Candid interviews on aging — Part I: Definitions, fears, and the attractiveness question
A New York Daily News article on men and women and aging (Aging a concern for many Americans, but harder for women: poll) breaks down a poll of 2,000 American adults commissioned by Allure magazine. The results: women are generally more concerned than men about their physical appearance as they age.
No surprise, considering what marketing and the general media have done (and continue to do) to cement the standard of beauty among women as young and excessively thin. (See Kasey L. Serdar’s analysis of media’s contribution to women’s “normative discontent”: Female Body Image and the Mass Media: Perspectives on How Women Internalize the Ideal Beauty Standard.)
But there’s more to aging — including fears about aging and the reality of having aged — than how men and women feel about their looks and/or sex appeal. For instance, how do adults in their 30s and 40s perceive those generally agreed upon to be “old”? What age is “old” to those in their 30s and 40s, and what age do “old” people think is old? How do old people feel they are perceived?
An informal interview with 19 people, eight of them between the ages of 30 and 45 and the remaining eleven over the age of 59, reveals a nuanced perspective of how individuals feel about aging, as well as what age is believed to be “old” — a number that for several seemed to get higher as they got older.
The names of the interview subjects were chosen by them. Some are their real names, and some aren’t. Every person’s answer to every question will not be included here, but I did my best with the selected answers to show the range of responses to the questions.
This is a two-part series. Part II will focus on perceptions of aging/the aged, to include beliefs in (and reactions to) stereotypes, and what the older interview subjects think about young people calling them “cute.”
The first question went to the older group.
When you were a teenager, what age did you think was old?
SE VERMAAS, 60: I actually thought anyone with white hair and wrinkles was old, but the number was probably age 60 and up.
MARIE, 64: Thirty to 35.
BOB RIDPATH, 59: Certainly my parents and their peer group, who would have been late 40s to mid-50s during my teen years.
DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: Over 30.
CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: Seventy.
ROY, 81: Sixty-five.
What age do you now think is ‘old’?
SE VERMAAS, 60: Seventy-five.
MARIE, 64: Ninety.
BOB RIDPATH, 59: I have arrived at the cusp of being ‘old,’ I think, although I still try to defer that reality to a still-later time: perhaps 70 or 72. I don’t get things like ‘Fifty is the new 30,’ or whatever. Fifty is still 50, as nearly as I can tell.
DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: In some ways, I acknowledge that my own age is old, and some days I feel it. But generally it’s a decade or so in the future.
CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: Eighty.
ROY, 81: Ninety to 95.
Others in the 59+ group answering the first question — “When you were a teenager, what age did you think was old?” — shared an early opinion of old age that had little to do with a number.
When you were a teenager, what age did you think was old?
CHAR, 75: My parents were 40 when I was born. A 90-year-old grandmother was in our home for my first 10 years. I considered other parents as young but don’t recall thinking mine were “old.” So this is an impossible question for me to answer.
GRAMMYOF5, 69: I didn’t think much about age. It was more appearance and behavior. I do remember thinking that my mother was the oldest 50-year-old woman I knew. She always acted old and infirm, and I knew that I didn’t want to be like her.
DEANNA, 64: I honestly can’t remember thinking about “old” much, except I thought my grandmother was old, though she was only my age when she died and I was 19. So, I suppose I considered grandparents old.
JEAN TURNER, 76: I really don’t think I thought about it much. Although my mother would have been in her mid-50s when I was a teenager and she was full of life, she seemed “old” in the sense that women then didn’t exercise much, wore rather dowdy clothes, and didn’t have great hairstyles.
But, on the other hand, my mother was fully engaged in her work, reading, current events, friends, and family until her death. In that sense she seemed young to me. My grandmother, who was in her 90s, lived with us, and while she didn’t do much she wasn’t sick or infirm and had a sparkle in her eyes.
When asked the second question — “What age do you now think is old”? — a couple of the answers from the 59+ group were numbers-oriented, but age as a behavior or state of mind still dominated.
