On Monday (July 23) Americans will celebrate Gorgeous Grandma Day – at least those who are familiar with the holiday. I knew nothing about GG Day until my oldest granddaughter Natalie ran across it while doing some online sleuthing a couple of months ago. The celebration of older women’s beauty is a heartening concept, in light of the mistaken yet tenacious belief that age and beauty are mutually exclusive. However, in places where elders are revered, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. And the Japanese have a term (shibui) for a particular kind of natural and unobtrusive beauty that deepens with age.

Unlike flawless or flashy beauty that draws attention to itself, shibui is characterized by beautiful imperfection, effortlessness, elegant simplicity, and understatement. It is apparent in weathered wood and stones, simple handmade pottery, the bark and bend of ancient trees, and in the faces of many elders.

The British film Calendar Girls presents a refreshingly affirming view of older women’s beauty, inspired by the statement of one of the characters, a man in midlife: “The flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire—the last stage of their growth is the most glorious.” Rather than worrying about “losing our looks” as we age, we can broaden our definition of beauty and perhaps even celebrate some of the changes, like Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers: “I wish all my peers could enjoy their wrinkles as much as I enjoy mine. I regard them as badges of distinction that I have worked hard for.”

Asian Woman Smiling

William Shakespeare observed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and we can learn to recognize and appreciate shibui. The fresh beauty of youth is a delight and is easy to appreciate. But the fine lines at the corners of older eyes and those that reflect decades of laughter (and even distress) reveal a person’s character and life story, adding texture and richness that are also beautiful.

The kind of beauty that comes with age shines from the inside out, and the winter of life offers some of the most potent beauty secrets available: growing self-acceptance, a deepening sense of connectedness with all of life (gero-transcendence), humor and gratitude (dimensions of late-life contentment), playful engagement (emancipated innocence), increasing kindness and compassion toward self and others, savoring small pleasures and living one’s genuine priorities (late-life paring down and selectivity), and making peace with ourselves and the life we have lived through a process called the life review. These trends and tasks of later life may not preserve youthful prettiness, but they do radiate beauty.

Our attitudes toward aging are also a major factor in how well (and how beautifully) we age.  In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vibrant old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. He observes, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”

An optimistic outlook—about aging in particular and about life in general—is also essential for radiance in later life. Negative attitudes toward growing old are easily and often unconsciously absorbed, and they restrict our sense of what is possible. On the other hand, the combination of affirming our age, realistically facing limits, and remaining focused on what is now possible, engenders vitality.

Smiling Woman Portrait

In Secrets of Becoming a Late Bloomer Connie Goldman and Richard Mahler observe, “The sensation of being fully alive, spirited, and aware in later life is not a function of being young in the chronological sense. . . . The secret of remaining truly youthful means tapping into . . . the winning combination of a fresh, optimistic outlook with the kind of wisdom and self-knowledge that comes with each passing day. . . . An attitude that accepts change and encourages growth can be a guiding force in remaining healthy, upbeat, and invigorated, whatever the date on your birth certificate.”

Openness and optimism enhance our lives as we age, and they create a beautiful radiance. As Richard Rohr suggests in Falling Upward, “Just watch true elders sitting in any circle of conversation . . . This is human life in its crowning . . . All you have to do is meet one such shining person and you know that he or she is surely the goal of humanity.”

One of the more surprising things I’ve learned about aging is that older people are generally happier than younger ones. Several studies, drawing on data from dozens of countries, have confirmed that life satisfaction tends to follow a U-shaped curve across adulthood: contentment is fairly high in young adulthood, slowly drops and hits a low point at about fifty, and then steadily climbs to new heights in later life. Other factors, such as good-enough health, an optimistic outlook, and environmental support play a role in fostering late-life happiness, yet age itself is a friend of contentment. Long years often bring a maturing and mellowing of perspective, and changes in the aging brain also play a role in late-life well being.

Long years bring a rich store of experiences from which we can learn the art of living, so long as our minds, eyes, and ears stay open, and our hearts remain teachable. Reflecting on our experience, over time, enables us to see more clearly and deeply into life as it is, rather than through the filter of our unexamined opinions, desires, and expectations about how things should be.

