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Chapter 1: Thoughts, Cultural Attitudes, and Myths about Women Aging

Science and the Sacred: Eternal Wisdom in a Changing World
Ravi Ravindra

"In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy, sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways." -Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance


The attitude that surrounds us is that old age in its most problematic sense starts at 50 or 60. Why is this? I think it's because we still buy into some outdated rule that midlife is the beginning of our decline. This fallacy is based on the equally outdated life expectancy of 47 years or so, which was an average life span at the beginning of the twentieth century. As we all know, the average life expectancy has increased drastically since then, but our cultural attitudes have not.

The one thing we have control over is our attitude toward aging. I have no doubt that the degenerative aspects of the aging process can be substantially retarded by a combination of factors that include attitude, opportunities for service, continuing intellectual stimulation, and good health habits.

Our thoughts directly impact our quality of life. A Yale University professor found that people who think positively about aging tend to live almost eight years longer than those who think negatively. In fact, thinking positively is a more significant life-extender than low blood pressure, low cholesterol, exercising regularly, or not smoking. An article in the Journal of Gerontology reported that feistiness makes aging easier, that personal determination to stay independent can help overcome physical frailty. Another study found that an optimistic attitude has a measurable effect on preventing heart disease, for instance.

Living and aging are one and the same. I find it interesting that many people who embrace living still hold on to negative impressions or myths about aging. Living does not stop at a certain year in one's life followed by the process of aging. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we can explore our longevity. To this end (or should I say this beginning?) some of the issues explored in this section deal with accepting change, grieving the loss of youth and celebrating your birthday, cultivating gratitude, enjoying solitude, and embracing a changing tempo of life. The women pioneers of this new age are confronted with common, hurtful myths about aging--that sexuality shrivels up, menopause is a calamity, and intelligence stagnates. This section explores some myths and offers inspiring descriptions of older age and its various stages as written about by women.

When They Were Our Age

". . . we're suffering from an image of aging that comes from a different time. An image that was never anything but propaganda." -Barbara Sher, It's Only Too Late if You Don't Start Now

You can bet on one thing: We won't be doing midlife and the aging process the way our mothers and grandmothers did. Once again we are defining our times. We can be fit, fabulous, and over 50. Although some of the physical changes of midlife and beyond occur at around the same time, for many of us our perception (and experience) of age has changed. Just about nothing in our lives is what it would have been in the lives of women our age even 20 years ago. For the most part, women now are healthier, they expect to live longer, and they are reevaluating their priorities.

We live in a wondrous age. Studies show that most people who reach age 100 do so in surprisingly robust health. Genes may be responsible for about 30 percent of the physiological changes that occur in advanced age, but according to researchers at Harvard University Medical School, the majority of changes are the result of environment, diet, exercise, utilization of available medical care, and mental outlook. With science providing miracle cures for once-fatal conditions, experts on aging even believe that the human life span will someday be increased to 150 years or more.

I love what actress Susan Sarandon said in a More magazine article: "It's thrilling to know that around the world, women everywhere are working, thinking, daring, creating, making change. I don't know if our mothers ever felt this way about their counterparts--but I have the feeling our daughters will."

My grandmother and my mother were my models of aging women. It was inconceivable to me that I would ever be as old as they seemed to be. Now 56, I realize that I'm the same age as my grandmother was back then, but it feels very different for me than I think it was for her.

In the space below, paste a photo of your mother, grandmother, or other older woman at age 50-plus.

In the space below, tell her how your experience of aging will be different from hers:

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Myths to Not Live By

"Of all the self-fulfilling prophecies in our culture, the assumption that aging means decline and poor health is probably the deadliest." -Marilyn Ferguson, philosopher and writer


Myth: Old women are depressed and lonely.
Truth: We may get depressed and lonely from time to time, but the research shows that the least lonely and depressed women are over 75.

Myth: You become less of a woman as you age.
Truth: Some of the best and brightest women, though past the half-century mark in years, are still climbing the ladder of success in the world.

Myth: Old women have more stress in their lives.
Truth: According to psychologists, older people have more stress-free days than younger ones. That's one of the benefits of aging. The older you get, you kind of realize, "Hey, it's not worth getting upset about the small things."

Myth: Growing older is synonymous with the loss of meaning and purpose.
Truth: Research and the elderly themselves are demonstrating that one's later years can be the richest ever in wisdom and spirituality.

Myth: If you are older and reminiscing about the past, or are becoming garrulous about the past, you are exhibiting signs of senility.
Truth: These recollections are natural and appropriate and their purpose is to resolve conflicts of life and to do a life review.

Myth: The older you get, the faster time passes.
Truth: Mathematically, those proverbial endless summers of your childhood were not even one minute longer than last summer. What's different now is how you spend your summer. Simply put, you have more routines now and routines lend uniformity, which makes it very easy to be oblivious to time.

