At 14, I went from being cared for by two young parents to two older women: my maternal grandmother and great aunt. Being raised by older women came with a steady stream of Rita Hayworth movies, museum visits and, surprisingly to me, invaluable direction in all areas of life, including beauty. It was my grandmother who introduced me to Chanel No. 5 and using facial brushes to wash my face. It was my great aunt who swore by red lipstick — as I now do — and told me that combing my hair every day would make it grow healthy and long. As it turned out, none of my most cherished beauty advice came from teen magazines; it came from the elderly.
Despite the fact that there are 46 million senior citizens in the U.S., this group is often left out of modern conversations, especially those pertaining to bodies — an area in which my grandmother and great aunt are filled with insight and wisdom. (My grandmother advises me to put my feet up at the first sign of menstrual cramps to this day.) Knowing that they couldn’t be the only ones, I recently paid a visit to the Senior Center at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in Manhattan to find out what other members of their generation had to offer in the way of beauty and wellness advice. While my visit was short, the tips they shared were interspersed with important life lessons I won’t soon forget. Below, a collection of the best advice I received, from the importance of ping-pong to always remembering that you are young as long as you are alive.
“I think as you get older you have to pay more attention to what you are eating – I take all different vitamins, pills and supplements. As far as skincare, I exfoliate twice a day. I absolutely love exfoliating because it makes my skin feel really clean. I wear makeup almost every day, but I also mask my face — sometimes up to two or three times a day. Not the peel-off kind, just the cream kind that you can take off in the shower. I very seldom get breakouts. When I was a teenager I would get breakouts, and a lot of adults still do. That is why it is important to incorporate exfoliating and masks to keep your skin clean. Something to remember is that as you get older everything changes in your body. I used to have straight hair, now I have curly hair. My skin used to be oily, but now it is dry. I still don’t moisturize at night, but maybe I should now!”
“I was a beauty queen when I was younger – Miss Northwest Detroit, Miss Mumford High, Miss Concord. Through the years I always liked the natural look and would wash my face and body with simple soap. I was always into bathing, and putting on creams and lotions and I think that is why I have such lovely skin now – actually, one of my friends’ husbands told her that I have lovely skin, too, even though I am elderly!
“As you age you become more sedentary and you might not do as much with your makeup or your clothes – but I used to change three times a day! When I first arrived in New York and started dating I would have a morning date, an afternoon date and an evening date. It was always three different men and they all were so different from each other, and I kept this going for quite a while. I taught at NYU and they would pick me up during lunch. We liked going to the museums, the operas, concerts and plays. I would go uptown to Sign of the Dove – you had to cross a moat to get to the restaurant, and this was just for dinner! Beyond dating, I also helped start the Women’s Liberation Movement, and NOW (the National Organization for Women) with Gloria Steinem. I was always on the go… Oh, you can’t stress – there are always more things to do!”
“I have always kept myself busy. I come from a big family, I have five sisters and two brothers and my father owned a store. I grew up with people always around me — I was never left alone. My husband was full of music so we would go to the opera a lot. We went dancing a lot, and we would always have big parties. Sometimes I would make two turkeys on Thanksgiving! I always liked to travel, too, when I was younger. I would go up to Montreal and also to Maine, and go on the beach. (Remember: sunscreen is really important, I always wore it.) Now I am 86 and it is a little bit more quiet, but I like it.”
“When you’re young just be young — don’t be in a rush to grow older. Like they say: Youth is wasted on the youth, because that is when you should be enjoying your life, not worrying — especially about age. I never worried about age. I started playing softball when I was 40 years old. My company said they needed someone to play softball so I played, and no one knew how old I was! I sometimes go back [to visit] the office and people say I look the same. I think not worrying about age really helps you because when you worry about age it ages you. You should just relax and enjoy your time. Listen, as long as you are alive, you are young.”
“For wellness, I enjoy every day, I eat proper food and I make sure I laugh. My main love is music; I have a friend who is a musician so we exchange music with each other. I also try to surround myself with happy people and keep active with piano, traveling and bird-watching in Central Park. I also have a yoga mat and I can even do downward-facing dog! Yoga is great for circulation. Oh, and I love ping-pong. I am very dedicated and play at least three times a week. It keeps me on my toes!”
“I never was into makeup, but I do believe it is important to eat as well as you can and pay attention to what you put into your body. I was always into natural beauty and was always interested in taking care of my skin [and body] as best as I could. My mother died last year at the age of 92. She ate well and made sure she got her eight glasses of water a day. I am lucky if I remember to drink a glass of water a day! As a young woman, for exercise, I walked a lot – I was an unofficial marathon walker. When I lived up in Harlem I would walk from there all the way down to South Ferry. Sometimes if I wasn’t tired I would walk from Harlem to the Bronx and back. I used to love walking, but now I have multiple sclerosis and I can’t walk like that anymore. I am the only marathon walker in the family and the only one with multiple sclerosis. But you know what? You never know what kind of curve ball life is going to throw you. You just gotta keep on going, you have to keep an uplifted attitude, don’t get down. You just have to roll with the punches.”
“I feel that you have to take care of yourself by limiting the amount of stress in your life. The best medicine for stress is dancing. I do flamenco dancing. Another great dance for stress is salsa. Flamenco dancing absolutely can help with anxiety. If you notice in flamenco dancing they are always stomping and tapping their feet. When men, women or babies are angry, what do they do? They stomp their feet. All the stress and the tension comes out through the foot, so by stomping your feet you are releasing all of your anger, anxiety and pressure. A lot of people tell me that when they finish taking my class they feel great.”
“In order to keep your stress low you have to know who you are and be the best person you can be every day — even when someone might not like you. Always have good character and carry yourself decently. Always do the right thing, and you will have no problem in life. As for beauty and skincare? That is all within. What you eat brings out your beauty. Always keep your insides clean and eat right and you won’t have to deal with pimples and whatnot. You have to start with your cells. If you have good cells you will have a good complexion. And remember, drink plenty of water and stay away from sugar.”
“My thing has always been taking care of the skin. What I have used all my life is cocoa butter and it has worked. It is not expensive, you can get it at a Duane Reade. I also use a little bit of Vitamin E. Keeping your stress and anxiety levels down also helps. You can’t control [anxiety and stress] but you can control how you take care of yourself. I do a whole exercise routine to help take care of the skin and to also keep the skin firm. I eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, very little carbohydrates and no starches. You also cannot worry about [people not liking you]. If [someone doesn’t like you] that is their problem. I don’t focus on the ugliness that people can project with their jealousy and hatred, focusing on that will make you old and that is scary! My mom taught me to always just see the beauty in other people and it will always make you happy. Happiness is beauty, that’s it.”
“I feel that doing art has always helped with stress, anxiety and depression, and it feels very nice to know people appreciate [your work], too. Doing art is very meditative and therapeutic, it is very wonderful to have in your life. My grandmother was a designer so we really had the best that you could ever think of, and that is how I [became interested in] art. I remember when I was [younger] in South Africa and during that time the arts was really building up there – Princess Margaret even came by to take part, it was a very wonderful time.”
“My 15-year-old granddaughter likes to wear a lot of makeup but I always tell her, ‘You shouldn’t feel like you need to wear a lot of makeup, your youth is enough to make you pretty.’ I put on makeup because I need to refresh myself because I want to look younger than my age! Also, a lot of people limit their fashion and makeup [choices] as they get older — you don’t have to.”
Photos by Bridget Badore.