From the perspective afforded by decades of living, we recognize that the human journey is far more complex, paradoxical, and unpredictable than it may once have seemed. We learn that there are multiple ways of viewing situations, that we do not always know what is right or best, and that actions may not always have the desired effect. Whereas it may once have seemed fairly simple to distinguish good from bad experiences, with age we come to appreciate the many shades of gray and the wide array of paradoxes and puzzlements that are the stuff of life.

Senior Couple On Bicycles

Such post operational thinking enables us to stand back and view situations with greater clarity and equanimity. And as we move beyond oversimplified, either-or vision and its inevitable companion, Certainty, we become less reactive and more discerning about when to act and when to “let be.”

My mother grew more and more content as she aged, and she knew a lot about letting be. (She was also gusty and could be quite a force at times.) About two years before her death, I was visiting one day and asked how she was doing. Instead of her usual response (“wonderful” or “really good,”) she said, “Pretty good.” When I urged her to tell me more, she added, “There are some things going on around here that I don’t much like.” When I asked, “What things?” she paused and confided with a shy smile, “I don’t remember.” We both laughed at that, and then I asked what she did when there was something going on that she didn’t like.

She thought for a moment and said, “Well, first I see if there’s anything I can do about it, and if there is, I do it. And if there isn’t, I let it go.” Years later, I realized that was a wonderful recipe for contentment.

Nepal Woman

Denbelitsky/Bigstock.com

Despite the inevitable losses of late life, emotions like sadness and anger become more muted and less frequent with age, while the capacity for joy, delight, wonder, and gratitude often deepens. One reason for this shift is the tendency for the emotion-processing centers of the brain (the amygdalae) to become less reactive with age, especially to negative emotional stimuli.

In one study, psychologist Mara Mather and her associates showed younger and older adults negative and positive imagery and noticed significant differences between the two age groups, in terms of brain activity, emotional experience, and recall. Brain scans revealed that elders’ amygdalae were less responsive to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. In addition, older participants reported fewer negative emotions during the session and were more likely to recall positive imagery afterward, compared to younger participants.

Changes in the brain and in our perspective support the development of what some gerontologists call the emotional mastery of later life: the ability to recognize and regulate our emotions and to express them in nonharming ways. Our responses to other people and to life events tend to mature and become more adaptive, flexible, and kind. With age, for example, we are less likely under stress to blame or turn against others and more likely to try to understand and find meaning or humor in a difficult situation. Summarizing a number of studies with adults over sixty-five, Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner notes, “With age people can more readily move in and out of different emotional states . . . [and] report experiencing more freedom and control during emotional experiences.”

The calming of the aging brain, the broadening and maturing of our perspective, and the growth of emotional mastery enhance our own happiness, which is a blessing in itself. More importantly, these same late-life developments, coupled with long years of experience and learning, also contribute to the growth of another late-life gift that the human family desperately needs  – wisdom – which is the capacity to sense the best course of action in important, complex, and uncertain situations.

In many places, older adults are respected, even revered. The Japanese, for example, regard their elders as “national treasures” and even have a word—shibui—for the beauty of age. And in societies where elders are valued, “You look old today” is actually a compliment. But where youth is the yardstick and age is mistakenly equated with devastating decline, we learn to dread getting old, which creates a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

One reason for the misunderstanding of age as a problem is that the earliest studies of late life took place in hospitals with elders who were sick, which led to an overemphasis on the losses of late life. That “misery perspective” colored our collective view of aging for decades. But more recent research has established that aging is not an inevitable slide into misery and that the things we most fear about being old are the exception, not the rule. Most people over 65, for example, do not suffer from severe dementia or debilitating frailty. In fact, most of the losses that were once considered inevitable in later life are the result of inactivity and illness–not years–and can be prevented, delayed, or offset by not smoking, by regular exercise, and other health-friendly practices.

Best of all, we now know that age brings us many gifts; here are just a few examples: Older people are generally happier than younger ones. Starting in midlife, we become more comfortable with who we are – imperfections and all – and in turn, grow more tolerant of others. Aging has a “mellowing effect” on the brain, making us less reactive and better able to manage our emotions and express them nonharming ways (emotional mastery).

