My grandmother had no expectations of longevity. When she turned 70, she did not enroll in a yoga class or take up square dancing. She took longer naps.
Yet, earlier this year when the feminist movement’s Gloria Steinem acknowledged her 80th birthday she celebrated by flying to Africa for a vacation.
More and more, we are declaring aging a choice as we continue to exercise, watch our diets, dye our hair and fine tune our brains, learning new card-playing rules and working crossword puzzles.
In his mid-80s, Clint Eastwood still directs movies and Dick Cheney, at 70-plus, has a new heart. Literally, a new heart! Aging, today, asks us to buy into self-renewal.
By the seventh decade of our lives, a fourth of us live with chronic health problems, yet only 2 percent of us require daily nursing care. Doctors of a kindly sort are quick to remind us when we set the bar high in the golden years we should remember those who have physical limitations not of their making.
But our competitive natures lend themselves to believing with enough discipline and will power we are in charge. We tell ourselves we can stave off diseases of body and mind, and with good genes, live to be 100. Yet, there are still mysteries. Too many young women, those eating raw vegetables and jogging, have breast cancer. Their grandparents, linked to a community of friends, to a lifetime of reading, are diagnosed with dementia. Little wonder we feel betrayed when a marathon runner drops dead at the end of a race.
In their 70s, more men have cancer, but more women are depressed. More women still drive, but more men have full or part-time jobs. The average life expectancy in this country is 78.
While my grandmother was content to rock on her front porch and just “be,” today’s aging “doers” exercise to warm up arthritis and stay limber.
In Europe, not so much. Many older Europeans still smoke, flock to beaches to bask in the sun, find comfort in cream-rich desserts and leave gym workouts to the young. Perhaps their lives, just beginning as restoration from a terrible war got underway, are tethered to memories of rationing and loss. They feel entitled to enjoy “the good life,” knowing they will work until age 70 to keep pension plans solvent.
One simple truth on which my grandmother and a parachuting 80-year-old would agree is to take life one day at a time, finding comfort in the familiar, embracing a body, still, hopefully, doing its job.
After all, in the 70s club, Paul McCartney of the Beatles is still singing. Harrison Ford, sporting an earring, bears slight resemblance to Indiana Jones and Robert Redford, nominated this year for an Academy Award, had to speak only four lines to be singled out as an outstanding actor.
Those we once thought of as “adorable” are now, in our eyes, “admirable,” “generous” and occasionally, “wise.”
If we live long enough, aging may level the playing field. The homecoming queen’s boyish hips widen and the star quarterback, he of the soulful brown eyes, carries around considerable girth and a set of capped teeth, making him look, well, like a beaver.
At my husband’s 40th high schoo,l reunion a man showed up who was not in his class, but a year younger. He had been the stringbean kid, not athletic, the one with a wheezy voice whose naturally curly hair could not be tamed.
Forty years later, his hair had been straightened and so had his nose. He had become a well-known arranger of music, working with Barbra Streisand. He showed up at the reunion, of course, to take a bow, to enjoy being the successful handsome guy, shaking hands in a sea of grayhaired men.
For all the dates he’d never had in school, the parties he missed, age and a nip and tuck had granted him a sweet second chance.
Judy Elliott lives and writes in Marietta.