some great photos of my visit to an Arctic village on assignment, being interviewed in a particle-board shack by a man speaking Inuktitut — the local radio station for the community of 500.
By 28 I had achieved my goal of being hired as a writer for The Globe & Mail, Canada’s best newspaper and, restless, would soon jump to Montreal where I met the man I married at 35. By 42, I’d been divorced for five years.
Some days it seems everyone I meet is afraid of getting old — or at least of looking as old as they are. Occasionally, I see women who have had so many face lifts that they can barely move their lips when they talk, let alone smile.
Business is booming in the anti-aging market. Plastic surgeons who specialize in lifts, tucks and fillers barely noticed the recent recession. Cosmetics with anti-aging properties fly off the shelf, and new concoctions appear almost weekly.
I admit to supporting the multibillion-dollar skin care industry with my long use of night creams, as well as a slew of daytime facial and body lotions that purport to “smooth out” aging skin while protecting it with sunscreen. I also color my hair, which in its natural state is now about 80 percent gray.
But I draw the line at injectable fillers and muscle relaxants, face lifts and tummy tucks. I’ll do everything I can to stay out of an operating room.
I’m with her on that. I also really like her emphasis on who you are are as you age, not just the shape, size and condition of our bodies and faces:
Youthfulness is not just a question of biology. People are perceived to be younger than their years if they smile and laugh a lot (be proud of those laugh lines!) and are generally cheerful and upbeat, the kind of people who smile at strangers and wish them a good day.
People often guess me as 10 to 15 years younger than my true age, which is pleasant. This week, a NYC cabbie guessed me 13 years younger, and young people looking at me in broad daylight (i.e. their eyesight is fine!) do so as well.
If people perceive me a decade younger than some of my peers, it’s likely a combination of things:
— I’ve never smoked
— I get a lot of sleep
— I disconnect, often, from technology to meet people in person, read books in print, get into the real world
— I minimize my use of social media (however hip) to recharge and reflect
— I enjoy my life, and have a wide network of supportive friends
— I only drink moderately
— I exercise 3-4 times a week, often outdoors in nature
— I have much younger friends, some even in their early 20s, and love being part of their lives
— I’ve never hit rock-bottom, terrifying poverty, the kind where you have no idea where your next dollar, or dime, is coming from. Terror and 24/7 anxiety will age anyone quickly.
Here’s a great post from Emma Johnson, aka Wealthy Single Mommy, a fellow New York journalist, who is 36, about accepting and enjoying how our bodies change with age:
In the past year or so I’ve noticed other first, albeit subtle signs of aging: The large pores. A second glass of pinot grigio at night and I wake to extra-dark circles and creping under my eyes. The cellulite that has hugged the back of my thighs since I was 12 has spawned and now also covers the front of my thighs. After two babies and four decades, I don’t expect to see a flat tummy again. Everyone knows bodies age, yet are surprised when it happens to theirs. Here I am.
And yet for the first time in my life, I see something else that wasn’t there before. When I see pictures of myself smiling I notice the fine laugh lines, yes. There is something else in my whole face that is new. The same thing when I catch a reflection of my eyes in the rear-view mirror as I glance at my children sleeping in the backseat. I see the crow’s feet at the same moment and I see a pretty face. I did not see pretty before. It may have never been there, I’m not sure.
We now have a small army of male archetypes suffering sartorial midlife crises.
There’s the man still padding around dressed like the 28-year-old Silver Lake hipster—Vans, Daft Punk tee, thigh-hugging jeans—he was a decade ago. His proliferation is easy to understand, because his style requires no effort. Change nothing. No wonder he has numerous stuck-in-time siblings, like his urban-styled brethren.
Women, certainly in the U.S., are judged harshly when we’re not deemed sufficiently thin, perky and unwrinkled — which rules out plenty of us over 40, let alone 50.
It also focuses way too much attention on the size of our hips or ass when we really need to focus attention on the size of our paychecks and investments for retirement.
Active, curious,open minds and generous hearts are every bit as important — and generally far more within our control — as the inevitable ravages, and sometimes really lousy luck, faced by an aging body.
Some of the coolest women I know live in my apartment building, like M. who’s 80 — and feels about 60 — with fab clothes and a pompadour, a booming laugh and a spirit that still kicks ass.
I want to be her.
When you look in the mirror — especially those of you over 30 — are you happy with what you see?
I had a business lunch recently with a woman a bit younger than I. We both work for ourselves, battered survivors of the (most recent) recession, hanging on to long-term clients while seeking solid new ones, a combination we admitted can be exhausting.
