Dealing Well With Aging

How do we deal with aging, with our changing (as in diminishing) appearance, with candid children asking if we’re someone’s grandma, as happened to me the other week?

With passionate resistance, if the $80 billion/year industry of anti-aging products is any indication. I made my panicked contribution to that industry the other week, right after the little girl on the playground let me know how old I looked (I’m 52, since we’re being candid). I spent an obscene amount of money at Nordstrom’s on (allegedly) anti-aging skin-care products by La Prairie.

But I know there’s a better path than costly, desperate resistance to aging. This post is about my working to find that path.

I knew even as I did it that the purchase was outside of my values — the premise of Diamond-Cut Life is more joy and less stuff. A few days later I heard the Dalai Lama speak about how our focus is better put on our relationships, our real source of happiness, than on buying more things, which is the exact thing I’ve been saying here since 2007.

And which I’d forgotten so quickly in a moment of crushed vanity, and fear of aging.

Speaking of relationships! Linda Kusse-Wolfe, my close friend since 1980 and also my former minister, wrote to me about that post. She wrote about her friend Linda Brindle who was dying of ovarian cancer, who doesn’t get to have the privilege of aging. She suggested that I embrace the gift of growing older.

Her gentle admonishment stopped me in my tracks, as dead-on advice can often do. I’ve been wringing my hands over what is actually a privilege, something a great many dying people would love to experience.  I want to hold up Linda Brindle here, a wonderful minister herself who died too young, two days ago. One part of her considerable legacy is giving me new gratitude that I get to age.

So, what did I do with the extremely expensive anti-aging skin care products I’d bought?  Last Tuesday I returned them to Nordstrom’s, whose customer service is legendary. The sales manager delegated my return to her sales associate by saying, “Would you please help this young lady with her return?” The unreformed part of me wanted to say, “Um, could you please train all children everywhere to talk like that?” We can see that my acceptance of aging will be a process

What am I doing with the money I’d been so willing to spend on the fruitless pursuit of not visibly aging? Yesterday I started a monthly donation program to Arfiase, before and after surgery for cleft palateOperation Smile, which performs free surgeries to children born with cleft palates in developing countries. People with cleft palates tend to be shamed and isolated, evidently in almost every culture. It’s funny how we can’t get away from the fact that appearance makes a big difference in human lives. Clearly, it’s much more important for children like Arifase, pictured here, to have a blessedly normal life, than it is for me to have fancy face products that cannot forestall the inevitable.

And maybe I should leave it at that. But there’s another wrinkle, no joke intended. Ageism, i.e. discrimination against older people, is a reality. Many employers don’t want to hire senior citizens. Older people often become invisible and ignored in social settings. Look at the emotional suffering that causes — to a large portion of the population.

And the ugly fact is that many aging women do get rejected by husbands who choose younger, prettier women to replace them. That happened just two months ago to my coworker Beverly (not her real name). Bev is one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever known. She feels devastated by the dissolution of her 20 year marriage to a man who had been a loyal, trustworthy husband — until he left her. We can’t pretend it’s only certain people, only bad people, who find youth more attractive than age. It’s deeply ingrained in us.  Even though it shouldn’t, appearance does affect how well we’re treated, and the number and quality of our life-opportunities. Arifase, Beverly, and lots of research on youth and attractiveness all attest to that.

That said, our personal capital lies primarily in how we treat each other, and how well we use whatever resources we’ve got. Are we stewarding the earth’s finite resources with care? When we have abundance, are we sharing with those who have less? Are we treating each other with kindness and compassion?

If we’re fortunate enough to grow old, being able to answer ‘yes’ to those questions means we’ve kept our eyes on the prize . . . the prize of the diamond-cut life I keep working to craft. Like many people of many different faiths, I pray daily. A new thing to pray for is gratitude for my age, as per Linda Brindle’s legacy . . .  plus maybe some spunky comebacks to questions like, “Are you someone’s grandma?”

I’d love to hear from my readers: what helps you to deal well with aging? Comments here.

