This week, feminist and activist Gloria Steinem turns eighty. She's still writing, traveling, and speaking. She gave an interview to the New York Times in which she explains her birthday celebration plans. They included a "This is What 80 Looks Like" benefit fundraiser for the Shalom Center of Philadelphia, followed by a trip to Botswana, including an elephant ride.
Steinem is honest about her age, and while she colors her hair, she hasn't succumbed to changing her face or wrinkles. She is still very actively involved in her causes. I wonder if it keeps her younger. It's wonderful that she feels such as sense of purpose at 80.
As more of us can expect to live longer, into our 80's and 90's, we have an opportunity to consider how we want to approach aging.
Here are some things to consider:
1.Your energy level changes, often by 50 and beyond. How can you learn to pace yourself, take rest breaks, and focus on the most important things to be spending your time on? One challenge is adjusting your physical activities as you age. As Michelle Obama turned 50 this year, she shifted from cardio work outs to more of a focus on flexibility, with activities like yoga. Having a social network that encourages movement is helpful, too.
2.What can you do to still stay active mentally? Use it or lose it is the key principle. Staying involved with other people is important, and not isolating. Steinem is a good role model in this way, by continuing to stay involved actively in issues and causes she cares about. I always want to explore with my patients who are considering retirement, "What are you retiring to do?"
3. The research team using the 8 decade study started by Dr. Lewis Terman from Stanford University and follow up studies by Dr. Howard Friedman and Dr. Leslie Martin, show that people who have a purpose, and a life path with an active pursuit of their goals live longer. A larger social network, giving to your community, and building and maintaining a close marriage and/or friendships can add both more years and more life satisfaction. These life decisions also help individuals bounce back sooner from disappointments and loss. Friedman and Martin term it creating a "persistent, consequential, and social life".
4. Establish social and emotional ties. In both men and women, having the ability to maintain close relationships helps you live longer. While Steinem married once late in her life and is now widowed, in this Sunday's interview with Steinem in the New York Times, she mentions that she has a cherished network of friends around the world that she stays in frequent contact with. She has known many of them for many years since the Feminist movement began in the 1960's.
5. Developing your spirituality, faith, or religious beliefs can also increase life span. Friedman and Martin suppose that is has to do with the health benefits of prayer and meditation.
Developing multiple facets of ourselves, and a life that has several sources of meaning can help us transition more successfully as we move across the lifespan. If too much of our self-esteem is caught up in physical attractiveness or a high energy level, it puts us at risk for more difficulty with the aging process. Aging well is more than denying it, or botoxing out expression lines. Aging well means continuing to find our purpose and staying connected to others. Wrinkles and loss happen automatically as we age but wisdom, contribution, and connectedness are all choices.
(Note: The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight Decade Study, by Friedman and Martin (Plume Books,2012) is an interesting read.)