What Boomer Women Can Learn About Aging From (Gasp) Older Women

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Members of this authority-averse generation should reconsider their stance on listening to their elders.

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"To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living," wrote the Swiss philosopher, poet, and critic Henri-Frédéric Amiel in 1874.

Nearly a century and a half later, the largest group of Americans by age—the baby boomers—is learning just how hard that great art of living can be. In a culture fixated on youth and mesmerized by plastic beauty, boomer women are having a particularly tough go at it as they enter their seventh decade of life. "Turning 40 is horrible. People that say it isn't are full of shit," Sofia Vergara, Modern Family's it-girl, recently said, reflecting our culture's attitude to aging.

What, then, of turning 70? Or even 65, as Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are poised to do en masse for the next two decades?

As a generation, the boomers famously rebelled against authority—"don't trust anyone over 30." One thing that they can do now that they are older, however, is learn from the generation that immediately preceded them. According to the CDC, the incidence of major depression in the population is lowest in those older adults. The boomers, by contrast, are the most depressed adult age group in this country.

Ellen Cole, a 71-year-old Harvard-trained psychologist and professor at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., is among the younger members of that older age group, the relatively small but remarkable "Silent generation." Cole is interested in how the lessons of her generation can apply to boomer women. "We pre-baby boomers might have wisdom to impart to those close on our heels who [have begun] to turn 65," she wrote in the Retiring But Not Shy (2012), a book about how feminists are adjusting to their post-career lives.

Born during the trying years between the Great Depression and World War II (1925-1942), the Silents are sandwiched in between the Greatest Generation, who fought in World War II, and the Baby Boomers, who grew up in a more nurturing environment.

In 1953, when the younger Silents, Cole's peers, were still kids, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex was published. By the time they were 18—entering into college—it was 1960, the same year that the Pill was officially approved by the FDA. As they were leaving college, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique came out, which, more than anything else, officially launched second-wave feminism as a mass cultural movement. Friedan interviewed suburban housewives of her generation and found that many of them were dissatisfied with their lives as homemakers. Three years later, Friedan teamed up with some other feminists to form the National Organization for Women.

Cole was in grad school at Harvard when the book came out. "It turned my world upside down. Before that, my ex-husband wouldn't let me drive the car we got for a wedding present, and I never thought twice about it. After that there were conscious-raising groups galore," she tells me.

In those days, Cole's peers were in their 20s and determined to not make the same mistake as the women featured in Friedan's book. Entering the workforce en masse, and defining themselves, in large part, through their careers, they succeeded. Today, decades later, what Cole is interested in—and what the boomer women need insight on—is how her generation of gritty feminists would transition out of their jobs into happy old age.

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The 79 million boomers alive today make up over a quarter of the entire American population. Last year, the oldest members of the generation turned 65. For the next 18 years, 10,000 boomers will turn 65 each day, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, the average life expectancy for women in America is 81 years old. For men, it is 76 years old. According to Gallup, the expected retirement age in the United States is 67. So, as Boomers enter into the retirement that precedes the end of their lives, will they find meaning and satisfaction as they age? Will they thrive, flourish, take a slow ride off into the sunset?

This is an enormously important question not just because of the implications it has on the happiness of real people, but also for the consequences it will have on society, social services, and our culture as a whole. As Pew points out, "By force of numbers alone, they almost certainly will redefine old age in America, just as they've made their mark on teen culture, young adult life and middle age."

The baby boomers are becoming characterized by startlingly high rates of depression and pessimism. Boomers are more depressed and less satisfied with their lives than both those who are older and younger than them, according to a study published in the American Sociological Review in 2008.

Women, in particular, are suffering. In the American population generally, women tend to be more depressive than men, and this is true of the boomers as well. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1999 and 2004, rates of suicide increased by 20 percent for 45-to-54-year-olds, a far greater increase than that experienced in nearly every other age group. Among women who were 45-to-54-year-olds, the increase was a staggering 31 percent. Suicide aside, boomers have found another way to cope with their doldrums: according to the National Institute of Health, between 2002 and 2011, the number of illicit drugs users aged 50 to 59 tripled.