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  • Alison
    February 12, 2014

    Diane, I like your point that grandmas are almost universally loved. And I think it’s hysterical that the little boy thought he was reassuring you about being 50 yrs old when he told you his 62 y.o. grandma could still walk.

    I hope you visit some more . . . I love your voice, and the way you walk so well. :)

  • Alison
    February 12, 2014

    My friend Diane N.-P. sent the following to me in an email after she read this post. I like it so much I’ve got to post it here as a comment:

    “A boy asked how old I was and I proudly told him “50!” He was momentarily stunned, but gathered himself admirably and said “It’s okay: My grandma is 62 and she can still walk.” : )

    I also remember early on, when I was trying so hard to master “Classroom Management” saying to some uppity older student that I was old enough to be his mother (meaning in my mind, he should respect me) and of course he said I was old enough to be his grandmother (which was soooo true- and that would’ve been 10 years ago! That really put things in perspective. Some grandmas ARE 30- more than we care to imagine. But what also is true, grandmas are almost universally loved, so I think that little girl was just hoping that SOMEONE lucky had you for a grandma. I can’t wait for that, but I know I should not rush it- not to define me, but to add another dimension, and share all that love Godlove with some more family!

  • Susie
    August 26, 2013

    Great blog Alison
    I have focused on being more and more healthy - having more energy and putting my health first —- and ironically not only do you feel better but you look better too :-) I think people respond to someones energy — so keeping active, positive, healthy, energized, grounded, generous and having fun — keeps one “beautiful” at all ages — thanks for your great through provoking stories —

    • Alison
      August 28, 2013

      Well said, Susie. “Keeping active, positive, healthy, energized, grounded, generous” — these sound to me like descriptors of the diamond-cut life, in general.

  • Ami
    June 4, 2013

    Me too! Satisfying and SOOOOOOOO grateful!

  • Ami
    June 4, 2013

    Ms. Lind,

    Thank you. This thought in your comment never occurred to me and it is a powerful realization in my current life. You phrased it just how I needed to hear it.




    • Alison
      June 4, 2013

      Ami, Isn’t that satisfying, when we hear the thing we were needing to hear. I love when that happens.

  • Christina
    May 31, 2013

    Thank you, Alison, for another thought provoking and assumption challenging blog! There is so much I appreciated here. I have long felt the sense of vanishing from view with aging-like one is just not “seen” in the same way or at all sometimes. With our aging baby boomers I keep expecting standards to change but the media and workplaces and society in general still seem to be focussed on youth.

    I have compensated by sometimes wearing mascara or lipstick if I feel too faded or tired looking. I dress more boldly and care less about what people may think. There is a settled comfort in knowing myself more and being less susceptible to the societal mores. It helps having been a lifetime hippy and eschewing much of the materialism and plastic facade of the line women are sold about how we should look.

    Yet, there is a melancholy for me about aging. I find that I need to accept that I will never be an Olympic athlete. I won’t climb Denali, won’t be a size 8 or be a professional musician. Many of these things I don’t really want but I just sense the narrowing of possibilities with aging and the existential dilemma contained in that.

    Let us revel in knowing who we are, what we want, the deeper values that evolve with experience and in fitting in our own skins! That is my wish for us as we journey from our youth to becoming the wise women we are meant to be.

  • Dana Whitson
    May 30, 2013

    Alison, you didn’t hear the second part of that little girl’s comment. I was there and I clearly heard her ask “Are you someone’s grandma?… because you look, to me, about forty.”

  • Sue
    May 29, 2013

    Alison, when you ARE someone’s grandma, that question brings to mind the cherished face of that person, so there is no sting, or at least it is balanced. If not, maybe a child loving person like yourself could ask, “No, do you need one?” As I approach 60, I see shocking things in my mirror, but, as my wise cousins Paige once said, in response to a comment on her appearance, ” I earned every one of these wrinkles on top of a mountain of experiences I would not give up for anything.” Better to live our joy than aspire to be a beautiful corpse, I say.

