Thriving at Age 70 and BeyondMay 6, 2016
A recently published book, “70 Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade,” inspired me to take a closer look at how I’m doing as I approach 75 and how I might make the most of the years to come. It would be a good idea for women in my age cohort to do likewise. With a quarter of American women age 65 expected to live into their 90s, there could be quite a few years to think about.
It’s not the first time I’ve considered the implications of longevity. When one of my grandsons at age 8 asked, “Grandma, will you still be alive when I get married?” I replied, “I certainly hope so. I want to dance at your wedding.” But I followed up with a suggestion that he marry young!
Still, his innocent query reminded me to continue to pursue a healthy lifestyle of wholesome food, daily exercise and supportive social connections. While there are no guarantees, like many other women now in their 70s, I’ve already outlived both my parents, my mother having died at 49 and my father at 71.
If I have one fear as the years climb, it’s that I won’t be able to fit in all I want to see and do before my time is up, so I always plan activities while I can still do them.
I book cycling and hiking trips to parts of the world I want to visit and schedule visits to distant friends and family to be sure I make them happen. In a most pragmatic moment, I crocheted a gender-neutral blanket for my first great-grandchild, but attached a loving note in case I’m no longer around to give it in person.
Of course, advancing age has taken — and will continue to take — its incremental toll. I often wake up wobbly, my back hates rainy days, and I no longer walk, cycle or swim as fast as I used to. I wear sensible shoes and hold the handrail going up and down stairs.
I know too that, in contrast to the Energizer Bunny life I once led, I now have to husband my resources more carefully. While I’m happy to prepare a dish or two for someone else’s gathering, my energy for and interest in hosting dinner parties have greatly diminished. And though I love to go to the theater, concerts, movies and parties, I also relish spending quiet nights at home with my Havanese, Max, for company.
Jane Giddan and Ellen Cole, the authors of “70Candles!,” do not tout their work as definitive research. Rather, their effort involved scores of posts to an online blog, and eight gatherings in different cities with groups of women in or near their 70s, where participants were encouraged to share their stories and generate research questions that could be explored scientifically in more detail. Such studies are important: As baby boomers age, women in their 70s, already a large group, will represent an increasing proportion of the population, and how to best foster their well-being will be a growing challenge.
What are the most important issues facing these women as they age, and how might society help ease their way into the future? Leading topics the women chose to explore included work and retirement, ageism, coping with functional changes, caretaking, living arrangements, social connections, grandparenting and adjusting to loss and death.
As members of the first generation in which huge numbers of women had careers that defined who they were, deciding when to bow out can be a challenge. Some have no choice, others never want to, and still others like me continue to work part-time. However, sooner or later, most will need to find rewarding activities to fill their now-free time.
The authors reported that “the women seemed to fear retirement before the deed was done, and then to relish their newfound opportunities afterward.” Several warned against rushing into too many volunteer activities, suggesting instead that retirees take time to explore what might be most meaningful and interesting, from taking art classes or music lessons to mentoring students, becoming a docent or starting a new career.
As one woman said, “There are many places where you are needed and can make a difference.” Another said, “It’s more like putting new tires on a car… re-tiring!”
Still, many lamented society’s focus on youthfulness and its failure to value the wisdom and knowledge of elders like themselves. Ageism abounds, they agreed. As one woman wrote, “At my institution, there’s an unstated policy that anyone over 55 won’t get a job. We’re thought to be out of touch with the younger population and assumed to be lacking in the necessary technical skills.” A practicing attorney admitted, “People might not listen to me if they knew I was 71, so I keep it to myself.”
Adjusting to physical changes that accompany advancing years is often tough. Grandchildren, though a great joy to many, can be exhausting, necessitating a restorative nap. Adjustments are needed to reduce the risk of falls and fractures. Better lighting, hearing assists, a reliance on Post-it notes and lists as well as canes and walkers can become essential for safe and effective functioning.
As Ms. Giddan and Ms. Cole wrote, “Our bodies change as we age, even when we eat healthfully, exercise and try to take good care of ourselves. Sight, hearing, bones, joints, balance, mobility, memory, continence, strength and stamina — they will never be what they once were.”
There is also the matter of attending to or accommodating various aches and pains. As one physician reassured a woman of 70, “All my patients your age who are free of pains are dead.” I’m not one to run to the doctor the moment something hurts. Rather, I give it a few weeks — maybe a month — to see if it will go away on its own. Even if fully covered by Medicare, doctor visits cost time and effort, and tests that ensue may have side effects.
Also important as women age are social connections, especially with other women. Whether married, single, widowed or divorced, participants reported that women friends were their greatest source of support and comfort.
Perhaps most important, for men as well as women, is to think positively about aging. A 2002 study by epidemiologists at Yale found that “individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive perceptions.”