Aging gracefully is possible for all older people. It comes down to attitude, not what you look like or what activities you can or cannot do. Of course, today’s seniors don’t have a manual for how to act in the later stages of life, nor do they have many great role models.
As a society, we’re still in relatively new territory when it comes to answering the question, “What is aging gracefully?” In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47 years old. And as recently as 1950, it was only 58.
So for generations, most people with gray hair were considered “old.” Today, that’s no longer the case. We can make our own rules now. You grow old gracefully by choosing your own attitude and approach to change. Everyone is different. We all have unique challenges and strengths.
What Does It Mean to Age Gracefully?
“Don’t regret growing older. It’s a privilege denied to many.” Nobody is sure who first uttered those words, but the sentiment is timeless. Although we’re often surrounded by messages telling us that aging is a negative experience, growing older isn’t a bad thing (especially considering the alternative).
In fact, our overall happiness levels tend to rise with age. One reason might be that we typically face fewer stressors related to work and relationships as we grow older. But psychologists also speculate that we acquire a more balanced perspective through hard-earned experience.
Growing awareness of our own mortality may help us appreciate our lives more, instead of comparing our circumstances to others and striving for more material things. And research shows that it’s our attitude and connection to others that influence our satisfaction with our lives.
In other words, our feelings about aging can play a big role in how we approach it. That’s one reason why many seniors don’t see themselves as “old” at all. According to a Pew Research Center study, about half of young adults aged 18 to 29 say they feel their age. But 60 percent of adults over 65 say they feel younger than their age. Only three percent feel older than their actual age.
The Aging Process and Happiness:
Ego Integrity vs. Despair
Here’s one aging definition that’s perhaps too concise: the accumulation of damage to our cells, a process which starts as young as the age of 24. It’s an incomplete definition because it only accounts for the physical causes of aging, not the psychological impacts of physical changes.
Here’s another important fact to remember: Not all changes are bad. In fact, our brains undergo some positive changes with age, such as giving us calmer reactions to negative experiences. However, that isn’t necessarily true of everyone: You probably know a few people who always respond more negatively to unwanted change than others.
That leads to another question: Why do some people remain open to new experiences as they age, while others become more set in their ways? Psychologists may have an answer.
According to development psychologist Erik Erikson’s stages of development theory, a life is divided into eight separate stages, each marked by the need to resolve an internal conflict. In the eighth stage, which begins around the age of 65, the conflict is about ego integrity versus despair.
According to Erikson, ego integrity versus despair is a conflict that can be resolved by reflecting on your life and taking stock of your accomplishments and failures:
• Overall, do you feel proud of your life? If so, you’re in a state of ego integrity. That doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t made any mistakes, but you feel fulfilled when you look back on the things you’ve done.
• Or are you bitter about life’s disappointments? If so, you may be in a state of despair. People in a despairing state may be more fearful of death because they feel they haven’t done enough with their lives. They may also be depressed and angry. They might react more negatively to age-related physical and emotional changes, and have a more rigid mindset about aging.
Part of aging gracefully may involve achieving the ego integrity stage. If we understand the purpose and meaning of our lives, we’ll be more prepared for the inevitable challenges of growing older. We can adapt to change more easily. That’s why this kind of mature perspective can be one of the rewards of aging— benefits that are backed by science. Research has found that seniors with positive attitudes toward aging experience less cognitive decline. And those positive feelings can even lead to a longer life.
Of course, it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude if you have medical problems, experience loneliness, or suffer from depression. But if physical or psychological problems are influencing the way you feel about growing older, talk to your doctor, therapist, or someone else you trust. As more and more people enter their senior years, more help is becoming available.
4 External Signs of Aging
1. Going Gray: What Should I Do?
Should you color over graying hair? This is a complicated question for many seniors. But the natural process of hair turning gray is actually quite simple: The follicle at the root of each hair strand contains pigment cells with a substance called melanin that determines the color of that strand. As we age, these pigment cells gradually die off, so new hair strands become more transparent. The result? Gray, silver, or white hair.
Despite what many of us have heard, stress doesn’t turn hair gray. But stress can cause hair loss. So if you’re at an age when your follicles aren’t producing as much melanin, more of the strands that grow back after a period of hair loss may be gray. As a result, it might feel as if you’re suddenly going gray due to stress.
Genetics play the biggest role in determining when we start to go gray. And medical conditions, such as thyroid problems, can cause premature graying. Some evidence also points to poor nutrition and environmental exposure to certain toxins as factors.
