Aging with Gusto: I’m Trying

Several years back, while serving on the board of the Vital Aging Network, I helped develop Aging With Gusto, a program designed to help people develop more positive views of aging and live their own lives with gusto.

Research shows that people with more positive views of aging live an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative views.[1] What’s more, people who perceive their elder selves as a burden to others tend to view their lives as less valuable, which in turn increases their risk of depression and social isolation, both of which have proven to be “silent killers” for older adults.[2]

I felt like I was doing pretty well when it came to living with gusto—I was working less and enjoying life more—but then COVID came along and all my gusto got up and went away-o.

So did the me I knew…and liked.

That me juggled a lot of things at once, effortlessly kept track of deadlines, friends’ birthdays and bill due-dates. She walked 10,000 steps a day, volunteered often, went to yoga on Saturday mornings and loved getting together with friends, even if it meant driving across town in rush-hour traffic.

She also traveled. In 2019, she spent February and March in Panama, May in New York City and much of that summer and fall at a rustic fishing resort near the Canadian border. In 2021, she was set to spend March and April with her sister and her family in Los Angeles, but that trip was cut short due to COVID. So were other travel plans.

And now, roughly 18 months later, I’m no longer she.

My hair, which I used to color blonde, is now gray. My face has new wrinkles. My skin, once taut, is now crepe-y. And while I know these changes took time to develop, it feels like these changes occurred practically overnight while I was quarantining due to COVID.

And the changes aren’t just on the surface. Last summer, after walking became so painful I stopped doing it any more than was absolutely necessary, I was told I need hip replacement surgery. With elective surgeries advised against at the time, I’ve put it off, which is why, when friends invited me to walk with them (one of the few things that felt safe enough to do), I declined.

Instead, my friends and I did a few Zoom calls. Then, because looking presentable wasn’t high on our lists, we talked on the phone. Eventually even that got to be too much, in part because many of us were dealing with some big stuff. Not used to being together 24/7, my partner and I were struggling to get along. One of my sisters and her husband almost lost their business. One friend had pancreatic cancer. Another had a husband with a brain tumor and a son who nearly died from alcohol poisoning.

Living through—and aging—during a pandemic has caused so many of us to reprioritize. As a result, rather than traveling and enjoying many of the other out-and-about activities that we enjoyed pre-pandemic—we are busy taking care our relationships, our livelihoods, our health and the health of our loved ones. No one can blame us; it’s the right thing to do.

But the pandemic has made everything more difficult, more urgent, more immediate. And more solitary. In the process of caring for ourselves and our loved ones, we risk isolating ourselves from support we may desperately need. Doing so can be costly: one study says isolation increases the risk of death by 29 percent, another that loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.[3]

So, I’m working on reclaiming my Aging-with-Gusto mindset by being more proactive in maintaining my own social connections: I’m calling at least one friend or family member each day and sending at least five cards each week. While these are small things, I know from being on the receiving end that they can make a difference. Plus, it’s one thing I can do no matter what is happening with COVID. I call it Gusto Lite, but at least it’s a start.

What are you doing to age with gusto? Please share.


[1] https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-832261.pdf

[2] https://www.mylifesite.net/blog/post/positive-aging-changing-mindset-growing-older/ 

[3] https://www.artandhealing.org/isolation-and-loneliness-fact-sheet/

Mom at 62

I’m 62 years old and a mom to two 18-year-olds.

In my mind, this conjures up an old lady parenting two young spirited teens who are placed at a disadvantage. An old lady who could not possibly understand their children’s struggles and desires. An old lady completely out of touch with today’s slang, music, and dress.

I do admit I asked Crystel what ‘Shawty’ meant a couple of weeks ago when she was cheering on Juan and friends who were competing at a Nordic ski meet. I stuck to my tried and true, “Go Spartans! Woo-hoo!!!”

Juan and Crystel are joining with four others to hold a high school graduation party. I was a bit taken aback when discussing appropriate music for the party (preferring an absence of certain words). The six soon-to-be graduates looked back and forth at each other and quickly decided that my playlist of 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s music would be best.

Jody is 58 years old. Unless we’re standing next to other parents at sports events, we usually don’t notice our age difference. Then, Wow those parents look so young, might pop into our heads.

Another time it might occur is when other families are especially active going here and there: winter carnival, parades, ice castles, weekend trips. Jody and I just look at each other and shake our heads. We have no interest. We don’t take it as a sign of slowing down. We have always been that way. Sorry kids. That’s why you have chosen aunts and uncles. Crystel and her Uncle Marty participated in the ALARC ice dive this year on January 1st.

You can find Jody and me volunteering at Juan and Crystel’s school, sports, and scout events. We’re active in the police reserves and often host get-togethers at our house or swimming pool.

The kids never seem embarrassed that we are old. There are so many other ways that I’ve mortified them. Showing up at school unannounced to sit with them in their classroom and walk from one class to another to understand why my student couldn’t make it to the next class without being tardy. Walking into the men’s bathroom to check on my son. In my defense, I did text him and tell him that if he didn’t come out in five minutes that I was coming in. This was at a Taylor Swift concert.

Jody and I believe it’s important to make sure your children have a heartbeat. Cliff jumping, zip gliding, and mountain climbing in Guatemala, helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, swimming with dolphins, hot air balloon ride, dog sledding, horse riding, mountain snowmobiling and skiing and more. If we can do it at our age, then they can, too.

