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Redefing Accepting Your Age - by Bill Siemering

Successful Aging is an Attitude


Updated March 05, 2009

Successful aging is usually thought of as avoiding illness and living long; but successful aging can have a deeper and more significant meaning than that. As a culture, we are really negative about aging. It doesn’t have to be that way. This an essay on aging written by a friend of mine named Bill Siemering (who also happens to be a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, one of the founders of NPR and the director of programming with the staff that developed All Things Considered.). A few days ago, Bill and I reconnected and he sent me this essay that he wrote for a site called Encore.org. I liked it so much, I asked for permission to reprint it here (see the original on the Encore blog).

What does it mean ‘to accept your age’?

We’ve all heard – or overheard- people say, “He should act his age!” “She doesn’t look her age.” “People who say they are a ‘young 60’ or don’t want to give their age, have not accepted their age.”

What does it mean to ‘accept your age’, anyway? It’s as if we all have clear knowledge of what it feels like and looks like to be a certain age. Is there anything less known than the human being with a number for the years s(he) has been on earth? We know what a dozen eggs look like but we really have no idea what a person who has lived five-dozen years is like. Olympic swimmer medalist Dara Torres summed it up best when she said, “Age is just a number.” Exactly. There is no other number that is more meaningless or misused.

Here are just a few recent takes on three people nearly the same age:

  • Music critic David Patrick Stearns writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Julie Andrews (72) and her new touring show, The Gift of Music, the children’s books she writes and her own publishing company, quotes her, “I’ve always thought. ‘Let’s try many many many different things.’” He adds, “She did, and still does, more than you might expect at her age.”
  • In the same newspaper, Peter Durbin, another music critic wrote: “In the United States and abroad, Charles Edourd Dutoit, a nimble, restless 71, might be the most visible conductor in the world for the next few season. He has shifted elegantly into elder-statesman mode, but it’s hardly his valedictory lap.”
  • Jennie Yarboff, writing about Woody Allen (72) in Newsweek: “It became possible to imagine that old age, combined with a seemingly stable relationship…had given him a rosier outlook.”
  • Japanese painter and wood engraver Hokusai, (1760-1849) wrote that, “None of my works done before my 70th year is really worth counting.”

What age are we to accept? Someone else’s idea of what they think we should be like? The idea of acceptance infers accepting your limitations rather than celebrating your strengths.

Many observations about people in the Encore generation who are doing remarkable work in the world are similar to the early days of the emergence of women in new roles: ”Look at what they can do now!”

Life is like slowly circling a mountain upward; you can’t help but see the world from a different perspective. The air is thinner, the vegetation has changed; you are aware that you are two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up to the top.

You focus on the trail ahead. You have scars from earlier rock scrambles that inform the way you climb now. The memories of all the trails you’ve climbed are imbedded in your muscles. You are intrigued by what lies around the bend. You continue to enjoy bushwhacking, knowing you’ll find your way back. This is the time to appreciate where you’ve come from, the ever-changing horizon and the extraordinary view from this height.

An elevation marker is unnecessary and meaningless.

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