Aging Gracefully: How to Embrace the Golden Years on Your Own Terms
By Laura Slauson
| Last updated
What does aging gracefully mean to you? For some seniors, it means accepting the number of candles on your birthday cake without trying to look or act younger than you are. But for others, especially those with physical challenges, it's a euphemism that downplays the hardships of growing older. Yet, aging gracefully is possible for all older people. It comes down to attitude, not what you look like or what activities you can or cannot do.
Of course, today's seniors don't have a manual for how to act in the later stages of life, nor do they have many great role models. As a society, we're still in relatively new territory when it comes to answering the question, "What is aging gracefully?" In 1900, the average life expectancy was 47 years old. And as recently as 1950, it was only 58.1 So for generations, most people with gray hair were considered "old." Today, that's no longer the case.
We can make our own rules now. You grow old gracefully by choosing your own attitude and approach to change. Everyone is different. We all have unique challenges and strengths.
Consider the origin of the word "grace": It comes from the Latin term "gratus," which means pleasing. Many seniors say that one benefit of growing older is that they realize they don't have to please anyone but themselves. So no matter how you approach the inevitable changes that come with age, it's important to feel good about yourself. The senior years are a time to celebrate your accomplishments and the knowledge you've gained through experience.
In this article, you'll learn about the factors that influence our feelings about aging and why a positive outlook is important. You'll also explore tips about how to approach some of the outward signs of aging.
What Does It Mean to Age Gracefully?
"Don't regret growing older. It's a privilege denied to many." Nobody is sure who first uttered those words, but the sentiment is timeless. Although we're often surrounded by messages telling us that aging is a negative experience, growing older isn't a bad thing (especially considering the alternative).
In fact, our overall happiness levels tend to rise with age. One reason might be that we typically face fewer stressors related to work and relationships as we grow older.2 But psychologists also speculate that we acquire a more balanced perspective through hard-earned experience.
Growing awareness of our own mortality may help us appreciate our lives more, instead of comparing our circumstances to others and striving for more material things. And research shows that it's our attitude and connection to others that influence our satisfaction with our lives. The landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked participants into their 80s and 90s, found that lifestyle factors have a bigger impact on happiness levels than wealth or fame.3 And "subjective health" (how healthy you feel) has a greater impact than "objective health" (whether or not you have health issues).
In other words, our feelings about aging can play a big role in how we approach it. That's one reason why many seniors don't see themselves as "old" at all. About half of young adults aged 18 to 29 say they feel their age. But 60 percent of adults over 65 say they feel younger than their age. Only three percent feel older than their actual age. (In contrast, about one quarter of people in the 18-to-25 age group say they feel older than their age.)4
So if "old age" is not a static stage of life, then the oft-repeated phrase "you're only as young as you feel" may be a good guide to graceful aging. And our ability to remain open to new experiences and to grow and change may also be a key component to aging with dignity.
Under this approach, having strong social connections and pursuing fun activities are important components of graceful aging. It isn't necessarily how well we hide the outward signs of growing older, but how we approach the activities in our daily lives that makes a difference.
The Aging Process and Happiness: Ego Integrity vs. Despair
Why do we age? The answer is complex, with many factors coming into play (including many unknown factors). Here's one aging definition that's perhaps too concise: the accumulation of damage to our cells, a process which starts as young as the age of 24. It's an incomplete definition because it only accounts for the physical causes of aging, not the psychological impacts of physical changes.
Here's another important fact to remember: Not all changes are bad. In fact, our brains undergo some positive changes with age, such as giving us calmer reactions to negative experiences.5 However, that isn't necessarily true of everyone: You probably know a few people who always respond more negatively to unwanted change than others.
That leads to another question: Why do some people remain open to new experiences as they age, while others become more set in their ways? Psychologists may have an answer.
According to development psychologist Erik Erikson's stages of development theory, a life is divided into eight separate stages, each marked by the need to resolve an internal conflict. In the eighth stage, which begins around the age of 65, the conflict is about ego integrity versus despair.
According to Erikson, ego integrity versus despair is a conflict that can be resolved by reflecting on your life and taking stock of your accomplishments and failures:
Part of aging gracefully may involve achieving the ego integrity stage. If we understand the purpose and meaning of our lives, we'll be more prepared for the inevitable challenges of growing older. We can adapt to change more easily. That's why this kind of mature perspective can be one of the rewards of aging—benefits that are backed by science. Studies have found that seniors with positive attitudes toward aging experience less cognitive decline.6 And those positive feelings can even lead to a longer life.7
Of course, it's hard to maintain a positive attitude if you have medical problems, experience loneliness, or suffer from depression. But if physical or psychological problems are influencing the way you feel about growing older, talk to your doctor, therapist, or someone else you trust. As more and more Americans enter their senior years, more help is becoming available.
