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.
I had dinner recently with my friend G, a fellow writer. As we settled into a local restaurant for dinner — the music way too loud for comfortable conversation — we both kept saying “That music is too loud!”
Getting older is a bitch, kids.
What we really were talking about was how to handle the indignities and annoyances of aging.
We’re not that old, but we’re past 40, and things do start to look a lot different by then; friends have died far too young, parents are starting to become frail or ill and the endless mountain ranges of ambition we always planned to keep scaling are starting to just look exhausting.
“I’m going to be such a bitch when I’m older,” she said calmly. Me, too.
Because you’re running out of time, energy, strength and the endless determination to bounce back — from illness, divorce, a crappy betrayal, a crummy job.
Because, for better and worse, you simply have less stamina, physically and emotionally, for bullshit. If someone is petty or cruel or stupid or deceptive, in the old days I would have fake-smiled and sucked it up. Today? You’re gone!
You don’t have to kiss as many butts as in your gogogogogogogogogo 20s and 30s, when you’re desperate to get into the right college/grad school/jobs/marriage.
What’s going on, I think, is the path-diverging choices that come with growing up. The thirties aren’t wildly different from your twenties, except for the part where the stakes feel so much higher. The carefree feeling of going out every night is replaced with a nagging voice that now reminds you of the repercussions, of what you should really be doing instead, and of the choices that may be slipping away, whether they are career, family, or fun. You are suddenly, irrevocably unable to waste time in the same way without chastising yourself.
By the time you’re in your 40s and beyond, you’ve done much of that, often several times (see: jobs, marriages.)
And we’re learning (resentfully!) that our energy has limits — even as she and I admitted to sitting at our computers for 10 hours a day when we write a major story.
I still, (thank God), can read without needing glasses. I still head off to jazz dance class and kick as high as some of the praying-mantis-thin chicks in their 30s. I plan to be back on the softball field this summer, after a three-year absence due to injury, surgery and recovery.
I’m also finally happy to see that my retirement savings — mine alone, even as a freelancer in a recession — have hit a number that actually makes all those years of scrimping feel worthwhile.I’d so much rather be in Paris/wear Manolos/drive a new car, but that growing number is deeply comforting.
My role model is a woman on our floor, soon to turn 98. She recently fell, off the toilet, cutting her cheek and shoulder so badly she needed stitches. Her live-in nurse, who I see often, said, in awe: “She’s so strong!”
That’s what you need as you age. Strength: of character, of mind, body and spirit. A network of solid, loving friends. As much cash in the bank, and/or income, as you can possibly scrimp, scrape and save — start now, young ‘uns!
Aging also means less patience for whining or negativity. If you’re healthy, solvent and alive you’re way ahead of a lot of others starting their days with an IV in their arm or wondering when to finish making out their will or wincing in pain with every step.
By the time you’ve done a few decades, you start to feel like a grateful survivor, because you are.
The other night, for fun, I decided to Google a former beau, one of the most fun people I ever knew, a journalist-turned lawyer who fought hard for the rights of workers who’d been screwed over by their employers. Instead, to my shock, I found his obituary — dead of cancer at 57. It feels unimaginable.
It might be the worst taboo of all — old age. Not middle age, the final decade(s.)
I moved into an apartment building at 30 where everyone — who knew? — was 20 to 30 years older than I. It’s a nice spot, atop a hill, with no steps or stairs anywhere, perfect for people with mobility issues, (aka canes, walkers, even crutches.)
Since I developed early and bad arthritis in my left hip, I get it!
What I like most are the 80-year-olds here who are so stylish, funny and well-dressed. Marie, on my floor, has bouffant hair, great clothes and a booming laugh you can hear down the hallway. Even heading out to a doctor’s appointment, she looks terrific.
When she told me her age, I laughed — I figured her 20 years younger. This has happened so many times in the elevator when I’ve spoken to white-haired women, (and it’s usually the women who are rocking it out) and found them fun, funny, engaging.
My Dad is 81, blessed with tremendous energy and health, and recently started making a documentary, his former career, working with scientists he introduced himself to. His partner is 74, slim, lovely, smart and has lived a life filled with adventure.
There are days I fear old age and there are days I look at the men and women I know who’ve blasted past the worst marker — 65 (if you make it that far, you’re good for a while, stats show) — and are still, healthy and solvent, enjoying the hell out of their lives.
They have surgery, they take meds, some walk slowly. But they’re in it.
I don’t look to the anorexic 15 year-olds in Vogue for inspiration, not that I ever did.
It’s been the most exhausting and emotionally wrenching week of my life.
This morning my Mom — the woman who’s lived alone in Lima, Bath, Roswell, NM, Gibsons, B.C., Toronto — who’s been from Nauru to Oaxaca — moved into one room, in a nursing home.
The woman who covered the Chicago Eight trial as a radio reporter, who cried on my 11th birthday the morning she served me blueberry pie in bed because Bobby Kennedy had been shot. The woman whose hair color changed almost daily in the 1960s thanks to a fab collection of wigs, and the confidence to pull it (them) off.
Whose collection of mantas, moles and delicate cashmere Indian shawls, collected on her travels, inspired my lifelong love of textiles and my own collection of them.
I joined her for dinner (served at an ungodly 5:00 p.m., with several of her dining room companions asleep at their tables) and kept her company as she ate a bit of beans and corn and pork. She didn’t like the meal or even the china mug her tea was served in.
Then we sat in her room and talked for a few hours. I asked about Edgar, a folk art animal she has owned for as long as I have known her; she bought him in London when we lived there. I showed her some recent winter nature photos I had shot.
And then I had to leave — and she gave me a dazzling smile.
I live in an apartment building that is, frankly, something of an old age home — filled with people in their 70s, 80s and 90s. There are days I weary of gray hair and halting gaits, but I have also learned to appreciate the deep value of role models, especially of older women living, well, alone.
My theme song is this, a rockabilly anthem to feisty female old age, from a 1988 album by Michelle Shocked.
I’m thinking of this because one of our building’s two cool 96-year-olds, one of whom lives on my floor, was taken to the hospital by ambulance yesterday. She’s got brilliant blue eyes, thick white hair, and a spirit so lively and outgoing we all love her. I’m praying for her.
The other, on my floor, is wealthy, a bit of a grande dame. She lives in a three-bedroom apartment with a live-in helper. (Money is a wonderful, necessary adjunct to a decent, solitary [even shared] old age.) She wears fab clothes, keeps a fresh manicure, comes down to the pool, even with a walker.
Most women, statistically, will outlive their husbands or male partners. We have to be ready, in every way, to survive — and thrive — on our own.
But I also treasure Marie, 80, on my floor. She’s still married. She wears an immaculate bouffant pompadour hairdo, dresses with style and had a male stripper for her 80th. I asked her in the elevator one day — she’s OK with this sort of directeness — “How old are you, anyway?” I thought, maybe, late 60s.
I feel too fragile these days because of my aching, injured hip. When I watch these women soldiering along, finding new beaux, slapping on the mascara and nail polish and a smile, heading out for dinner with their girlfriends, I’m glad I don’t live surrounded by 20 or 30-somethings, slick and invulnerable.
These ladies are survivors. I hope to be one, too.