What age do you now think is “old”?
CHAR, 75: Eighty-five and older.
GRAMMYOF5: Twenty years older than I am.
Most of my friends are pretty snappy dressers and know how to make the most of their hair and figure. My friends are smart, engaged in the world, and fun to be with. There are others who seem “old” because they complain a lot about physical problems and are boring to be with — but I don’t spend much time with them. — Jean Turner, 76
DEANNA, 64: Now I don’t consider old a particular age, but a physical age. When someone’s feeble, I consider them old. I know people 20 years older than me who are healthy, active, and still riding motorcycles with only two wheels. They may be in their 80s, but I don’t think of them as old.
JEAN TURNER, 76: Today I consider “old” more a state of mind. There are people I know in their 80s who are cute, fun, and lively. Most of my friends are pretty snappy dressers and know how to make the most of their hair and figure. My friends are smart, engaged in the world, and fun to be with. There are others who seem “old” because they complain a lot about physical problems and are boring to be with — but I don’t spend much time with them. Most of my friends I would not consider old. At the same time, almost everybody I know is dealing with something major — maybe some health problems, and almost everybody has family issues to worry about.
The 30 to 45 group was then asked the same question.
What age do you think is ‘old’?
SARAH, 36: Eighties.
EMILY, 31: It’s a moving target because of where my parents’ ages are. I don’t consider them “old” even though they are in their early 60s. So if I have to pin a number, 65 to 70.
HELEN BROOM, 37: I think of 70 as old, late 70s, 75 and up.
SONIA, 30: I used to joke with my mother that no one is old until they turn 100. I guess “old” is anywhere after 80?
MIA, 30: I feel like 60 is pretty old. Neither of my parents is that old, yet.
ASHLEY, 34: Now it is 40. Once I hit 40, I’ll feel “old.” Whatever decade marker is ahead of me will seem “old” to me.
MIKE, 39: Ninety.
K.C., 45: Seventy, give or take a couple decades.
Because our magazines, commercials, movies, and television shows place so much emphasis on youth — and on beauty being reliant upon a youthful appearance (primarily in women) — I was curious to know whether attractiveness was an issue for the older group.
Has personal attractiveness and/or a change in your physical appearance been an issue for you as you’ve aged?
STEVE, 66: Not really. Luckily, I look younger than my years. Besides, there aren’t too may alternatives to aging.
SE VERMAAS, 60: It’s been major. Less eye contact, few opportunities to flirt, this has been devastating. I sometimes feel that simple friendliness comes off as creepy and I never mean to be like that.
MARIE, 64: No, no issue. If anything, it’s liberating. I think I look like a 64-year-old woman and that’s fine.
ROB RIDPATH, 59: It is something of which I’m aware but not sure I’d identify it as an “issue.” Two stories to illustrate:
(1) Out on a training day walking with one of my coworkers when an attractive young lady approached from the opposite direction. We both scanned her appreciatively and she returned the glance. There was a quick moment when she focused on me but it was cursory, dismissive and obvious. She lingered much longer and more appreciatively on my younger coworker who was more nearly her age. It was the first time I’d noticed such.
Conversely, there was a much older woman than I enjoying an ice cream at the restaurant where we ate lunch that day. Somehow she only had eyes for me. I was as uninterested in the 80-something year old as the 30-something had been in me. My coworkers enjoyed the whole thing immensely.
(2) Self-image takes time to embrace reality. Until recently, the guy I “saw” in the mirror (tho’ obviously older than he once was) was more closely viewed as a “younger man.” The harsh reality of a photograph sometimes surprised me with the clear dichotomy between what I “believed” or felt like and the obvious reality.
DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: Not too much. I’ve been lucky; my hair is still only half gray and I’m not balding, though it’s thinned some. Sometimes I dye it back to black for a terrific mood boost! I’m also lucky in that good genes, a largely Mediterranean diet, and regular exercise have kept me strong and in good physical shape.
