Q. I am turning 80 this year and that number is stunning to me. I have bragged for years that I was sure I would make it to 100. Today, that will take enormous courage and I think I am faltering. I am so worn out by the world news and the pandemic that every day is an act of courage. However, I will continue to rise to the challenge. Is there any way to make this landmark of a birthday any easier? S.C.
Celebrating an 80th birthday is a victory. If you were born in 1900, you may not have reached age 80 since life expectancy was only 47 years. Fortunately, there is predictable life ahead. According to U.S. Government tables, on average, an 80-year-old woman has a life expectancy of almost 9 years. For a man, it’s 7.31 years.
Children are rather consistent in looking forward to their birthdays. They can’t wait to be a year older to have more freedom, privileges, independence and, of course, a driver’s license.
Adults often have less enthusiasm, particularly in later life. Reaching age 80 may trigger some trepidation when looking in a mirror and wondering, “Who is that person looking back at me?” For others, losing friends and family can create an awareness of one’s mortality, realizing that life is not a dress rehearsal. For others the age epiphany might be realized when slowing down a bit, having less energy and a few aches and pains.
S.C., you are not alone in feeling uncomfortable with your upcoming birthday. Here are some comments from several older women also concerned about getting older.
- “Will I have enough money to live to be 100?”
- “I feel I am getting closer to God’s waiting room.”
- “It takes me longer to recover from being sick.”
- “I sometimes struggle to find the right words.”
- “If people know my age, they will think I am old.”
- “I have more wrinkles and my arms are getting baggy.”
- “I don’t sleep as well.”
- “I have more years behind me than in front of me.”
One reason many of us have a knee-jerk reaction to turning 60,70 or 80 is that we live in a society where youth is valued over age which is reflected in the workplace as well as in the media. According to a 2019 AARP study, adults age 50 and older make up one-third of the US population and appear only in 15 percent of media images. They often are seated alone, with a partner or a medical professional who is providing care. Although they hold one-third of the jobs in the US, only about 13 percent are portrayed as workers and rarely are featured with technology despite that over 75 percent own smartphones.
The media message to older women is never look your age and do anything to look younger. This might be changing when it comes to hair color. Going gray, particularly during the pandemic, has become rather cool with celebrities such as Diane Keaton, Glenn Close and Jamie Lee Curtis serving as role models.
Yet negative messages of looking older continue to be amplified by magazines, newspapers, the entertainment industry, social media with comments such as “She looks great for her age” or “She’s beautiful for an older woman.” We also have industries that remind us to dodge being older from Botox, Restylane, lotions and potions, plus cosmetic surgery.
Fortunately, we are seeing small shifts in messaging with the marketing of pro-aging products intended to enhance one’s appearance at any age instead of hiding signs of aging. For example, Allure magazine no longer uses the term “anti-aging”; several Dove products are labelled “pro-aging.” However, we have more work to do in portraying older women in a realistic manner that likely influences how we feel about our own aging.
To celebrate a birthday in uncertain and even fearful times can be a challenge. One way is to compartmentalize: savoring and appreciating all that is good in our lives and keeping the worrisome part of life in a box that you place on a shelf you periodically retrieve. Watching less of the 24-hour news cycle can be helpful.
Another way to celebrate a birthday is to take action. If finances are an issue, get some advice for planning. If it’s sleep, check with your doctor. If it’s the realization that the clock is ticking, live fully and well. In other words, address those concerns head-on rather than being a victim of them. That will lead to realistic optimism.
S.C., thank you for your good question and have a wonderful birthday. Celebrate and find those aspects of life for which you are grateful, embrace them and keep the worry box on the shelf. Take a beautiful walk, stay well and be kind to yourself and others.
Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.