Of course, hair loss can also be a tough issue for seniors. In fact, going bald is the top fear related to the male aging process, ahead of impotence. But, similar to the gray-hair trend, many younger men are now choosing to shave their heads, even if they haven’t lost much hair yet. So it may be better to accept your hair loss than fight it. Hairdressers advise that balding men avoid the “comb over,” which fools nobody.
2. How Can I Protect My Skin?
For some seniors, in addition to deciding what to do about going gray, looking great (however they define it) also involves making decisions about skin care. After all, wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots are another part of the normal aging process as our skin becomes drier and less elastic. And with age, some of the lifestyle choices we made back in our youth may show up in our skin. For example, not too long ago, it was common to sunbathe while lathered in baby oil instead of sunscreen. Now we know that those ultraviolet rays can lead to sun damage.
Many of us try to keep our skin looking youthful as long as we can. That’s why you’ll find hundreds of skin-care products making big promises related to aging. But beware of getting caught in a cycle of always seeking the “magic bullet” solution.
Also, remember that good skin starts from within. No matter how much money you spend on anti-aging treatments, if you’re not looking after your health, it can show in your skin. Good nutrition, moderate exercise, and sleep can all help. And, of course, sunscreen is essential—even on cloudy days.
Ultimately, however, when it comes to our faces, our attitudes may be more influential in how we’re perceived than our wrinkles. That’s because people who have a happy expression are often perceived to be younger.
3. Hygiene: Why Do Old People Smell Different?
Even seniors with impeccable hygiene can develop a distinct odor. Although this is sometimes referred to as “old person smell,” the correct term for the cause of the odor is nonenal. (Pronunciation of this word is with a short “e.”) And contrary to popular belief, it’s not caused by poor hygiene or lazy housekeeping. Instead, it’s the result of the normal skin-aging process:
• Our skin produces omega-7 fatty acid.
• The acid degrades when it oxidizes on our skin, which produces a chemical called 2-nonenal. This chemical has a marked odor.
• As we age, our skin produces more fatty acids. At the same time, our bodies’ antioxidant abilities decrease. The result is an increase in 2-nonenal production.
• Seniors sometimes experience lifestyle changes that can make the smell stronger. For example, an elderly person might not bathe or shower as often if they’re afraid of falling.
Odor prevention can take some conscious effort. That’s partly because normal soap doesn’t necessarily prevent nonenal. Odor removal must target the specific compounds produced by the skin. Although most soaps are formulated to tackle the smell of perspiration, many aren’t effective with nonenal. But some research suggests that soaps containing persimmon may work. As a result, so-called nonenal soap is available for purchase.
4. How Can I Avoid Age-Related Changes to My Posture?
Seniors are at risk for osteoporosis, muscle loss, and compression of the discs in the spine. The result can be a distinctive stooped posture, as well as aches, pains, and mobility limitations. Plus, how you carry yourself influences how others view you. So good posture and mobility can help with all aspects of aging gracefully, especially your ability to enjoy activities. It can also protect your health since good posture reduces the risk of falling and helps with breathing.
But improving your posture isn’t just about reminding yourself to stand up straight. Often, you have to retrain and strengthen your muscles. Here are some good ways to stay active and work on your posture to avoid age-related changes:
1. Stretch. Try doing some simple stretching exercises or enroll in a yoga class. Staying flexible helps prevent muscles from tightening and keeps you limber.
2. Sit up straight. While you’re sitting (especially at a computer or in front of a TV), focus on engaging your core muscles. Don’t thrust your head too far forward. You may have to move yourTV or computer a bit closer to you.
3. Maintain a strength-training program. Strength training can address the muscle imbalances that lead to poor posture. (As always, talk to a doctor first!)
4. Improve your core strength. Cycling, pilates, yoga, and gentle calisthenics are great activities for core strength. Swimming is also good. A personal trainer or physical therapist can help you create a program.
5. Talk to your doctor about supplements or medication. Vitamin D supplements and medications like bisphosphonates can help strengthen bones. But they may carry some risks, so consult with your doctor first.
Aging Gracefully: You Have the Power
“The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” By Frank Lloyd Wright
Although that outlook may not always be achievable when faced with setbacks or physical problems, it’s important to remember that focusing on the positive aspects of this stage of life can help make growing older easier. If graceful aging means adapting to changes in a way that reflects our personal values, then remaining positive, open, and flexible is key.
Aging gracefully is definitely possible. Sure, we may need help to overcome certain challenges sometimes. But growing older continues to have its own rewards.