    • Alison
      May 30, 2013

      Sue, all of that is so beautifully said. You should be writing your own blog . . . or book.
      Looking forward to seeing you and David next month at Thor’s 60th. I try to not resent the fact that everybody thinks he is much younger than 60!

  • Barbara
    May 28, 2013

    Alison - This post really hit at a time when aging was very much on my mind and I really value your perspective. I just turned 55 and received my first “senior discount” without so much as a second glance. I agree that ageism is a significant problem. That’s one reason I’ve always been happy to share my real age, without being coy about it, with my middle school students. They need to see positive examples of what a real - not Hollywood botox-ed, airbrushed - older woman is like. That said, there are several things I do that are both consumerist and anti-aging but that I’m unwilling to give up. First, and most importantly, I took up running and working out in my late 40’s. Due to an annoying persistent injury I’ve given up the running and replaced it with an expensive membership at a dance fitness franchise. I love the joy of moving to music, often surrounded by other women my age, and I don’t mind my money going to support the enthusiastic young teachers. I also color my hair and have for many years. I like the way it feels and enjoy spending my money at a local salon where I’m happy to help support a hard-working stylist. One reason I always enjoy your blog is that it makes me take a closer look at things like how I spend my money, my time and my energy. Thank you!

    • Alison
      May 29, 2013

      I am so with you, Barbara, on all counts. I always tell people my age; I’ve been joyfully running and dancing for pretty much all of my life; I’ve colored my hair for 20 years (back to the color it was for the first 30 years); and these days I make sure to get my hair done in the rural communities of Southern Oregon, where my work takes me twice a month. I love spending my consumer dollars in these towns, and having conversations with the ladies there.

      I’ve always thought you’re a great role model to your middle-school students; you’re one of the most consistently positive and vital people I’ve ever known (see my prior comment to Colleen on vitality). I’m looking forward to our dinner tonight on Hawthorne, and talking more about this topic that’s been in our shared faces lately.

  • Colleen
    May 28, 2013

    I agree with Mick — great decision on the donation!
    At age 39, I don’t have too much firsthand experience to share — yet — of how to best deal with aging. But I’ll always remember something my mother told me: “Having you kept me young.” (This, from a woman who gave birth a few months before her 41st birthday, still-unusual in the 1970s. Less-so now.) Her words ring true because I think being a positive influence on children — whether one is a parent or aunt or mentor or just a buddy — is a big key to feeling youthful. There are many keys, of course, but knowing that a little of your wisdom, or sense of fun, or ethics, or something else, has planted a seed in someone that, God willing, will outlive you, is perhaps the closest we may come to the fountain of youth.

    • Alison
      May 29, 2013

      Colleen, I love the emphasis that you and your wonderful mother place on giving to others, in this case to children and young people.

      Yet when we all keep saying say “youth” as the thing that we want, I think that what we really mean is “vitality”. We’ve all known young people who lack energy or enthusiasm, or who are fearful, or have negative attitudes. And we all know people of all ages who have positive attitudes, move through life without fear, and who brim with energy and enthusiasm. I think we should replace clichés like “the fountain of youth” with “the fountain of vitality”. Rather than trying to stay what we cannot stay, i.e. young, I suggest we embrace vitality, which can be ours at any age.

      To me, vitality also implies we have lots to give others, and the habit of giving is a locus of joy, and makes us radiant, the way you and your mom are radiant. Thanks for writing, Colleen.

  • Alison
    May 27, 2013

    Thanks, Mick. Feels really good to hear that.

  • Mick wiley
    May 27, 2013

    I love the fact that you returned the product and donated the money to Operation Smile. When my students laugh and smile, it usually makes my day. You made a wise and generous decision.

  • Vicki Lind, MS
    May 27, 2013

    Very thoughtful piece, especially acknowledging that some of the actions of other people-even progressive people we love- can be preferential to younger women. That makes the imperative of “the inside job” SO important.

