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3 Older Women on What *Actually* Gets Better With Age
10.08.19

Anxious people like me are often advised to “live in the now.” It’s advice I understand on a practical level, but emotionally find to be pretty unhelpful—like a quote printed on a mug and then repeated through friend groups like a game of very relaxed telephone. I’m not sure how to contest it or if I’d even want to, so I usually just nod and let the topic slide while an internal chorus pipes up with the following song: If I’m not living in an imagined future, how will I grow? If I’m not replaying moments from the past, how will I know not to repeat my mistakes? Why am I seeking advice from my friends, a group of equally silly people in their 20s and 30s? Sometimes, you just need a different messenger.

When I set out to talk to three older women about what gets better with age, I got a lot more than just a simple answer to that question. But their emphasis on being able to live in the present had a certain weight to it. Lyn, Nancy, and Jacqui spoke about their lives—what’s changed, what hasn’t; what’s gotten better, what’s stayed about the same—with insight, grace, and humor, and I left each conversation expanded, feeling that the full breadth of a life worth living was not just rooted in the things that I do, but in the way I choose to feel. Meet them for yourselves (and glean the particular wisdom you may find yourself in need of) in the conversations below.


Lyn, 66, Doesn’t Let Age Define Her

On Letting Her Mood Take the Lead
I am chronologically 66, but my perceived age—which is the term we academics give to how you feel inside—is very fluid. One day I may wake up and feel very much like I’m 25, wanting to go out dancing at the disco. Another day I might think, Okay, I’m 40. I want to get my PhD. I’m going to take another class now. It shifts. I heard a song this morning—an old song called “I Wanna Sex You Up” by Color Me Badd—and it was like, boom! I started to walk more seductively. It’s like any other sensory thing that triggers a memory, all of these things can trigger that age for me. That’s the fun I have with dressing; it’s my way of showing my perceived age against the backdrop of my chronological age.

I have always lived in very in-between spaces, so I’m comfortable with fluidity. I’m the oldest of six children. When I was a kid, I had to do things that an older person might have had to do, so I think age was never really relevant to the experience of my life.

On the Most Important Lesson She’s Learned
The most transformative moment for me happened in my 30s. Because I’m smart, I could bullshit my way out of a paper bag. I got away with it for a long time. The problem with that is that other people have power over you, because inside, you know you’re a little bit of a fraud. The other problem with it is you never learn and grow. I had this great, honest supervisor who confronted me about that, pushed me to be more honest. I think the moment when I accepted all of my limitations and said, “Okay, I’ve done everything I can to change what I can about myself, but these limitations are just going to be part of me, and that’s fine.” Suddenly, nobody in the world had power over me anymore, and that was so freeing.

I think spending too much time in the past, and being anxious about things that you may or may not have control over, stresses you out.

Another thing I found helpful was coming to grips with the fact that there is nothing you can do about the past. It’s done. As part of my training, I had to be involved with psychoanalysis, and while I think there are many good therapies now that are beneficial, I became so self-absorbed and obsessed from being in that process. They keep wanting me to be in the past. I finally worked with someone who was very present-oriented, and this person was saying, “Let’s look at that now, today.” Then, “Here’s what you can do to make it different.” I think I’ve wasted a lot of time, particularly around being a good parent, by being anxious. I think anxiety takes you away from being present in your relationships with people.

I try not to have any regrets, because I really feel that everything I experienced really got me to where I am today. I think spending too much time in the past, and being anxious about things that you may or may not have control over, stresses you out. And my biggest advice for anyone is to minimize stress however you can. Everything that has impacted me, as I’ve gotten older, has been stress-related. Have trust in your own self, that you’ll get through whatever it is.

On What Gets Better With Age
I started this process in my 30s, and it’s very in my bones now, which is if I don’t like something: fuck it. It really intensifies when you get to be 50—I even gave my sister a bracelet for her 50th birthday that said, “Fuck you, 50,” because it’s so liberating. There are so many social expectations that people place upon women, upon everybody, and it’s just a way to control you. I’ve always resisted representations or identities that are not okay for me.

I really do think it’s that complete and total ability for me—and the potential for all older people—to accept who I am that’s meant the most. Sadly, many don’t, and they’re still struggling under all these expectations. I think what really helps is to have more representation of women like me, with other women of different ages, doing things. For instance, me being in a photograph with a whole bunch of influencers, as opposed to being in countless stories with all the people on Instagram who have gray hair, shows other people what they can be doing that may be outside of what’s expected of them. The biggest thing you don’t want to happen to you is to be made invisible. That’s like any group in representation. If you don’t see yourself, it creates challenges for your self-esteem. You have to work very hard to overcome that.

