It occurs to me that many older women in modern Western society invest a great deal in anti-wrinkle creams and serums and don’t pay nearly enough attention to the inner wrinkles that can give away a person’s age every bit as much.
The bid to keep one’s skin elastic is all well and good as far as it goes – and for the cosmetics industry, it can’t go far enough – but what about elasticity of the mind and, for want of a better word, the spirit? A friend who works as a rehabilitation counselor for the blind and low-vision community told me last week about a phone call she had received from a new client “whose voice and way of explaining herself convinced me that she was a young woman. After speaking to her for several minutes, I discovered that she was 87!” Smiling at the incongruence, we confessed to feeling cheered by the way some people seem able to defy the rigid age categories society still often insists on putting them in.
Even into the 21st century – with persuasive empirical evidence that “70 is the new 50” (the statement brought up 25,000 hits on Google) – a highly respected encyclopedia and dictionary of medicine, nursing and allied health was defining “any adult over 75 years old” as “frail elderly” in its seventh (2003) edition.
I can imagine any number of 70- and 80- and even older-somethings who lead active lives bristling at that definition, which evokes an image of weakness and helplessness, if not of actually having one foot in the grave.
On a recent Channel 1 Radio news magazine dealing with the medical aspects of aging, an Israeli expert admitted that the age categories still widely employed by the medical and health professions are out of date.
I WILL put up with the wrath of the cosmetics and advertising industries and state that a smooth skin does not send a youthful message other than in the most superficial way. There is something else, an elusive element that gives certain individuals, men as well as women, the quality of seeming young even when they are advanced in years, with an impressive array of wrinkles.
I TRIED to pin this quality down in a 2008 column called “An Ode to Age,” in which I reached back into the ‘70s to describe “an elderly woman I encountered briefly in an office on the top floor of an old building in Tel Aviv, where I was helping out a friend of a friend with some secretarial chores....”
Before going any further, I pointed out to readers that the words “elderly woman,” while factually true, did absolutely nothing to advance the story. So I just told it the way it was.
“There we were, about six of us in that long, stuffy room, heads bent over invoices, when the door opened and a figure wafted in. Clad in some pastel-colored floaty garment, she flitted – there’s no other word – from desk to desk, bestowing here a word, there a smile. When she passed me, the merest fragrance remained in the air. Then she was gone.
“Who was that?” I asked a co-worker, bemused.
“That’s the big boss’s wife,” she answered. I learned, too, that she was a woman in her 80s. It was late summer, but those few moments were a breath of spring.”
From that briefest of encounters so long ago, I can convey this much about a woman of advanced age whose image has stayed with me all these years: Whatever problems her long life might have brought her, she had retained a youthful vitality, a quality of lightness and color, and a spark of joy at being alive and in the world.
NOT LONG ago I met a woman also in her 80s, a psychoanalyst who made aliya from the US with her husband two years ago. She is handicapped by postpolio syndrome, which has weakened her muscles, and uses a walker. She has two broken arms that refuse to mend and no central vision in her right eye. She can see just a bit with her left eye, spending hours with enlarged text on her Kindle.
These would be formidable challenges for anyone, at any age, on top of the trials of adapting to a new country. Yet in conversation, she fairly bubbles over with enthusiasm and a youthful sense of purpose, and can hardly talk fast enough to keep up with her thoughts. She was the driving force in the couple’s aliya.
“Emotionally and intellectually, I feel 40 – and my body feels like 125,” she chuckles, adding, “If you can’t laugh at everything that happens to you, you’re in trouble.”
People aren’t really aware that aging is not a linear process, she says.
“The fact that your energy level is lower and you might look as though you are decaying doesn’t mean your desires are any less. I feel that depression among older people is because they won’t admit they have the same desires as before.”
When I remark that people will think she is talking about sexual desire, she bursts into laughter.
“Of coursed that is included – and I will admit that I have a [male] physical therapist who comes to the house who is absolutely gorgeous. Just because I’m old, I didn’t die!” She is disconcerted by the physical reality of aging, by the fact that “the body doesn’t go along with the psyche, because I want to continue to do everything.”
What is everything? “I want to write a book about my life. I want to work in energy psychology, which is a whole new field. In the last few weeks, I’ve come up with a new way of doing it. I want to see patients very soon.”
She attends a Hebrew literature class once a week, and is looking for a group that discusses the Torah portion of the week. She sits on the board of the local community center, and is hoping an exercise class for older people will work for her. She also takes a walk every day.
In her 80s, she says, her desire “is to be as significant as I have been throughout my adult life.”
THE RESILIENCE and vitality of this new acquaintance seem to stem from her desire for continued relevance and meaningful activity in her later years. These together are the engine that drives her youthful persona, pushing her considerable physical limitations into the background.
People are attracted to people who are alive, she says.
“A person who has vitality is not thrown over by challenges in life, even though I have to evaluate every little thing I do in terms of the economy of energy.”
The wisdom that comes with age encourages adaptability, she reflects, but “society doesn’t inspire it.
Old people feel they have to retire – not only from their jobs, but from meaningful life.”
I suggest that the qualities she is blessed with – her optimism, especially – might simply be an accident of birth. She agrees, to a point.
“I think that people can be born with an innate capacity for joy – but it’s still something you have to work for. I’ve had an extraordinarily difficult life, but I’m always joyful.”
MY HUSBAND, reading this column, recalled a woman he knew in Winnipeg many years ago, a part-time teacher, “who remained girlish well into her 90s. She was an inspiration.”
SO WHAT is it that makes some people seem young, even when they’re not? Is it an enduring optimism, a vitality and enthusiasm for life, an abiding intellectual curiosity – or just a lucky combination of genes? The answer may not be simple, but one thing seems clear: It is not necessarily a function of good health – and it has little to do with anti-wrinkle creams and potions.