Myth: Everyone wants to, and should, be willing to hear our wisdom and opinions because we are older.
Truth: Even though we're older and wiser, we don't necessarily know everything or have all the answers.

Myth: We as women need to be protected.
Truth: Once the protector myth is conquered, women are free to become whole and authentic. Whenever we accept a limiting role, we violate our self.

Myth: Creativity is only for the gifted few and our talents dim with age.
Truth: Creativity is not just for geniuses. It is the energy that allows us to think a different thought, express ourselves in unique ways; it enables us to view life as an opportunity for exploration and it knows no age.

How do you feel about these myths? Write your views here:

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Name another myth you have heard about women and aging. What is the truth?

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Living in the Present

"Mid-life is a kind of Janus point in the living of our days. . . . It is a time to reflect and digest, to learn and unlearn, and choose a course for the days to come." -Sarah Smith, Mid-Life: Coming Home

How often do you find yourself thinking about some event that might happen in the future that causes you to feel anxious and uncomfortable? Doesn't that kind of fretting keep you from enjoying what's available to you in the present? Sure, we have to make plans for our financial and healthcare needs and things of that nature. But once the plans are in place, it's important to be mindful of how you torture yourself out of the present and the beauty it brings.

I find myself thinking about how I will be as a very old woman, and some of what I envision worries me. I wonder how I'll manage if I?m infirm or unable to walk or see well. In those moments, I work at bringing myself back to the present, which is all we are assured of anyway. I keep reminding myself that every moment stands alone, a presence in its own right, a singular visitation that doesn't include the future.

Of course we're getting older every day, but we need something else to think about besides long-term-care insurance and worrying about what our kids are doing when we're home alone. In Sue Bender's wonderful book, Everyday Sacred: A Woman's Journey Home, she says, "The challenge is to find even ten minutes when the world stops and for that moment, there is nothing else. How can we bring that quality to what time we have--making that limited time sacred?"

Now take a moment--right now. You are reading this book, sitting in a chair, or on a train, or flying in a plane. Are you comfortable? Does the chair feel soft or hard? What do you see around the room? Are you in a beautiful location? On a beach or a porch? Pay close attention to the small, the beautiful, the meaningful?live in the present--for today, for ten minutes, for an hour. It feels good, doesn't it?

How do you feel about this?

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What have you been overlooking in the present because you've been too worried about the future?

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Changing Tempo

"I'm . . . trying to do too much . . . I used to be able, as most women are, to do four or five things at once. Do the juggling act. Now, if I can keep one plate in the air, that's good." -Ursula K. Le Guin, in On Women Turning 60 by Cathleen Rountree


Seventy-nine-year-old Anne wonders why she's tired. As an alcohol abuse counselor, she sees four or five clients a day, attends training lectures (at some of them she is a presenter), she keeps her own home, and has a wide circle of friends. She's tired because she hasn't learned the fine of art of pacing herself, of dancing to a slower (no-less productive) tempo.

Each week you have 168 hours, 10,080 minutes to work and play. More than likely you spend the better part of your time trying to get too much done?rushing, dashing, scurrying. In the mid-twentieth century, futurists predicted that computers and other labor-saving devices would free up time and transform America into the most leisurely society in history. Exactly the opposite happened.

In this age of rapidly expanding technology and consumerism, how can one fashion a simple, slower paced life? If you buzz from one chore to the next, from one activity to the next, how can you enjoy your world? For instance, I don't concern myself with slow traffic or traffic jams. I see an opportunity each time to see the world a little more clearly. This is my private time to enjoy the quietness of just being, of stopping to look and to feel and to think, and to indulge myself in a changing tempo.

The rule that we must be accomplishing something all the time is broadcast so efficiently and so early that we internalize it. We struggle with a seditious inner voice that says, "You're wasting time. Get up and do something with your life." Life is going so fast all around us. We?re expected (or maybe we expect ourselves) to respond to it in the same way we did when were 20. Does age oblige one to keep up with the latest in technological advances in the culture, such as Internet shopping or online services, in order not to be out of step? Or does one have the privilege by virtue of age of opting out or being selective in one?s adoption of this new way of existing? Personally, I prefer pen and paper for personal letters, and meandering slowly through a gift shop, touching and smelling, and smiling at the cashier.

Mary C. Morrison, author of Let Evening Come, believes as children leave home, friends move away, and companions die, that we have an opportunity to move into a "discovery-filled solitude" and that we can discover there what our own tempo of living is. Now that my children are out in the world, I'm experiencing this tempo change in my own life. I must admit, I like the new pace.

How do you feel about changing tempo?

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