We’re both married suburban home-owners.
Although we had never met, and knew no one in common, we felt comfortable enough to speak more personally.
“I’m not where I expected to be,” she said.
I sighed, with relief that she had said it, that someone else felt as I often do, that we could talk about it without self-pity or whining — but truthfully and candidly.
Where I live now, in suburban New York, one is expected, from birth onward, to be Very Successful. Those of us who live in apartments or modest homes, driving old vehicles and doing funky creative work with inconsistent incomes are very much the anomaly in a sea of corporate poobahs and tenured academics, like two of my next-door apartment neighbors.
I recently attended a backyard book party for someone I frankly envy: huge, gorgeous old house; her book an instant best-seller; a tiny, trim figure in a stunning new dress from Paris.
I admit, I find it hard sometimes, surrounded by others’ success in all the areas I’d once hoped for, to look at one’s own life with deep satisfaction and gratitude.
Yet I know mine is good: a loving second husband; a home we own and enjoy; friends, decent work, health, retirement savings.
I never was someone with a Set Plan. I married late, at 35, to a physician, so I basically expected to stay married, and to enjoy a life of growing material ease.
But the marriage was unhappy and brief. I was once more single, living alone on a very tight budget, for six years.
Sometimes I am still shocked by where I am in life: a widow, former caregiver, film writer/director who still works a day job and barely scrapes by, at 42 years old. Not feeling sorry for myself, just stating the facts. Actually, I was reminded of the facts yesterday.
Before leaving said day job, whether next month or next year, I’m using my health insurance to get everything checked out. There I was with a new OBGYN, from whom I need a referral for a mammogram, getting thoroughly probed and questioned about my family, medical and sexual history. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, the conversation found its way to a subject which I had not anticipated discussing, and inadvertantly brought up the reality of my situation.
“Are you thinking of having children?” the doctor asked.
“I’ve… thought about it,” I answered slowly. “But I’m not really sure what my options are at this point.”
Maybe, at any age, we’re all still waiting and wanting — something.
“It’s crazy. Isn’t being Jasper Johns’s assistant enough?”
Then there’s Woody Allen’s newest film, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in a Blanche duBois-esque role, a Ruth Madoff character who’s plummeted from flying private in Chanel to living in her step-sister’s crowded, grubby walk-up in San Francisco. It’s a searing, depressing, reminder that hitching your entire identity and ego to wealth and power, especially someone else’s, is rarely wise.
A supermarket is not where Ms. Barberena, now 56, thought she would be at this stage in life. After completing undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at one of Mexico’s best universities, she led a comfortable middle-class life in Mexico City.
But she left in 1995 with her husband, two small sons and a sense of desperation. A neighbor’s daughter had been abducted, bringing an epidemic of kidnappings within reach of her own family.
“I lived in panic because I did not have any way to protect my children,” Ms. Barberena said.
In 1996, her father, a naturalized American citizen, presented a green card petition for Ms. Barberena, his married adult child. And the wait began.
It’s an odd thing, this life.
We often grow up with such high hopes, even expectations, of who we will become and where we will live, the people we’ll love and who will love us.
Of our children, our home(s), our studies and travels and achievements.
(Who factors in the stumbling blocks of infertility, miscarriage, divorce, premature death? Grieving takes time and energy. It slows, or stops, our momentum. So do illnesses, surgeries and recovery, job losses and and protracted searches for paid work.)
We — naively — assume, or hope, we’ll earn and enjoy rising, unbroken income streams and good health, stunned and felled when one or both fail us.
We forget, or don’t want to imagine, that people we adore will die, sometimes very suddenly, tearing a hole in our world that no one else can replace.
While still working, I’m doing it well outside the structured environment of corporate America. It definitely feels a little wacky some days. Technically, I think the actual description for what I’m doing is “Leaning Out.” Maybe even aggressively.
At least that’s what the 20-year-old-version-of-my-40-year-old-self thinks I’m doing. And she is deeply, deeply uncomfortable with it all.
My actual 40-year-old self is just fine thankyouverymuch. First of all, she begs to differ with her 20-year-old-version when it comes to the leaning out description. Um hello? Since when did sixty hours of work (even if you put them in at non-standard times) count as slacking?
As for marriage, kids, suburbia, and the unconventional job?
I chose them. Actively, willingly, excitedly, with arms-wide-open.
I want to be exactly where I am. Doing what I am doing. Downshifting, side- shifting, upshifting…whatever the current moment calls for.
Are you happy with where you are right now?
How much do you plan ahead — or wait for fate to dictate your next steps?