Many older people also report a deepening sense of belonging to something greater than themselves (gero-transcendence) and an increasing willingness to “let go and let be,” rather than needing to have things go their way. And the spontaneous return of long-forgotten memories urges us to review our life – to find the threads of meaning and cohesiveness that have run through it and to accept ourselves and the life we have lived as “good enough.”

In the late autumn of his life, William Butler Yeats experienced a joyful epiphany: “My body of a sudden blazed/And twenty minutes more or less/It seemed so great my happiness/That I was blessed and could bless.”  To reflect on our years and recognize that we are blessed is one of the sweetest gifts of age. And it is intertwined with a second: to know that we are capable of blessing others. In fact, that is our task and our privilege. The traditional role of the elder is to bless the young, and age gives us the tools we need to do that – self-acceptance, tolerance of others’ foibles, contentment, emotional mastery, a deep sense of connection and belonging, and long years in the school of wisdom, which is human life.

 

Artist: Suzanne de Veuve

 

Welcome to the first in a series of blogs about the surprising gifts of later life. Like most of us raised in our youth-oriented and age-fearing culture, my view of aging was pretty sketchy. I was blessed with wonderful grandparents as a child, and my mother became even more remarkable as she aged. But a series of events made me aware that although their being old hadn’t been a problem for me, my own impending oldness was. Knowing I was not alone in my dread, at age 54 when someone referred to me as a crone, I unexpectedly found myself looking for good news about growing old.

All I really knew about the crone was that she was old and that she was the devourer aspect of the ancient triple goddess – not very promising in terms of good news. But since that was all I had to go on, I began reading myths from around the world and was surprised and delighted by the old women I discovered there. Some were devourers, but they were not senselessly or solely destructive. Kali and Asase-Yaa (Old Woman Earth), for example, are still worshipped as mothers of both life and death in India and parts of west Africa. And other grandmother goddesses were not destroyers at all. The Beautiful Old Woman in Red Garments, as she was called, taught the Chinese the arts of cooking, herbology, and medicine. And the African goddess Mawu co-created the world and is also known as the Old Woman of the West who brings the cooling western winds. Most surprising, in both Celtic and Aztec mythology, the goddess of sexuality was an old woman: Sheila na Gig and Tlazolteotl.

Turning next to folktales – stories of ordinary people, not gods and goddesses – I discovered a multitude of audacious, courageous, contented, compassionate, ingenious, patient, and wise old characters. These stories and myths were revealing some exciting possibilities for aging, and it became important to share what I was finding. The tipping point that led to my writing Winter’s Graces was the discovery that a growing body of recent research in gerontology, neuroscience, human development, and other fields, was confirming that these same wonderful qualities apparent in the stories do tend to ripen with age.

For example, Ruth Richards, Gene Cohen, and others’ research into late life creativity confirms the elder’s remarkable capacity for finding ingenious and effective solutions to complex and important problems. The older characters’ apparent contentment, even in trying circumstances, reflects what gerontologists call the emotional mastery of late life, the mellowing of the aging brain, and the increasing levels of happiness among older adults, as compared to younger ones. And the simple lives of these characters corresponds to the late-life trend described by Erik Erikson and others to pare down one’s life, to relinquish non-essentials, and to devote oneself to what holds the most value and meaning – whether that entails pursuing a long-deferred dream, being a compassionate,  non-violent advocate for those suffering injustice, or completing important unfinished business with significant others and coming to terms with the life one has lived.

Artist: Suzanne de Veuve

It has taken over fifteen years of growing older myself, of reading and research, of observing and listening to elders, of writing and rewriting – as well as the help of many student assistants, librarians, colleagues, friends, and my older granddaughters – to finish Winter’s Graces: The Surprising Gifts of Later Life. In these blogs, like the book, I’ll pass on some good news about growing old, with the hope that it will help replace the dread of aging with a more heartening (and accurate) view of later life. May more and more of us come to value our age and step into our elder shoes, for the sake of the human family that so desperately needs the steady, ingenious, courageous, compassionate wisdom of its grandmothers and grandfathers.

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