At an earlier age, you could find Jody and me sky diving, inline and running marathons, distance biking, and completing the Tough Mudder. Jody continues to run marathons. The kids had their first sky dive on Crystel’s 18th birthday. They’ve yet to complete a marathon. The old people still got it.

Walking to Nowhere

My father walked forty-five minutes a day. Whatever the weather, whatever kind of workday he had had, he headed out to do his exercise. Quintuple bypass surgery in the days when your chest was sawed open, scared him into obeying his doctor’s instructions. Walk or wake up one more time with tubes coming out of unexpected parts of your body. 

He didn’t have walking shoes, special clothes, a pedometer, sunscreen, tunes playing in his ears. Just good leather shoes, a hat, and a watch to keep him honest. He didn’t drive anywhere to change up the scenery. He just walked. For decades.

After a career of office work that meant little time on my feet and lots on my seat, I’ve joined the crowds walking daily to nowhere. I put some time in on asphalt streets and concrete walkways and some on a simple treadmill. I don’t know if special shoes are any better than his thick soled leather tie models. An athletic tracker on my wrist provides feedback that is nice about my heartbeat and steps. Podcasts fill my mind while I wander about. 

This is how many people in non-physical jobs today fight weight gain, arthritis, general aches, aging. It’s what we substitute for not using our bodies the way they are meant to be used. We walk around neighborhoods, on lake or park pathways, with our dog, maybe with another person. We feel good about piling up our miles and wearing down our shoes.

I’m behind for the day and kind of crabby about putting aside writing projects with due dates in order to do my steps. Curse the pandemic, I miss playing with my granddaughter, machines at the gym, sweating through a dance class and swimming. On the other hand, I’m alive and walking my way to vaccine and herd immunity and the opportunities to get back into an active community. Thanks for the lesson on resiliency, Dad.

Artifacts

I’m at an odd intersection. The familiar objects from my childhood look like history to the rest of the world.

In the Before times when I casually shopped, I’d spot artifacts from my childhood at antique stores. Huh?!? Toys like Barbies and transistor radios, kitchen items like Pyrex bowl sets and milk glass spice jars, decorations like ashtrays and the glass swan currently on my buffet are . . . old enough to be collectible. Antiques. 

More startling was the realization that the purpose of those childhood objects will soon be obscure. Who fills decorative jars with spices anymore? When I was growing up, most homes had several ashtrays. Now they’re rare. 

I value antiques from my grandmothers like Depression glass decanters, silver trays, cut glass salt cellars, aprons, and dresser scarves (what I prefer to think of as ‘true’ antiques). Their quaintness and the memories they call up appeal to me, but I rarely use them because they are so high maintenance. If I want younger family members to appreciate those antiques, I’d have to explain their purpose and tell stories about people they’ve never met. 

Bringing the objects and the people who used them to life is hard, but here goes.

Last week I made a pecan pie from scratch using my grandmother’s old wooden rolling pin. Although I never made pie with her, she was the one who liked to bake, so I feel that connection when I use it. I floured an old embroidered linen towel and rolled out the crust on it, which brought to mind one of my grandmother Mimmie’s housekeeping tips.

She was from an era when women were expected to embroider towels, pillowcases, and dresser scarves (pretty cloths that covered up a lot of a dresser top to protect the wood—a lot of energy went into protecting furniture in her day). She or one of her sisters embroidered the towel which also had to be starched and ironed so it would look nice while hanging in the kitchen. 

As a girl, I wondered how I was supposed to use such a fancy towel. Mimmie showed me her secret: dry your hands on the part that doesn’t show—the part that hangs closest to the wall on the towel rack. That way the pretty ironed front would stay nice for a few days. No surprise that I use terrycloth towels in my kitchen!

Beyond the ‘antiques’ in my life is the realization that my lived experiences are also the stuff of history, but that’s a story for a different day! 

What’s the oldest thing in your house? Does anyone besides you know what to do with it or why it matters?

What Image Do I Want to Present?

Recently, Lauren Griffiths went viral when she replaced her “professional” LinkedIn headshot with one that better reflects her current situation as a human resources consultant who’s working remotely. She proposed that looking authentic is powerful and ultimately more valuable than presenting a “perfect” image. The longstanding ideas about “looking professional” remain powerful, although many people resent and resist those guidelines. Her post led me to consider: What image do I want to project? 

When my career was still active, I was well aware of the need to look polished. Looking younger would be even better, since the working world can be disrespectful of older women. Young was no longer possible (!) but I could manage youthful, especially if I colored my hair and wore attractive clothes and jewelry. Most women my age did the same.

Now, as a 66-year-old woman who’s retired from paid work, I no longer need to present a professional image or look any particular way beyond what pleases me. Griffiths wanted to present a more authentic professional image; women my age confront a similar dilemma. How do we present an authentic image as older women?

When and how do you allow signs of aging to show? Should I try to meet the world’s expectations for “attractive older woman”? In other words, look 55-ish until I’m 75? Do I try to hold the line at all costs? Should I continue highlighting my hair but skip surgery or Botox? Stop coloring my hair? Let go of the anti-aging fuss? 

When Gloria Steinem turned 50, she threw a birthday party and declared, “This is what 50 looks like.” She looked good, which turned the idea being a crone at 50 on its head. 30 years later, she told the world, “This is what 80 looks like” while traveling in Africa—another example of aging well.

In transition: Blonde in front. Silver coming in in back.

My more modest version of her philosophy is to stop highlighting my hair. Pleasing myself will be the point, so I reserve the right to resume hair color if I prefer it. Either way, I will proudly say, “This is what 66 looks like.”