What Is the Secret to Aging Gracefully and Happily?

“To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” —Henri-Frédéric Amiel, 1874.

As some of you may know, I’m currently enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania in positive psychology, the science of human well-being. A few weeks ago, I was in my classes at Penn when I heard the alarming statistic that every day for the next 18 years, 10,000 boomers will turn 65. I started googling around about boomers and came across even more startling statistics: study after study indicates that boomers are the most depressed cohort of all age groups. The women boomers, in particular, are unhappy. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1999 and 2004, rates of suicide increased by 20 percent for 45-to-54-year-olds, a far greater increase than that experienced in nearly every other age group. Among women who were 45-to-54-year-olds, the increase was a staggering 31 percent.

This isn’t surprising, I suppose, coming from the generation that worshiped youth, wealth, and themselves all throughout their lives. But as they age, how can they lead happy and healthy lives? Is it too late? I think that they can, but only if they learn from the generation directly above them–the Silent Generation, which is the least depressed age group in the U.S. That, at least, is my argument in this article.

The Silent generation is quite remarkable. They were born during the trying years between the Great Depression and World War Two. They were behind the sexual revolution and the women of that generation launched the second wave of feminism. I interviewed one of the women from that generation, Ellen Cole:

Ellen Cole, a 71-year-old Harvard-trained psychologist and professor at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., is among the younger members of that older age group, the relatively small but remarkable “Silent generation.” Cole is interested in how the lessons of her generation can apply to boomer women. “We pre-baby boomers might have wisdom to impart to those close on our heels who [have begun] to turn 65,” she wrote in the Retiring But Not Shy (2012), a book about how feminists are adjusting to their post-career lives…

In 1953, when the younger Silents, Cole’s peers, were still kids, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published. By the time they were 18—entering into college—it was 1960, the same year that the Pill was officially approved by the FDA. As they were leaving college, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out, which, more than anything else, officially launched second-wave feminism as a mass cultural movement. Friedan interviewed suburban housewives of her generation and found that many of them were dissatisfied with their lives as homemakers. Three years later, Friedan teamed up with some other feminists to form the National Organization for Women.

Cole was in grad school at Harvard when the book came out. “It turned my world upside down. Before that, my ex-husband wouldn’t let me drive the car we got for a wedding present, and I never thought twice about it. After that there were conscious-raising groups galore,” she tells me.

Of course, the boomer women benefited from feminism, and, like the Silent women, they defined themselves in large part through their careers. Yet, boomer women are incredibly depressed and their rates of suicide are alarmingly high and on the rise, while the Silent women seem to be aging gracefully and well. What is the secret of the Silent women? Can the boomers learn from them?

This brings us back to Cole and her generation of women. Many of them have turned 70 or are on the cusp of it. For nearly two years, Cole has been working with a colleague and childhood friend, Jane Giddan, to find out how those septuagenarian women are faring, and they plan on turning their research into a book.

According to a 2002 American Geriatrics Society study of people aged 65 to 100, “More than 50 percent of participants felt it was an expected part of aging to become depressed, to become more dependent, to have more aches and pains, to have less ability to have sex, and to have less energy.” Cole wanted to find the exceptions—the ones for whom aging went well.

“Seventy is a major milestone for women—a wake up call,” Cole says. She would disagree with Shakespeare’s designation of old age as a “second childhood.” Rather, “it’s a fabulously rich period of life.” In a blog post, she wrote, “I’m tickled to think of myself as an old lady.” At 70, Cole says, women start thinking about how they want to spend the rest of their lives. It’s the age at which, according to Pew, most women think “old age” begins.

Bringing 70-year-old women into small groups, Cole and Giddan started having conversations with them about old age, becoming grandmothers, leaving careers behind, their husbands. They started a website called 70candles.com, where other women from around the world could post their stories and concerns about getting old. The two were after the secrets of aging gracefully—of living the good life until the very end. In the process, Cole has learned several lessons that dovetail with the broader psychological research about aging.

From research in psychology and other fields–and from the work Cole is doing–the key to aging gracefully and happily seems to lie in at least three factors: 1) working into old age rather than retiring 2) finding love and community and 3) accepting old age. I elaborate further on these in my piece (in particular, the stories of “Ellen Keller,” “Carol,” and the women from Okinawa, Japan are models of good aging that I discuss).

What do you think the secret to aging well is?

  1. Barkha Herman

    Never growing old.  Jest aside, though, I think that those who “accept” old age and stop living tend to age faster and deteriorate.

    Of the older men/ women I know that are youthful are the ones who are looking forward to something – spending the day with grand kids, cruises to Europe, RV trips through the country, etc.  And those who don’t are essentially waiting for death (sounds morbid but it’s true).

    Of course, mine is a non- scientific and tiny data sample.

  2. Paul Dougherty

    Purpose.

    I don’t know if this is related but I cannot recall ever meeting parents of large families who are unhappy. Worried, tired somtimes, but they are rarely unhappy.