CHAR, 75: Not much of an issue as I’ve never put much value on looking younger than my years. I’m happy that I’ve been blessed with good aging genes. I look at the smile wrinkles and feel blessed to have had so much to smile about.
GRAMMYOF5, 69: Not too much, yet. I’m blessed with incredible genes on both sides of my family. My mother had smooth skin when she died at 85. Even my dermatologist is impressed. My waist is thicker than I wish it were, and gravity has taken its toll on my breasts and butt. Getting bras and pants that fit is an ongoing challenge.
DEANNA, 64: Yes. Each time I look in the mirror, I see myself as I must have looked several years ago. It’s as if there is an overlay on the face I see, keeping the age from me. I notice this especially when I see pictures of myself taken recently. Who is that old lady? It’s me! When did I start looking old?
I don’t see this woman when I look in the mirror. It’s very odd and I realize that romance will probably be very infrequent in the future, based on my limited potential in the looks department.
JEAN TURNER, 76: No, I think I look pretty good. I’m really in good shape (knock on wood) and lucky not to have any physical problems — no bad knees or hips, no complaints at all. Most of my life I wanted to lose ten pounds but now I really don’t have to worry about it — weigh just what I want to. I have enough money to buy attractive clothes and get my hair done.
The younger group was asked to consider changes in their own looks as they age.
How heavily does the fear of losing the appearance of youth/attractiveness weigh when you think about aging?
SARAH, 36: It used to weigh heavily, but I think less about it. I think if anything I worry about my marketability in the work force as I age and lose physical attractiveness.
EMILY, 31: Not at all. I actually don’t really think about that in any way at this point in my life. When I got married one of the things that was really important to me was that I was able to connect intellectually with my future spouse on a level so much more than sexually, because eventually when you’re old and wrinkled, and the sex is gone, you’re just going to want someone to talk to.
I don’t feel I’m especially beautiful now, and I’ve never gotten by on my looks, so losing it isn’t so daunting for me. — Sonia, 30
HELEN BROOM, 37: There was a point in my life when this used to weigh on me quite heavily, but being in a happy, comfortable relationship, which is based more on mental and spiritual attractiveness than physical attractiveness, I don’t mind it. And if, God forbid, that relationship were to end in some way, I’ve really made my peace with my body and my image, the things that fulfill me have nothing to do with how I look on the outside any more.
SONIA, 30: Almost not at all. I don’t feel I’m especially beautiful now, and I’ve never gotten by on my looks, so losing it isn’t so daunting for me. I am terrified of losing my mind, though. That is the most precious thing I own.
MIA, 30: I am already noticing little things, the “frown” line on my forehead, the inability of my skin to “spring” back when I touch it sometimes. I am not sure that I am going to be able to do this gracefully. I try to take good care of myself and enjoy the body that I’m in, but I have always been kind of critical of my appearance and will probably continue to be over the course of my life.
ASHLEY, 34: I am afraid of losing my hair, but other than that I don’t have many fears. It’s just going to happen. It happens to everybody.
K.C., 45: I’m not sure I even understand the question.
Fear of a changing appearance was not a factor for most of the younger group, so they were asked what they did fear about aging.
What do you fear or least look forward to about reaching “old”?
SARAH, 36: I’m worried about being unable to move, confined to a wheelchair, having to rely on others for basic needs.
EMILY, 31: It’s a toss-up between failing health or all my friends/family dying and being the only one left.
HELEN BROOM, 37: Having my spouse die before me, or me dying first and leaving him alone.
SONIA, 30: I really don’t want to be the last of my friends to kick the bucket. It happened to my grandmother, and I think she often felt very lonely. I would not want that at all. It’s the isolation that so many elders feel that scares me the most. Our grandmother lived with us, but many don’t have that luxury. I would hate to feel so abandoned.
MIA, 34: I am afraid of pain! Bad knees, arthritis, and bad varicose veins run in my family, and I am already feeling them now. I am scared of things like knee replacement surgery, which my grandma had done to both knees, and depending on medication to control my arthritis, which my dad is already doing. I am a pain wuss.