What is going on? This is a generation that is better educated, more successful, and has better access to health care than the generations that directly preceded it. This is the generation whose women benefitted from the gains of second wave feminism.

Experts on aging, depression, and happiness are at a loss for what is causing the boomers' funk. One explanation is stress. "Much of the research is pointing to daily stress as a precipitator of their depression," according to Donald A. Malone, Jr., the director of the Mood and Anxiety Clinic in the department of psychiatry and psychology at the Cleveland Clinic.

Yang Yang, a professor of sociology at UNC Chapel Hill and the author of the mentioned American Sociological Review study, explained it in terms of their enormously high and ultimately dashed expectations: "The generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness," she said when her study was released in 2008.

These two phenomena have particularly impacted the women of that generation. According to George Vaillant, a Harvard psychiatrist and expert on healthy aging, the boomer women, who tried to reign supreme both at work and at home, put an enormous amount of responsibility on themselves. Now that these women, who defined themselves in terms of their careers and children, are approaching retirement and empty nests, they will be forced to redefine their lives and identities. "The women before them," he explains in an interview, "already knew how to be unemployed. The boomer women will have to learn." They will have to find something to live for—a purpose.

From the work of social scientists Nicholas Christakis and James H. Fowler, we know that mental states, like depression, can spread in social networks to up to three degrees of separation, the same way a virus, like the flu, can spread. Does this mean that depression rates among the boomers will spread even further throughout a generation already distinguished by melancholy? Further, since depression and pessimism are not only linked to a shorter life span, but also to higher incidents of chronic diseases, will the cost of the end-of-life care for boomers be even higher than expected? Health care costs are a rising concern to the boomer generation. People who are happier tend to be healthier, so combating boomer malaise may be one way to reign in their health care costs.

***

This brings us back to Cole and her generation of women. Many of them have turned 70 or are on the cusp of it. For nearly two years, Cole has been working with a colleague and childhood friend, Jane Giddan, to find out how those septuagenarian women are faring, and they plan on turning their research into a book.

According to a 2002 American Geriatrics Society study of people aged 65 to 100, "More than 50 percent of participants felt it was an expected part of aging to become depressed, to become more dependent, to have more aches and pains, to have less ability to have sex, and to have less energy." Cole wanted to find the exceptions—the ones for whom aging went well.

"Seventy is a major milestone for women—a wake up call," Cole says. She would disagree with Shakespeare's designation of old age as a "second childhood." Rather, "it's a fabulously rich period of life." In a blog post, she wrote, "I'm tickled to think of myself as an old lady." At 70, Cole says, women start thinking about how they want to spend the rest of their lives. It's the age at which, according to Pew, most women think "old age" begins.

Bringing 70-year-old women into small groups, Cole and Giddan started having conversations with them about old age, becoming grandmothers, leaving careers behind, their husbands. They started a website called 70candles.com, where other women from around the world could post their stories and concerns about getting old. The two were after the secrets of aging gracefully—of living the good life until the very end. In the process, Cole has learned several lessons that dovetail with the broader psychological research about aging.

First is accepting old age. Referring to the boomers and the youth-oriented culture they created, Cole says, "If you're reveling in youth, imagine how scared you will be to grow old yourself. I want to celebrate aging and wisdom and how old I am, and I want to know how old other people are too," Cole told me in an interview.

There are positive sides to being old, after all. Erik Erikson, the pioneering psychologist who researched life phases and coined the term "identity crisis," argued that aging is a process of development and progress, not decline. The wisdom of the septuagenarians that he interviewed when he was alive underlines that point. Here is what some of them said: "patience is one thing you know better when you're old than when you're young," "nothing shakes me anymore," and "now I can see both sides."