Nancy, 77, Wants to Keep Inventing

On How Old She Is Versus How Old She Feels
I am 77. At my birthday dinner, I asked my son to find something in science or math that would make me feel good about this gargantuan number. And he went to the book of elements and found iridium, which has the atomic number of 77. I wrote a poem about turning 77, which has 77 beats, 11 lines by 7 beats. And then I started writing 77 beat poems ever since then and hope to have a book by the end of the year.

How old I feel depends entirely on the day. At the moment, I look stunning in this medical boot, I tell people it’s a fashion statement, but of course, it has more to do with malicious metatarsals which hurt so much that I can’t walk. And when you can’t walk, you feel at least 111, which is terrible. But when I’m with my grandchild who’s three and a half, I feel the ages I was when my kids were three. My second husband said a wonderful thing—well, I’m sure he said several wonderful things, but my favorite one was that parents of young children are axiomatically young parents. So I become a young parent again and that’s wonderful. But it does change, it really does.

On Finding Her Passion and Career
I was born with writing somehow in mind. In second grade, I wrote a poem about spring that my teacher, the sainted Mrs. Carnahan, really loved. She insisted that I submit it to the sixth grade literary journal. The day that was in print—my knees still shake a little when I think of it—it was so intoxicating, and I think I got the bug then.

I was an editorial assistant at The New York Post straight out of college and talked my way into wonderful writing assignments. I loved The New York Post. I never felt that I lacked opportunity because I was a woman. But then I did what a journalist shouldn’t do and I called up Norman Mailer after he got a particularly bad round of reviews and said, “Norman, Norman they’re killing your beautiful prose!” After that I was suddenly demoted to listings of what was playing at the neighborhood movie houses.

It was wild. I miss it, oh my god I miss it. It was so much fun, but it was important fun

Around that time I was about to have a sort of scary surgery on an ovarian cyst, and I called Helen Gurley Brown and said, “Listen, would you give me a strange assignment? May I write a piece called ‘How to be Sexy While in the Hospital Awaiting Surgery?’ and I thought she would say, “Oh Nancy, you’re so funny.” But she gave me the assignment and that totally took the terror out of it and I decided I could freelance.

It was wild. I miss it, oh my god I miss it. It was so much fun, but it was important fun. I marched to integrate Shreveport, Louisiana and went straight to Chicago to cover the democratic convention of 1968. We felt that somehow whatever part we had in all of this, we were going to help end the Vietnam war. Because we knew without a doubt that we were on the right side.

And then I wrote The Life Swap, where I traded lives with someone for a month. I’m not always confident in my ideas, but I was with The Life Swap, even though maybe I shouldn’t have been because it was such an outrageous thing to do. But I was so in love with it, and that sort of stilled any voices that might have come in. Maybe there were enough people doubting me that I became defensive.

No matter how good you are, you get rejected all the time. I’ve been trashed by reviewers, and sometimes I listen—it’s not a bad thing to do—but I believe you simply have to get back at it. When you read about James Joyce’s many rejections, you realize you are not, alas, James Joyce, and you’ll be okay too.

On What Gets Better With Age
I was afraid you would ask that. My husband, who is 15 years older than I am, has the most wonderful ability not to get ruffled by things that are not big. And I guess I have to get to be 92 before I learn that. You know, oddly enough, having my face has gotten easier. I needed decades to grow into my nose. I think I look better for 77 than I did for 27 or 47, which is a nice feeling.

Maybe it’s just a sense of ease, because it is what it is. You’ve got what you’ve got. And I remember at times, in a younger life, when I thought that if I parted my hair on the other side the entire universe would be changed. I don’t feel that way anymore. I mean I fuss about things, of course. There are things that happen to the body when you’re older: I live in dread of chin whiskers.

I remember when I first started considering aging (mostly because I wanted children but kept falling in love with men who were not likely to be the fathers of my children), I held onto certain consoling notions. Francoise Sagan wrote that when you’re 40 you can wear black pearls. So I thought, Oh wow, that really makes everything okay. I had my children late. I was 36 when my oldest was born and 42 when my second was born. And I felt that that reset the clock in some way.