4 External Signs of Aging and How to Approach Them Gracefully
It's possible to predict some events in the aging process by decade of life. (For example, by age 60, most women have completed menopause.) But as we get older, it's often harder to guess a person's age. A combination of lifestyle, genetics, and just plain luck influences how old a person appears to be. Simply put, we all age differently. And since we can't control time, aging slowly isn't possible. (Those birthdays are going to happen every year, no matter what we do.) But some people do seem to look younger than others of the same age.
These external factors often play a role in how we feel about our age, even though we're reacting to elements that are only appearance-based. They can also impact how we're perceived by others. As a result, many people are upset when they start to see signs of growing older (especially if they still feel young).
Although we know that we shouldn't stress about these signs, sometimes it's hard not to. Our society tends to view signs of aging as something to hide instead of celebrate. So we don't always recognize the rewards of this stage of life. Even when we're told that "60 is the new 40," for example, the underlying assumption is that being 40 is inherently better than being 60.
But graceful aging doesn't necessarily mean accepting wrinkles and gray hair and learning to love them. Instead, to age gracefully means to pay attention to what makes you feel best. So check out these four commonly asked questions about the outward signs of aging and learn what you should consider:
1. Going Gray: What Should I Do?
"Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained by a righteous life."—Proverbs 16:31
Does that proverb make you laugh? For some people, gray hair represents wisdom and maturity. But most people aren't particularly thrilled if they start going gray early. After all, people with gray hair are often deemed to be "old" for no other reason than the lack of color in their locks.
Gray hair can even be a source of controversy. (Just consider the press coverage that resulted when the Duchess of Cambridge was photographed with gray roots.) But a growing number of people now embrace silver or gray hair. In fact, even some younger people are opting to dye their hair those colors: The gray hair trend was one of the biggest beauty-related news stories of 2018.
Should you color over graying hair? This is a complicated question for many seniors. But the natural process of hair turning gray is actually quite simple: The follicle at the root of each hair strand contains pigment cells with a substance called melanin that determines the color of that strand. As we age, these pigment cells gradually die off, so new hair strands become more transparent. The result? Gray, silver, or white hair.
Despite what many of us have heard, stress doesn't turn hair gray. In fact, hair never actually turns gray. Rather, each hair follicle determines the color of a strand from its very beginning. So if a strand starts out blond, it will stay blond (unless you dye it). But stress can cause hair loss. So if you're at an age when your follicles aren't producing as much melanin, more of the strands that grow back after a period of hair loss may be gray. As a result, it might feel as if you're suddenly going gray due to stress.
Genetics play the biggest role in determining when we start to go gray. And medical conditions, such as thyroid problems, can cause premature graying. Some evidence also points to poor nutrition and environmental exposure to certain toxins as factors. But one thing is clear: Gray hair is a normal part of aging, and it is difficult to avoid. As British humor writer P.G. Wodehouse said, "There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine."
Although it's nothing to be ashamed of, hiding gray hair is a big industry. Americans spend over $2 billion annually on women's hair-coloring products and $150 million on men's products. (That big difference indicates a double standard in our attitudes about gender and gray hair.) Women spend $330 a year, on average, coloring their hair. Some salons charge as much as $600 a visit.8 Despite the cost, about 56 percent of women over 70 color their hair.9
Whether or not you choose to cover your gray is a very personal decision. On the one hand, coloring gray hair can be costly and time-consuming. On the other hand, some people prefer the way they look without their grays showing. Plus, one study found that women who dye their gray hair have lower blood pressure, not because of some magical substance in the hair dye, but perhaps because they feel younger.10 (Some psychologists speculate that our bodies might internalize the messages we give them related to appearance.)
One factor that can complicate the decision to stop dyeing your hair is that going gray gracefully is difficult without an awkward transition phase. But if you want to stop coloring your hair, a hairdresser can help you create a plan.
For example, strategically placed highlights or lowlights can ease the going-gray transition. And chemical treatments like color remover or temporary color can help you adjust to having more gray hair. Styles also make a difference: As more gray appears, a layered cut can make the contrast less obvious. For home coloring, using semi-permanent dyes allows color to fade gradually. (In order to avoid patchy color, hairdressers suggest waiting until roots are at least 60-percent gray before deciding to go "all gray.")
If you decide to flaunt your gray hair, stylists recommend using a hair gloss to keep it shiny. (Gray and silver hair absorb light, so it's easier for those colors to look dull.) And because the texture of gray hair can be dry, you should use a good conditioner. Also, talk to your hairstylist about good gray hairstyles: A great cut makes a huge difference.
Of course, hair loss can also be a tough issue for seniors. In fact, going bald is the top fear related to the male aging process, ahead of impotence.9 But, similar to the gray-hair trend, many younger men are now choosing to shave their heads, even if they haven't lost much hair yet. So it may be better to accept your hair loss than fight it. Hairdressers advise that balding men avoid the "comb over," which fools nobody.
