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."