  3. Amy Schley

    I’d almost the opposite of Barkha — the older folks I know (and my Sunday School class average age was three times mine for a while) are the ones who have “accepted” old age and have stopped “fighting” it.  This isn’t to say they’re just waiting for death, but rather they don’t feel like they’re turning into a new, worse person as they age, e.g. an attitude that says “I’m me, not because of the color of my hair or the limberness of my knees and I don’t stop being me when those change.”

    The ladies who never wanted to be called “Mrs. ____” because it made them feel old, who’ve botoxed and lipo’ed, who won’t wear a comfortable shoe because “it’s an old lady shoe” (i.e. it’s not a 4″ heel) — those are the ladies who will be irredeemably depressed.

  4. Edward Smith

    Never “accept” old age.  But do exercise your mind and body, and take your calcium supplements.

    Oh yes, as you age you have greater reason than ever to try and shape a future that is as bright and prosperous as possible.  The future is growing up in front of you.

    You won’t get to that Promised Land (you’ve already been living in yours) but you see who will.

    And take the time to enjoy jokes with punch lines that end in “Because they have Square Roots.”

    One-Big-Happy-Pole-Dancing.jpg

  5. Severely Ltd.

    So abandoning tradition wholesale and looking out for number one hasn’t resulted in happiness? Drugs, sex and rock-and-roll, the mantra of my generation, didn’t set our spirits free to soar into old age?

    Boomers are the generational Costanza’s. If you do the opposite of what we did, you can’t go far wrong.

  6. Edward Smith

    Dad:  “Son, go next door and see how Old Mrs.  Rommelschley is.”

    [Time passes]

    Son:  “Mrs. Rommelschley says she’s fine and it’s none of your business how old she is.”

    Amy Schley: I’d almost the opposite of Barkha — the older folks I know (and my Sunday School class average age was three times mine for a while) are the ones who have “accepted” old age and have stopped “fighting” it.  This isn’t to say they’re just waiting for death, but rather they don’t feel like they’re turning into a new, worse person as they age, e.g. an attitude that says “I’m me, not because of the color of my hair or the limberness of my knees and I don’t stop being me when those change.”

    The ladies who never wanted to be called “Mrs. ____” because it made them feel old, who’ve botoxed and lipo’ed, who won’t wear a comfortable shoe because “it’s an old lady shoe” (i.e. it’s not a 4″ heel) — those are the ladies who will be irredeemably depressed. · 6 minutes ago

  7. Schrodinger

    25 “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

    33 But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

    Matthew 6:25, 33-34

  8. David Williamson
    Emily Esfahani Smith: the key to aging gracefully and happily seems to lie in at least three factors: 1) working into old age rather than retiring 2) finding love and community and 3) accepting old age. 

    Yes – 1) is assured by my shrinking 401K. 2) Um, the less said about that the better. 3) Yep – that is the key. I find Yoga helps.

  9. Crow
    Emily Esfahani Smith: the key to aging gracefully and happily seems to lie in at least three factors: 1) working into old age rather than retiring 2) finding love and community and 3) accepting old age…. What do you think the secret to aging well is?

    Well, this is a long question indeed, and I don’t propose to answer it entirely now. But I will say this.

    My great aunt died in her very late 70s of lung cancer. My great uncle, a soldier and a police officer for much of his life, lives on (barely). He rarely speaks these days, but when he does it is of his children. Before she died, my great aunt only smiled when her children or grand children were mentioned–even her dying breaths couldn’t rob her of that height of mind.

    This to say: one of the factors that Emily’s list of three above omits, if I may be so bold, is family. This is even more emphatically the case for women. For them in particular, no “doctrine” can replace the power of this: grand children–their cares and their shining carelessness–makes almost anything bearable.

  10. Illiniguy

    It starts with accepting the fact that you aren’t going to attain all the ambitions of your youth and that those things you thought were for old folks are actually quite fulfilling. I’ve found that sitting under the apple tree by my garden reading a book gives me more pleasure than any pursuit I had in my youth. Had you asked me 30 years ago, I’d have laughed in your face.

    Of course, I’m a guy, so I wasn’t beaten over the head with the “you can have it all” culture of feminism. I think it’s a crime that so many women were snookered into thinking that they couldn’t have fulfillment by aiming lower. Small wonder that they now look back and see what might have been had they thought for themselves.

  11. doc molloy

    Accepting it and being content and in this fabulous digital age keeping abreast and seeking the truth from the fakery and rubbish being passed off as news, comment and opinion. It’s never too late to become an expert! It’s what we learn after we think we know it all that counts.. to counter those ‘who know more than they understand’ variety.

  12. Amy Schley
    Edward Smith: Dad:  “Son, go next door and see how Old Mrs.  Rommelschley is.”

    [Time passes]

    Son:  “Mrs. Rommelschley says she’s fine and it’s none of your business how old she is.”

