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well lived

7 Ways to Own Your Age

Lessons learned from a life well lived.

two elderly woman wearing swimming caps embracing
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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I was around 7 or 8 years old when I first asked my grandmother, “Nana, when you look in the mirror, what do you see?”

We were standing in her kitchen on a Saturday afternoon as I watched her put the last batch of sugar cookies into the oven. I now realize that baking cookies was more of a bonding activity than a real necessity, since we wrapped and froze most of them after they cooled (with the exception of me grabbing a few too soon and burning the tips of my fingers and tongue). I blithely accepted Nana’s explanation, “We need to hide them away so we won’t get fat,” even though I craved the sweetness of more than the few I was allowed to eat.

Nana’s light red hair was loosely tied back with a colorful printed silk scarf, and catching a glimpse of some gray hairs peeking out from underneath momentarily startled me. It suddenly struck me that Nana was growing older, and one day I would lose her.

I wondered if she saw it that way, too.

“What do you see when you look in the mirror, Nana?”

She closed the oven, slowly stood, then turned and looked at me quizzically, brushing away a stray hair that had fallen over her eyes. “Well … when I look in the mirror, I see … my face, of course,” she said matter-of-factly.

Frustrated by not getting the response I was after, I wanted to say more. But being so young, I lacked the ability to fully convert my thoughts into the right words.

If Nana were still alive—she died back in 2013, just shy of her 93rd birthday and just a few years after tearing up the dance floor at my younger son’s bar mitzvah—I think I’d have the words to elaborate.

Here’s what I would have asked: “Nana, when you look in the mirror, do you notice yourself aging? Do you actually see a different face over the years? Do you see yourself the way the world sees you … or do you see the same, unchanged face year after year after year?”

It was hard for me to comprehend looking into a mirror and peering into a face different than the one I’d seen the moment, the day, or the year before.

My grandmother was beautiful, fun, and vibrant; playful and pulsing with energy. I suppose to me, as a young girl, grandmothers were not “supposed” to act that way. She certainly did not fit the mold of an immigrant grandmotherly type; instead, she put herself through college, worked until she was forced to retire at 62, and let me play in her collection of costumes and wigs she wore when performing in community theater.

She worked hard to look and feel young and she rocked her age—at every age.

“When I catch my reflection in the mirror, I’m often caught off-guard by how I look; different from years ago, yet not what I picture a 64-year-old looking like.”

As of this writing, I’m 64 years old—about 14 years older than Nana was when we stood in the kitchen that day cutting cookies into stars, circles, and hearts. Seeing this number—64—on a page startles me the same way Nana’s gray hairs did all those years ago. When I catch my reflection in the mirror, I’m often caught off-guard by how I look; different from years ago, yet not what I picture a 64-year-old looking like.

And although I don’t yet have a granddaughter, if I did, I’d tell her the following things about how to rock your age. Because, one thing I know is that although you can’t control growing older, you can control how you do it, just as Nana did.

“And remember, growing old is not a given, but a privilege.”

Think of aging as a blessing

Getting older is a good thing; the opposite of aging is not youth—it’s death. So, rather than bemoan aging, embrace it. Who you are is hard-won, finely honed from years of experience, knowledge, and skills. And remember, growing old is not a given, but a privilege.

Don’t focus on the number

There’s a difference between accepting and obsessing. Complaining about getting older or being old makes you seem (and look) older—not only to other people (if they hang around long enough to listen), but to yourself. Instead of focusing on your age and what you can’t do, focus on how much you’ve learned and what you can still do. It’s all in the attitude: Researchers say that feeling positive about aging helps you stay not just mentally but also physically younger.

Think young

When people were asked how old they felt compared to their actual age, the average response was 13 years younger than they are. So go ahead and think young. Staying young at heart is physically beneficial, too. The ability to have fun, laugh at your mistakes, and be lighthearted actually does, according to science, keep your heart “young.” This type of guffaw, dubbed “mirthful laughter,” is protective against heart attack and heart disease, according to a 2009 study. Other benefits of laughter? Lower blood pressure, a reduction of stress hormone levels, improved immunity, and decreased tension.

Stay in the best shape possible

An inevitable part of the aging process: As we get older, we lose muscle strength and tone, flexibility, and balance. Oh, and our bones start to thin, too. But you can fight that—and, many times, reverse it—by exercising regularly. You want to do both strength training (such as working with light hand weights or resistance bands) and weight bearing (such as walking or dancing). When scientists at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. compared a group of older people who exercised all their lives with adults the same age or younger who did not exercise regularly, the regular exercisers “defied aging,” having the cholesterol levels, muscle mass and immunity of a young person. Even a late start can make up for sedentary living, say Harvard experts.

Show it off—but be realistic

If your legs are good, then go ahead and wear that short dress; likewise if you work hard on toning your arms, don’t hide them. Your body is hard-won. Ignore the articles that spew out advice like, “What Not to Wear After Age 30,” or “Here’s How to Dress Your Age.” You know what looks good and what doesn’t, so you’re the best judge of how to dress for right now.

Too old for on-trend torn jeans or leggings with combat boots? Even though many women would never go there (nor wear their hair past chin-length), if that’s what you like, why not?

Challenge outdated beliefs and stereotypes

If you want to age healthfully and stay vital, ditch the idea that you are over the hill or obsolete (it can be all too easy to buy into our rather youth-centric society). If my grandmother were alive today, at 62, rather than being forced to retire, she would be well-respected for her experience, knowledge and skills. (Look at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, still going strong well into her 80s.) The world of work is indeed changing: In her book, Disrupt Aging, Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP, writes that an estimated 9 million Americans are pursuing encore careers, defined as “continued work in the second half of life that combines social impact, purpose, and often, continued income.” Retirement is not a given: Freedom from work has been replaced by freedom to work. Experts agree that learning new skills has innumerable benefits for your mental and physical health, including boosting memory.

And, remember this: The aging mind is a fertile mind—it is possible to learn new skills, no matter what your age. Channel your inner Betty Friedan, American feminist writer and activist, and live by her words: “Aging is not lost youth, but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

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Published June 25th, 2019
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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