I think I am also afraid of living with any more regret. I am coming to terms with a lot of mistakes that I made throughout the last decade of my life, and it has been hard to work through.
ASHLEY, 34: I am afraid of having to be taken care of, of losing my independence. I’m afraid of my body breaking down. I have led an active life and am already feeling the effects of some of my sports injuries from snowboarding and motocross. I am afraid of losing my independence sooner because of those accidents.
MIKE, 39: Losing my mind — like Alzheimer’s. I can handle losing stuff, but if I finally get to a place where I’m enjoying life and eating better and exercising more and drinking less — only to have some disease take my mind from me, that would be devastating (but, I guess I wouldn’t have the sense to know that, huh?).
K.C., 45: That my wife might go first. Or my brains might get scrambled. I don’t think I could handle either.
Those who self-identify as old were also asked what they feared about aging when they were younger. Most said they didn’t think much about it at all when they were younger, but a few had some early experiences that forced them to consider it in one way or another.
I thought I would die young, but I surprised even myself. Also, I was raised Catholic, and I thought the coolest thing to do, as an early devoutly Catholic teenager, would be to die as a virgin martyr. — Marie, 64
When you were young, what fears, if any, did you have about getting “old”?
SE VERMAAS, 60: I didn’t consider getting old and never worried about it; however, when I was around six years old, my great grandmother died. I asked my mother, “What happens when people die?” She told me that nobody knows . . . this shook me to the core of my being. In the innocence of my very young age, I had assumed adults knew everything.
MARIE, 64: I didn’t have any fears because I thought I would die young, but I surprised even myself. Also, I was raised Catholic, and I thought the coolest thing to do, as an early devoutly Catholic teenager, would be to die as a virgin martyr.
GRAMMYOF5, 69: I don’t specifically recall any fears about getting old. Perhaps there is comfort in denial? As my mother-in-law declined with dementia, I knew that I didn’t like that part of aging. Fortunately, dementia doesn’t run in my family. I remember watching my 85-year-old aunt striding along, straight & tall and walking quickly without any assistance, and thinking what a great role model she was.
DEANNA, 64: The only thoughts about getting old that I had were that I thought I would live to be very, very old — at least 100. I was very healthy, so I couldn’t imagine there would anything that would keep me from that destiny.
CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: I do not ever remember thinking about getting old when I was young. I’ve never had a fear about growing old, probably because of the good health God has given me. I stopped smoking in my late 30s and by the time I was in my 50s realized that I needed to improve my diet if I were going to live longer, and I have.
Curious about whether the fears expressed by the younger group end up being the complaints we have when we’re older, I asked the older group what they like least about being their age.
What do you least enjoy about being your age?
STEVE, 66: Being less capable physically. Many of the sports I used to play are out of the question now.
SE VERMAAS, 60: The stark reality that life is not going to last forever. I don’t want to leave my loved ones.
MARIE, 64: My body betraying me.
ROB RIDPATH, 59: Aches and pains, on a daily basis. The closer reality of my death and a world that will go on without me. On those occasional times I become more introspective.
DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: Dental issues and the decline in total physical energy.
CHAR, 75: I don’t enjoy having to go to the bathroom frequently and often don’t make it if I’ve waited too long. This makes me dread the airplane trip I’m embarking on. I have little control over gas and farting.
GRAMMY OF FIVE, 69: My physical limits. Decreasing balance and muscle strength. Needing a nap and losing wonderful afternoon time that could be used for other things besides sleeping.
DEANNA, 64: Looking old, not running as much as I used to, and realizing my romantic potential is slowing considerably.
JEAN TURNER, 76: Realizing that I’m in the last trimester of my life.
CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: Can’t think of anything.
ROY, 81: Some loss of strength and endurance.
What do you most look forward to about reaching “old”?
SARAH, 36: I look forward to just being, no agenda, smelling flowers and sitting in the sun.
