Betty Friedan, the late feminist, found that writing the 1993 book “The Fountain of Age” was “very liberating,” as she told an interviewer that year. At the beginning of the project she shared “the same dreary view” of the aging process that many others did. By the end Friedan — 72 herself at the time — came to understand it was merely a new phase of life. She was able to “break through this pernicious definition of age just as decline.”
This is the challenge facing every senior and those around them. They need to understand they still have a purpose in their later years, that indeed they still matter. Feeling otherwise has dire consequences. One study showed that those who displayed a positive attitude lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who did not. That conclusion was supported by a 2015 study of individuals between the ages of 60 and 96. Those with upbeat dispositions were better able to deal with short-term stress. In addition they reaped long-term health benefits. As one of the authors, Shevaun Neupert, told Consumeraffairs.com:
“This tells us that the way we think about aging has very real consequences for how we respond to difficult situations when we’re older. That affects our quality of life and may also have health ramifications. For example, more adverse emotional responses to stress have been associated with increased cardiovascular health risks.”
All of this has profound ramifications now, considering life expectancy in the U.S. increased by 30 years between 1900 and 2000. While the pandemic led to a decline of 2.7 years – from 78.8 to 76.1 – between 2019 and 2021, there are more seniors than ever before, and in the years ahead their numbers will be greater still. As of 2019 some 54.1 million Americans were 65 or older, and they accounted for 16 percent of the population. By 2060, there will be 95 million people in that age cohort, and they will comprise 23 percent.
Simply put, seniors cannot be ignored — and they shouldn’t be. Marginalizing them helps no one. Happily there are many people who have come to this realization, like those who founded an organization called the Experience Corps in 1995. A voluntary mentorship program, it has been described as an “intergenerational win-win.” It allows seniors to share their experience with school kids, while at the same time improving their physical and cognitive health.
Experience Corps started out in five cities. By 2015 it was in 21. It also became an arm of the AARP four years earlier.
The point is that engagement goes a long way toward improving one’s outlook at any age, but particularly later in life. Friedan (1921-2006) came to understand that herself while working on her book. In that 1993 interview she mentions making the acquaintance of a widower named Earl Arthurson. Once an insurance executive in Charlotte, N.C. he emerged as a leader of the Outward Bound group of which both were a part. Still later he was hired on as a host for a cruise line, leading Friedan to conclude that he was the very epitome of the Fountain of Age.
“Youth,” Friedan said, “is not the peak.”
No, it is not. There are still summits that can be reached in one’s Golden Years, and those who come to that realization are all the better for it.