I am looking forward to seeing my grandkid decorate cookies this afternoon. I am looking forward to writing this book. I am looking forward to inventing things. I actually hold a couple of patents for odd things. Once, having kissed a man who had just eaten truffle laden pasta, I thought, “Mm, truffle lips,” and actually manufactured, with him, a line of truffle infused lip balm. We had a beautiful package, it was just great looking. And then we had a meeting with a man we were hoping would carry the product and I opened a stick and the flavor had gone because it turned out that truffle oil is fairly volatile and it had dissipated.

Anyway, I guess those things were not going to create world peace, but I like inventing. So that would be very exciting for me to invent something that someone maybe needs in only a small way, but delights in anyway.

Jacqui, 59, Truly Loves Getting Older

On Feeling Her Age
I feel 59. I’m looking forward to turning 60 in March because I would hope that being in your late 50s and 60s means that you’re healthy and you’re engaged and you’re happy and you’re looking forward to more. I don’t want to be 40. I don’t want to be anything but what I am, I’m happy to be this.

It is a huge relief, as you get older, to enjoy it. I have to say, I surround myself mostly with women who are also happy to be older and embracing it. I was on Instagram and I saw someone venting about, “I’m not young anymore! You can’t bounce a quarter on my ass anymore and my tits are sagging” and all this nonsense. I’m reading this thinking, Why would a mature woman still have the concept that that’s what you’re supposed to be even when you’re in your 20s, your 30s, your 40s? Why was that your image that that’s what you had to be like to be approved?

On the Importance of Family
I got married very quickly after I met my husband when I was 25. Meeting David and saying, “This is who I’m marrying,” really put things into place for me because he was outside all of my normal realms. It was me just realizing, “Oh, that’s who I am.”

I was raised in Westchester and he grew up in a more working class Jewish family in Queens. He’ll say to me, “You missed the Vietnam War. You were playing with Barbies.” I was not sheltered, but I was just not political and he was very political. I grew up in this kind of boring life and as did he, but we came from such different backgrounds and he brought out the me in me and also was very funny (and really needed a makeover).

Understanding who I was marrying and just being myself, everything clicked. I just realized all the resources I had in my life and how to access them and how to work with all the moving parts and being very grateful all the time. My first daughter was born with a host of medical issues, the middle one is adopted, and my third daughter was born six years later and was very easy. Later, she made it a little more challenging. Our middle daughter didn’t come into our lives until she was in eighth grade.

Having children makes everything click. You just realize who you are. It’s like a test of everything. My daughters all have tattoos. One is bi, one is gay, one is straight. I’m this and they’re that. Nothing I grew up with relates to the way my kids are growing up now—I don’t even understand, which is so perfectly wonderful. I think our three daughters have surprised us with how they’re turning out and what we have lived through with them. I think everyone’s got stories. It’s what you do with it and what you make of it.

On What’s Gotten Better With Age
Saying no has gotten better with age—which everyone says, but it really is true. It’s pausing. Also, someone said to me, “No decision is the wrong decision, you just make of it what you can once you’ve made it,” which I have to say, I’ve gone through the last 10 years since she said that and now really do believe that.

Listen, if I were different physically and some amazingly gorgeous human being, it may be harder to watch decline, but I don’t really care and I’ve never looked at myself as an object of beauty. I’ve just looked at myself as someone who wants to be me and, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more confident, which I hope happens to everyone as they grow older and I don’t tend to look back. I look forward.

I really do believe that for most of my friends, the older we get, the happier we are, the more determined we are, the braver we get, and the more confident we become.

I used to think there was this idea of “I’m older,  fuck you, don’t bother me,” but it’s not really that. It’s more knowing that you have to understand yourself. It’s scary getting older, so unless you really have a deeper understanding of what you’re capable of or how to get through stuff, it won’t be enjoyable. I choose to be reflective in a way that’s not regretful, but is optimistic in a sensible way. I really do believe that for most of my friends, the older we get, the happier we are, the more determined we are, the braver we get, and the more confident we become.

For me, for David, we just want a manageable and simple quality of our life. We know how fortunate we are on so many levels and I think it’s just taking those steps you can manage and be happy about. You have to own your behaviors and your actions, which is not always easy. We’re grateful, we want to be near our girls. The minute they marry or have kids, we’ll just follow them.

We have spent our lives being educators and giving and seeing kids grow and coming home with stories. That’s the best part of a job, coming home with stories. I always tell the girls, “If you have a job where you’re not coming home with stories, it’s time to leave.” That simply is our qualification. Healthcare helps. Benefits are nice, but oh my god, how do you not come home with stories?

It is the easiest qualification, but it’s true. My feeling is if you don’t have a story, it wasn’t a good day.

Photos by Sabrina Santiago.

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