EMILY, 31: The wisdom acquired through the years, being able to retire and travel. Hopefully the ability to not give a shit what other people think of me.
HELEN BROOM, 37: I’m looking forward to having raised my kids, to have time on my own to travel, and enjoy growing old with my husband. I dream of getting an RV and going cross country, of spending time in Europe and elsewhere, and not having to rush around trying to remember who has a doctor’s appointment, who needs a ride to basketball practice, etc. I’m actually really looking forward to getting old. Or at least retired.
I feel like depending on my health, it will be like a second wind of freedom. — Mia, 30
SONIA, 30: To be honest, not much. Thinking on it, too many families treat their elderly members as burdens for me to looking forward to being there all that much. I hope that I might have achieved financial freedom before I’m 80, though…
MIA, 30: I feel like depending on my health, it will be like a second wind of freedom. I have a happy relationship, and I look forward to pursuing new hobbies with my husband and traveling together. I look forward to having more time to pursue my own hobbies, like crafting and sewing. I enjoy parenting, but it is exactly what they say, “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.” I do look forward to taking a supporting role as opposed to a guidance and facilitator role.
ASHLEY, 34: I look forward to not working anymore, and being surrounded by my family and hopefully having grandkids.
MIKE, 39: I sure hope that when I get “old” I can finally take a deep breath and look at my son and his successes and say “I finally did it” and die happy.
K.C., 45: Time. Growing older offers the significant advantage of giving you more time on the planet.
The older group was asked to share what they like about being older.
What do you most enjoy about being your age?
STEVE, 66: I’m retired, I’m not incapacitated, and I’m not dead.
SE VERMAAS, 60: That I still have people to love that love me back.
MARIE, 64: The inner peace and comfort. I don’t get rattled about things like I used to.
ROB RIDPATH, 59: Being “alive?” I am a self-determining adult who drives, enjoys a drink from time to time, and pretty much is able to do whatever I want, within the confines of society. I don’t know that there is anything I would relate specifically to being this particular age. The things I enjoy would likely relate to anyone over the age of majority (I think).
DARIO CIRIELLO, 61: Enhanced insight, understanding, perspective, and patience.
CHAR, 75: Not having any responsibility for anyone except myself. Everything I do is on my own terms. My friends are very special, and ones who have chosen me as I have chosen them.
GRAMMYOF5, 69: My time is pretty much my own. I’m in good health and can travel & do things with friends and family. I have the confidence to be myself and enjoy it. I don’t have to suffer fools if I don’t want to.
DEANNA, 64: I enjoy the time I’ve had to acquire knowledge and information. Each year I’m alive, I’ve become more aware. I’ve realized that learning is lifelong and I am happy that I’ve had 64 years to add to my experiences and knowledge. Much is used for work, but I’ve become more active in politics and my life has taught me to be open to what works and what doesn’t. I feel totally comfortable in my opinions based on my research and many adventures.
JEAN TURNER, 76: I enjoy knowing what the score is — that is, having figured out a lot about what is important in life. I also have the satisfaction of knowing that I did well in my career, marriage, raising children and grandchildren, and that I handled the slings and arrows that came my way pretty well.
CHARLES DUNCAN, 78: Continuing to enjoy all the things God has graciously and generously provided me all my life.
ROY, 81: Being healthy and being able to do the many things that I like to do.
Are you afraid of or looking forward to getting “old”? What scares you, or what do you look forward to? If you identify as old, has the experience been what you imagined it would be?
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novel THE AGE OF THE CHILD: When a pro-life amendment to the Constitution leads to a ban on birth control and abortion, politicians find babies abandoned on their doorsteps — and that’s just the beginning. “A powerful indictment about an all-too-possible United States. Tsetsi’s prose is luminous; it puts the lie to such corrupt and immoral political acts, and does so via an exciting drama that illuminates the hypocrisies of our time without flinching.” — Alan Davis, author of So Bravely Vegetative and Senior Editor Emeritus of New Rivers Press