2. How Can I Protect My Skin?
For some seniors, in addition to deciding what to do about going gray, looking great (however they define it) also involves making decisions about skin care. After all, wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots are another part of the normal aging process as our skin becomes drier and less elastic. And with age, some of the lifestyle choices we made back in our youth may show up in our skin. (For example, not too long ago, it was common to sunbathe while lathered in baby oil instead of sunscreen. Now we know that those ultraviolet rays can lead to sun damage.)
Just remember this: You've earned your wrinkles and laugh lines. As fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg said, "My face carries all my memories. Why would I erase them?"
Of course, many of us try to keep our skin looking youthful as long as we can. That's why you'll find hundreds of skin-care products making big promises related to aging. But beware of getting caught in a cycle of always seeking the "magic bullet" solution.
Most skin-care products don't work instantly, so you won't see immediate results. But that doesn't mean you should give up and buy something new. In fact, cosmetic companies make a lot of money from our ongoing quest to find the best anti-aging skin-care product. So if you're not sure what works for your skin, focus on products' ingredients (not the marketing) and talk things over with your primary care doctor or a dermatologist.
Also, remember that good skin starts from within. No matter how much money you spend on anti-aging treatments, if you're not looking after your health, it can show in your skin. Good nutrition, moderate exercise, and sleep can all help.
And, of course, sunscreen is essential—even on cloudy days. Ultimately, however, when it comes to our faces, our attitudes may be more influential in how we're perceived than our wrinkles. That's because people who have a happy expression are often perceived to be younger.11
3. Hygiene: Why Do Old People Smell Different?
Even seniors with impeccable hygiene can develop a distinct odor. Although this is sometimes referred to as "old person smell," the correct term for the cause of the odor is nonenal. (Pronunciation of this word is with a short "e.") And contrary to popular belief, it's not caused by poor hygiene or lazy housekeeping. Instead, it's the result of the normal skin-aging process:
Interestingly, one study found that the scent associated with older people isn't necessarily unpleasant. In the study, participants were asked to sniff materials exposed to the armpits of subjects of various ages and rate the smell. Although the scent of seniors was the most recognizable, it wasn't rated as the most unpleasant in this context. (That honor went to the scent of middle-aged men.) In other words, it may be the nonenal scent's association with getting old that makes us want to avoid it.12
Odor prevention can take some conscious effort. That's partly because normal soap doesn't necessarily prevent nonenal. Odor removal must target the specific compounds produced by the skin. Although most soaps are formulated to tackle the smell of perspiration, many aren't effective with nonenal. But some research suggests that soaps containing persimmon may work. As a result, so-called nonenal soap is available for purchase.
In addition to nonenal soap, lifestyle changes can help:
- Drink lots of water.
- Wear cotton clothing so that your skin can breathe easily.
- Bathe or shower regularly.
- Moisturize after bathing or showering.
- Exfoliate your skin.
- Reduce your stress, since it can increase the production of nonenal.
- Wash your laundry on a regular basis, if possible.
4. How Can I Avoid Age-Related Changes to My Posture?
Seniors are at risk for osteoporosis, muscle loss, and compression of the discs in the spine. The result can be a distinctive stooped posture, as well as aches, pains, and mobility limitations. Plus, how you carry yourself influences how others view you. So good posture and mobility can help with all aspects of aging gracefully, especially your ability to enjoy activities. It can also protect your health since good posture reduces the risk of falling and helps with breathing.
But improving your posture isn't just about reminding yourself to stand up straight. Often, you have to retrain and strengthen your muscles. Here are some good ways to work on your posture to avoid age-related changes:
Also, check out some books and videos that can help you with your posture and mobility. Here are a few books to get you started:
Aging Gracefully: You Have the Power
One of the most concise and popular aging quotes is from Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect: "The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes."
Although that outlook may not always be achievable when faced with setbacks or physical problems, it's important to remember that focusing on the positive aspects of this stage of life can help make growing older easier. If graceful aging means adapting to changes in a way that reflects our personal values, then remaining positive, open, and flexible is key.
Aging gracefully is definitely possible. Sure, we may need help to overcome certain challenges sometimes. But growing older continues to have its own rewards.
- 1 Forbes, "The 21st-Century Miracle: Living To 100," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 2 The Economist, "Why people get happier as they get older," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 3 The Harvard Gazette, "Good genes are nice, but joy is better," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 4 Pew Research Center, "Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 5 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, "The emotion paradox in the aging brain," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 6 Psychology Today, "Attitude to Aging Impacts Everything About Aging," website last visited on January 8, 2020.
- 7 American Psychological Association, "Attitudes about aging affect longevity, study says," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 8 Psychology Today, "Graying: Is the Double Standard Diminishing?," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 9 AARP, "Your Looks at 70 Plus," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 10 Association for Psychological Science, "Young in mind: Saying no to caricatures of aging," website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 11 Psychology and Aging, "Let me guess how old you are: effects of age, gender, and facial expression on perceptions of age", website last visited on December 12, 2018.
- 12 Time, "'Old-Person Smell' Really Exists, Scientists Say," website last visited on January 20, 2020.