One woman in Cole's group, a 69-year old woman named Carol, has approached aging with good humor. A slim and long-legged woman when she was younger—"There was neither a skirt too short nor a bikini too skimpy for me to wear," she said—she is now coming to terms with how her body is changing. "All of the hours I spend at the gym and walking aren't getting me back there either." But rather than despair over this fact, she laughed it off and accepted it:

Recently my husband and I were driving down a residential street on which the local municipality had erected signs intended to alert drivers that they needed to slow down and drive cautiously in this neighborhood. The sign said 'Thickly Settled.' The meaning, of course, is that there are lots of people, kids, dogs, etc. in the vicinity. I took one look at it and loudly said 'that's me—that exactly describes me.' Henceforth, forever and ever, I shall think of (and refer to) myself as 'Thickly Settled.' A perfect description for a slightly past middle aged body.

Second, banish the thought of "retirement." The women Cole spoke to, she said, are engaged as ever and doing meaningful work—whether volunteering, being with their grand kids, or working for pay. Just because you're eligible for Medicare and Social Security doesn't mean that you should stop working.

To understand the importance of this, consider the case of Okinawa, Japan, one of the world's "Blue Zones," the world's densest clusters of centenarians where the elderly have been remarkably successful at aging. Okinawa has the largest percentage of female centenarians in the world. In the U.S., there are 10-20 centenarians per 100,000 people; in Okinawa, there are 50 per 100,000, and 90 percent of them are women. The centenarians have one fifth the rate of certain cancers and heart disease, which kill 75 percent of Americans over 65.

In Okinawa, as in other Blue Zones, the idea that the elderly retreat into idleness in the mid-sixties, becoming dependents, is anathema. Rather, they are governed by a principle called Ikigai, rougly translated as the reason they wake up in the morning—their purpose.

Third is finding community and immersing yourself in it. After retirement, women risk losing their social connections at work. As they get older, their friends start to die. As they get more frail, they cannot visit with their friends and family as much.

The simple act of congregating the women of her generation in a room was therapeutic to Cole and her peers. It made them realize that aging does not have to be a lonely process, a fact that has eluded many elderly in this country. A study published this year in Archives of Internal Medicine found that over four in ten people over 60 years old feel lonely, which has negative effects on health and longevity. Another study showed that people who attend religious services regularly and frequently live longer than those who do not thanks, in large part, to the social aspect of community, faith, and hope.

In Okinawa, community is kindled in a unique way. There is a tradition to form a "moais"—a group of five friends that you meet in childhood and remain with you for the rest of your life. You talk, walk, eat, and play together, well into old age. In a presentation about Blue Zones given recently in Philadelphia, the journalist Dan Buettner told the story of one "moai" of women Okinawans in their 90s who get together every single night to drink saki. One day, when one of them did not show up, the group went to her house to see if everything was ok—and it was (turned out she overslept).

The point is to maintain those social networks of support and be integrated into society. The head researcher at Blue Zones tells me via e-mail, "In the Blue Zones, elders are a respected part of society and are taken care of by their children. That's much less common in the U.S, and likely contributes to elder depression." In the places where the elderly are flourishing, it's a safe bet that "retirement" homes do not exist.

In his 2002 book Aging Well, Vaillant describes a woman who epitomized the three factors that have helped the women of Cole's generation find joy in old age. This woman, whom Vaillant calls "Ellen Keller," was approaching the end of life as a terminally ill and impoverished widow. Though by every measure she should have been despondent, she ultimately found meaning in serving others in her last years of life.

Keller said that working as a hospice counselor was "the high point of my life.... The wonderful thing about hospice work is you get so much more back than you give...I've had so much love." Reflecting on the fact that she was nearing death but enjoying life, she said, "Shit, I want to be around a little longer."

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Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New York. She is an editor at The New Criterion, the managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and the editor of Acculturated.

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