    As a career counselor, I see older female candidates having to be careful not to appear too experienced or wise, lest they threaten their younger male supervisors. They can assumes that young women (or those who appear younger) are more cheerful and flexible as subordinates.

    I buy my anti-ageing night cream from New Seasons, in the $35 range. More value congruence than Nordstroms.

    • Alison
      May 28, 2013

      Vicki, Good insight from the career counselor perspective. And, I love the phrase ‘value congruence’. When we choose in congruence with our values, it works like spiritual chiropractic, leaving us healthier, in better alignment, and more able to be effective in the world.

  • Tess
    May 27, 2013

    Hi Alison, this post is right up my street and good on you for returning those La Prairi products! (But do remember that to young children, anyone over 20 seems ancient. I remember my favourite game with my auntie when I was about 5 was something I called “Old Woman” in which she was a fearsome old witch who chased me. She must have been mid to late 30s at the time!)
    I agree with other comments that the loss of physical and mental abilities is the big dark side of growing older. But for most of us, future-oriented as we tend to be, that seems a way off. We, and the media, focus on how we look. My suspicion is that the most difficult years are between 50 and say 65. At that point, if we’ve looked after ourselves, it’s easily possible to look a decade or so younger than we actually are. So the temptation is there to TRY and look younger. Then we get fixated on it. Perhaps after 65 or so it seems less important because it’s less easy to disguise our age. I’m just coming up on 60 later this year so I don’t know yet!
    I do think it’s becoming less and less easy to see in the media examples of women, and men, who are aging naturally. (I can’t recall if you’re a Pinterest user, but you may be interested in a board I have there called “The Beauty of Age” -
    Moving away from the way we look, perhaps one of the things that’s most difficult about growing older is that our youth is no longer an experience, it’s a memory. I was listening to a James Taylor song earlier. You know, the guy was gorgeous, and now he’s bald. I was gorgeous, and now I’m grey and pudgy. I’m never again going to be a teenager sitting in the sunshine listening to the young James Taylor on the radio. There’s a melancholy to it.
    But he and Carole King are still singing, still as talented, as charismatic, his baldness and her wrinkles don’t matter one whit.
    I think as we grow older we need to focus on our gifts and the expression of them. That way it isn’t about youth or age, it’s about becoming - embodying - more fully who we really are.

    • Alison
      May 27, 2013

      Tess, I love that you point out that James Taylor and Carole King are still singing, still pouring out their great gifts to the world.

      But eventually, they won’t be able to do that(unless they die first). What I really want is a society that nurtures and honors them, and all of us regardless of our talent, even after our mental abilities and gifts fade away.

  • Alison
    May 27, 2013

    Ms. Poet, I agree. The loss of physical and mental abilities (and/or doing what we can to prevent those losses) would be a great topic for a future post. And I’m with you on botox being completely off the table. “Nicely expressive face” (lovely phrase) — that’s what you and I and all our friends have got!

  • craftygreenpoet
    May 27, 2013

    I’m fairly laid back about looking older when I am older. Better a wrinkled, nicely expressive face than a botox mask.

    It’s the physical and mental deteriorations of ageing that worry me. Along with age discrimination and the genuine hardship that many older people find themselves in.

  • Heidi Hu
    May 26, 2013

    Hi Allison, interesting series on aging and vanity.

    I think holding your head high and smiling is the best anti-aging and free beauty tip. After all, isn’t aging just gravity setting into your face? Defy that by standing straight and smiling, the world will smile with you , and you will feel better immediately!

    • Alison
      May 27, 2013

      Heidi, good to have you visit and hear your thoughts. I think both yes and no. I’m definitely into standing tall and smiling, and other people do indeed take that kind of cue (we all take each others’ cues). That will never be all there is to it, though. There’s quite a dark under-belly to ageism and especially the way that older women get discounted in our culture. I’d love to be a part of creating real change around this, and around many things. Hence the existence of my blog.

      I reeeaalllly like the fact you’ve given a good beauty tip that costs nothing and consumes none of the earth’s resources. Thanks! I hope you weigh in with more comments in future.