It’s All Relative
When I think of my age relative to my maternal grandmother’s when she passed away at 107, I’m good.
When I think of it relative to the average lifespan of a woman in the U.S. — 81 years — I’m still good.
So, with Nana as a role model for aging, why then was I anything but good in the years, days, and hours leading up to my 60th birthday? What would make me, someone who would do pretty much anything to avoid the dentist, be okay with the dollars, time, and pain involved in going through orthodontic treatment for 2 years — with the goal of being done by 60?
What would lead me, a woman with chicken arms, to start planking and set a goal of progressing from one 10-second plank to one 3-minute plank by the time I was 60?
Or to start doing push-ups (okay, wall push-ups) when I previously couldn’t do more than 10, with a goal of getting to 60 by 60?
WHAT. ON EARTH. GOT INTO ME?
The thought of me withered, needy, in a wheelchair, and eating pureed pears for dinner, that’s what.
Perception Is Everything — and Means Nothing
I’m not alone. As it turns out, most Americans perceive aging as a negative thing. That perception takes root when we’re kids . . . and never leaves.
An article in the Journals of Gerontology revealed that the stereotypes that kids internalize about it absolutely “carry with them expectations about their own aging process. When asked how they would feel about becoming an elderly person, 60% of these children gave responses rated as negative, including ‘I would feel awful.’” A study quoted in the article found that “among children aged four to seven, 66% mentioned that they prefer not to become old.”
Childhood is when this stereotype begins, but our culture reinforces the idea throughout our lives, and we continue to buy in. From the same article: “When individuals reach old age, the aging stereotypes internalized in childhood, and then reinforced for decades, become self-stereotypes.”
In other words, you’ve become that old person you were frightened of becoming.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The truth is that even when Nana was in her 60s, and still had 40-plus years to live, she seemed old to me. That was partly because of her habit of wearing homemade “housecoats” and open-toed shoes regardless of the season, and partly because of her hair color. But mostly, because she was just, well, old-fashioned.
If You Want to Live Longer, Think Happier
I wish I understood then what I do now: She may have looked old, but she never felt old. She was too busy living.
And that’s a good thing. According to Becca Levy, professor of public health (social and behavioral sciences) and psychology at Yale, you live longer if you have positive beliefs about aging. In fact, those who have negative beliefs die 7.5 years earlier than those who don’t.
Experts say that if you look at aging in a negative light even beginning in early adulthood, you’re more likely to develop major illnesses as early as your 60s.
Illness? Nana didn’t even get cavities. Okay, that’s not strictly true—she got one (seriously: one), and had it filled when she was in her 90s.
Could her longevity have been all in her genes? That might have had something to do with it.
But I’m thinking it was mostly in her thinking. Here are some women who have found original ways to be positive about aging:
Tell Yourself You’re 60 Before You Are
For me, around the eighth year of each decade, I think, in a resigned fashion, I’m 30, I’m 40, I’m 50. I may be resistant to “I’m 60,” but I have another year till I’m closing in on 58. The result is, by the time I actually do turn that age, I don’t really think about it too much. Louise
Celebrate Every Milestone
When I turned 30, I was sad that I wasn’t married, didn’t have children, and didn’t own a house. When I turned 40, I was glad I only owned a house. When I turned 50 and 60, I made them great celebrations—because that’s what they are! I like to think that I”m living my life to the fullest and will celebrate all these terrific milestones. Sherrie
Lie About Your Age, in Reverse
When I turned 59 all I could see was 60 right around the corner. How did that happen so fast? I knew I had to be in a “good place” by my 60th or it would be one of those soul-crushing milestones. Now I lie and tell people I’m 74...(even though I’m only 64)...it’s always good for an “OMG, you look fabulous” type of response. Barbara
Have Sex on the Beach
I celebrated my 60th in New Zealand, swimming with dolphins and wondering if this was really me doing that. I’m not an enthusiastic traveler, but I really wanted to go far away and do something way out of my comfort zone. Did I fret about turning 60? Probably, but I was more excited about 60 than I was about 40 or 50. Even though I was away from family and friends for this big one, my husband and I have fond memories of sharing dinner with strangers who would become friends in the moment. I swam, I hiked on a glacier, had sex on the (deserted!) beach, saw the stars of the Southern Hemisphere, and was surrounded by beauty every single day. Not sure how to top that for the next big one, but I have a year and a half to think about it. But in light of current events, 70 will mean some serious evaluation and reflection. When does “old” really start? Are we there yet? Should I get another tattoo? Will I need another hip? Lots to think about. Risa
The Hardest Part Is the Part Before
The night before I turned 60, I called my older brother.
“I can’t believe I’m turning 60,” I said.
“The day before is torture,” he said. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”
I waited up until midnight. I didn’t feel any different. So I wondered what time, exactly, I was born. I called my mother, now well into her 80s, to ask. She couldn’t recall. “Maybe around 2 a.m.?”she said.
I stayed up until 2 a.m.
After Is a Piece of Cake
At 2 a.m., it was like New Year’s Eve. All the hype and then seconds later, it was just . . . done.
And miraculously, nothing on my body looked different when I woke up, although I was fairly convinced I would find that my skin had all puddled around my feet.
I did celebrate the occasion, pandemic style, which involved a three-hour Zoom with friends from all phases and stages of my life. And I had cake. There must be cake.
Control Is a Motivator
As for those goals of having straight teeth and getting stronger?
I accomplished them all. Turns out, it was a good distraction. I guess I needed something to prove I had control over my body.
We are mortal. And mortals decline. But we don’t need to fear it. We just need to remind ourselves that we are mighty, we are stronger than we think, and, as long as we keep moving forward, we are lucky as hell to have the chance.
A Short, Happy Guide to Turning 60, Sort of
But really, all you 59ers, it’s going to be okay.
It’s All Relative