    Edited 3 minutes ago

    8 minutes ago

    Let me put it this way — I daily get boomers complaining about how “it sucks to grow old,” or enjoining me to “never get old” — mostly as they’re facing the prospect of actually wearing *gasp* comfortable shoes such as I have worn since age twenty. The horror, the horror … 

    I normally shut them up by noting that growing old beats the alternative (dying young).  

    You don’t get a third option — you grow old or you die.  The sooner you accept that growing older means you’re still living, the happier you will be.

  13. RICHARD QUIGLEY
    “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

    Dylan Thomas

  14. Barkha Herman

    I guess I am in the minority here, since I still believe you can have it all.  However, I also understand that having all takes a lot of effort and I’d rather focus on those things I want most – including free time.

    Most of my friends who are in their 70s and 80s are active, they camp , they ride, climb, travel a lot.  The ones who retired and stayed home watching TV didn’t last for long (neighbors and friends parents).

    One of our friends (a couple) climbed the base camp of Everest in their late 60s.  The oldest climber in that group was 82.  

    My mom, who is in her late 60s, and a retired teacher, works as a volunteer teaching older women literacy in impoverished ares in India.  Her mother, a housewife, who believed she had served her purpose died in her early 60s.  My mom shows no signs of slowing down.

    I guess I just don’t know the liposuction / botox crowd. :-D. 

  15. Troy Senik, Ed.
    RICHARD QUIGLEY: “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

    Dylan Thomas · 1 minute ago

    I’ve always loved that poem … but it’s a bit ironic that it was written by a guy who drank himself to death at 39. At least he nailed the not going gently part.

  16. Nick Stuart

    1. Between the age of 17 and 70

    • Evaluate your decisions through the lens of “is doing this something I’m going to be proud of, or ashamed of?”

    • Don’t waste a lot of time on TV or gaming
    • Dont’ spend a lot of time on work or hobbies at the expense of your family

    2. Don’t vex yourself when you find out someone else has a dollar more than you have.

    Sensible shoes are always a good idea.

  17. Mama Toad

    Sorry, but I just came from a nursing home where I pray weekly with the residents. Many of them suffer from dementia.

    I hate dementia, although those suffering from it are still beautiful and lovable. One of my favorite ladies, an Italian artist who always tells me that the Blessed Mother loves me very much, did not know who I was today and asked me write my name down for her in her notebook. I smiled and hugged and kissed her, and her beautiful husband of many years, but once outside I wept. 

    If anyone deserves grace and peace it is this lady — orphaned at a young age, found love in America, raised a family, exquisite sense of color and beauty — but instead she has confusion and worry. I only hope that some of the love gets through. 

    None of us can say what will happen to us if we grow old, no matter what precautions we may take now — may we all be surrounded by loved ones who continue to care for us long past our usefulness to society or our ability to care for ourselves.

  18. Duane Oyen

    Silly artificial and superficial stuff like botox is/are useless. 

    But if you stay active and don’t let yourself go (i.e., lots of exercise and controlled eating, for example), plus avoiding self-destructive behaviors, hang around people and interact, there is no reason other than health bad luck to age rapidly.  Premature retirement is a recipe for becoming prematurely useless unless you have resources enabling a solid volunteering career.

    The prescription is easy for some, hard for others, just like the obvious avoid-poverty schematic (finish high school, don’t have kids till you marry first, stay out of debt).

  19. raycon and lindacon
    Paul Dougherty: Purpose.

    I don’t know if this is related but I cannot recall ever meeting parents of large families who are unhappy. Worried, tired somtimes, but they are rarely unhappy. · 1 hour ago

    To know the purpose of your life, and to live it, is the beginning of a graceful old age.  And, if you are living your life with purpose, then the age issue will simply go by, and the purpose will continue.  And then you can die knowing that you have been the person God created you to be.

    Sometimes dementia and Alzheimers comes along, and God redirects your purpose to bring blessing into the lives of others who are perhaps new to you, perhaps even every day.  Mama Toad has chosen the better way.  And now she finds her purpose in serving those whom God has brought to their last days.

  20. Douglas

    The most important thing is accepting that we all get old. This is natural. This is the way of things. God made it that way. Accept it.

    Accepting that we get old doesn’t mean giving up and dying. It simply means accepting that no amount of plastic surgery, sports cars, or younger women is going to change the fact that, yes, the bell tolls for you too. You’re going to get gray, wrinkled, and slow down. You can either accept that and adapt your life to it, or you can look utterly ridiculous with your Hair Club for Men and Viagra commercials. Mick Jagger is 70+, and he looks like an utter moron when he tries to be 19 again. Have some dignity. Dignity does not mean “grumpy and no fun”. But there are few things in this world more pathetic than the old man or woman desperately denying their age. Conservatives are happier in general later in life because they seem to be less prone to the cult of eternal youth that so enthralls liberals (especially Baby Boomers).