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What does it mean to age well?

I was listening to Tracee Ellis Ross be interviewed on NPR about her work and her many years in the spotlight. I’ve always admired her as a woman who engages life on her own terms, and I like her shows, the iconic Girlfriends and more recently Black-ish. In this interview Ellis Ross started talking about aging and what benefits it has brought her. She shared, “it’s an honor to get older, not everybody gets to get older”. Which if you know me is a mantra I’ve been sharing for several years. So I keyed into what she was saying particularly loving that she followed up with “I love getting older, I wouldn’t go back in time if you paid me.” She raved about the perks of aging including comfort in your own skin, confidence in your choices, and that the word no is a complete sentence (yay for boundaries!).

Now it wasn’t all roses, she acknowledged some of the challenges that exist for her as well. She briefly referenced that she feels grief that not all of the things she hoped have come to fruition in her life, such as an intimate partnership. How many of us feel that as well? That as we age we feel the losses and limitations that exist in our lives? Getting older is hard, it causes us to confront our death in some ways, we won’t live forever and we feel that as we age. Honestly, considering that reality helps us to stay in the present moment fully. Ellis Ross followed up on her statements about grief noting that she’s not waiting around for someone to choose her, instead she wants to get the most out of her life right now. For me, that’s an example of aging well. She’s showing us how to acknowledge the grief because it’s real while also choosing to live into what she has right now.

I recently found this old picture of my grandmother and some of her sisters from the 1960s. In the picture they are standing in front of a motel dressed in their skirt suits and holding matching handbags. They look good! By today’s standards we might imagine they were headed to an organized event such as church or a funeral. I don’t know what they were up to that day, it’s equally likely they were traveling together and simply headed out for a day of sightseeing. That was the nature of the time for them, things were just a bit more formal when they were out in public. It’s hard for me to imagine as my vacation attire is more likely to be yoga pants than a matching skirt suit with heels. This photo made me laugh a bit when I found it and I thought about how my grandmother and her sisters really worked at aging well. Most of them had the privilege of living into their 80s together and they remained close throughout. Aging well for them meant staying connected, seeing each other, and talking regularly.

One thing that I’ve been struck by as I talk with those more “seasoned” than I is that when we can see the opportunities for kindness and gratitude in our daily lives we often feel better about aging. Not that this is easy to achieve. It’s really hard to hold onto gratitude in a society that can be dismissive of our elderly. I think one reason my grandmother and her sisters were able to do this is because they had each other. They were close and continued to prioritize their relationships with each other. I’m sure that there were times that they felt isolated and lonely. As we age we have increasing physical limitations which prevent us from doing all the things we want to do. When my eldest was born my grandmother noted that if she could she would haven’t driven to see the new baby everyday as she did when I was born. But she couldn’t manage that much driving at this time. What I remember though is that she leaned into the opportunities she did have. Was it probably also disappointing to her to live within those limitations, absolutely. I suppose she modeled for me what it looks like to do so with grace.

What does it mean to age well? Well, one answer for me is that it’s learning to lean into gratitude while acknowledging our losses. In counseling this is something we work on processing and exploring at all stages of our lives.

Thanks for reading,

Dr Wolff


Kara E. Wolff, PhD
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