We’re bombarded with messages that teach us to fear aging in America. But 2 women are working to change this view by highlighting inspiring stories from seniors who are embracing their golden years.
One night in 2015, Dominique Afacan and Helen Cathcart decided to change the way they viewed aging. Over a bottle of wine, the two friends hashed out a plan to interview and photograph people over the age of 70 who were embracing life to its fullest.
“When we came up with this, I was in my mid-30s, childless, and single — all the things I’m ‘not supposed’ to be,” Afacan told Healthline. “We were terrified about getting older and fed messages from media and anti-aging products that [said] getting older should be feared.”
Meeting with older people and hearing about their outlook helped ease the friends’ fears.
“We talked with people who fell in love at 82 and started new careers at 75,” said Afacan.
A journalist and photographer by trade, Afacan wrote the stories and Cathcart took the pictures of the people they met. Then they uploaded them to their website Bolder, as well as social media outlets, such as Instagram.
To their surprise, within 6 months, they had thousands of followers.
In September 2019, they published their first book, “Bolder: Life Lessons from People Older and Wiser Than You.”
The book includes a number of inspiring stories on older people such as a woman who got married at the age of 82, and an 85-year-old man who swims a mile in the Mediterranean Sea every day.
The book also addresses sex, regrets, success, health, beauty, style, and death.
Before each story, Afacan and Cathcart share insights about what they learned from each person featured.
“I used to be scared of older people, but now I know they have so much to say,” said Afacan.
But everyone knows aging is inevitable — so why is it so scary?
Experts point to 4 big reasons why getting older stresses so many of us out.
Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, said that milestones — such as the worry Afacan had about having children — can cause anxiety around aging.
“There are realities for women about a biological clock, so that’s not a made-up thing. Even if you didn’t wish [to have children] that much, [feeling like a failure] or that you missed a window is very real for some women,” Saltz told Healthline.
Because life success is often measured by milestones, she says people can experience a sense of loss if they don’t meet one.
“To some degree, life at any age is coming to terms with accepting,” she said. “Even as a teenager in high school, you think you might be all these magnificent things, but part of maturing is accepting some [of these] things [are a] ‘yes’ and some things ‘no.’”
She also points to the idea that there’s power in youth.
“Particularly for women, evolutionally-related to the idea that you’re fertile when young and have the power to reproduce makes you desirable in some ways,” she said.
And youth is connected to having more time for opportunities to arise and to reach your goals.
“As you’re younger, [there’s the] idea that you can recreate yourself or choose to go in whatever direction, and therefore have potential. All these things make people feel that being younger is better and is more powerful and desirable and that you’re more likely to be admired,” said Saltz.
Saltz says most people look at the first half of life as being the time you can generate, create, or produce. While sometimes that’s true, she says people can always find something new to generate or contribute to.
“If they can’t generate the thing that mattered to them earlier, whether that was money or material things or a new business that they felt were most important, then they may think ‘I’m done,’” she said. “But the accrual of life experience and the wisdom that comes with being productive… can continue throughout life, but it may be in similar or different ways than it was earlier in life.”
She added that contributing can be more than work. It can be a hobby like gardening or painting, or something else that brings meaning to your life.
Dr. Nathan E. Goldstein, professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, agreed, stating that this is one aspect of aging people can control.
“When we joke about the most important factor in healthy aging, we say keep your parents well; genetics is a huge portion of it and that we can’t really control,” Goldstein told Healthline.
He notes that other things that relate to healthy aging that can be out of one’s control include social determinants of health, such as access to healthcare, food, and education.
“But attitude does go a very long way. We see that the folks who stay more active and stay active out in the community do tend to do better, whether that’s embracing social services, or getting out and going to community day programs, or volunteering,” he said.
“Whether it’s function or mental agility, it is very much use it or lose it. The more you are out in the world, the better you will do long term,” he added.
The people in Afacan’s and Cathcart’s book do exactly that. In addition to taking care of themselves physically and mentally, Afacan said they take on new things later in life with enthusiasm.
“They all have a positive outlook — and that’s not to say they didn’t experience trauma, they did, but they looked at life in a positive light,” she said.
Wrinkles, gray hair, and other physical changes happen to everyone with age. Experiencing those changes can be harder for some than others.
Saltz said the anti-aging beauty industry was created based on anxieties around physical changes.
“It’s not like the industries appeared first and we go, ‘Oh, we want this because we’re being sold it in a commercial.’ The industries pop up because they are marketing to a fear that is already there,” she said.
However, she says the industry delivers the message that you’re either young or old, and at all costs should try to stay and look young because that’s where your power and possibility lie.
To cope, Saltz says to look internally.
“If your self-worth is all wrapped up in looking a certain way so that if you walk into a room, heads will turn and you’ll be noticed and someone will desire you, if that changes, you are likely to suffer feelings of loss,” she said.
“If your self-worth is more internally generative — having to do with the way you partake in life, the way you are able to be generative and creative and engage in important relationships and get satisfaction from that — then things you built and that you can continue to build in your life [will make] the fear of [physical] loss [different],” she added.
Reality says the older we get, the closer we are to the end of life.
However, Goldstein says that the biggest thing Americans get wrong is that aging is the same thing as getting frail and decrepit.
“We are approaching the point where there will be more baby boomers than there are people under the age of 65 soon, and the population curve will be changing in a way that it never has in our country. So we have to rethink the idea of aging as continuing to live healthy into older years,” said Goldstein.
He says the majority of Americans age well into their 60s, 70s, and 80s.
“Whether 70 is the new 50, or 80 is the new 60, people are living longer and better, and that is certainly due to the improvements in modern medicine, but also because of how people think about themselves and about living in a different kind of way,” he said.
Part of this has to do with people being more informed about their health than in the past, he says.
“Now you have people in their 50s taking care of their parents in their 80s and both the parents and their children are internet savvy and know how to Google things, and they have a different expectation about what quality healthcare is,” said Goldstein.
Access models of healthy aging are also changing, he adds.
“People expect something different from the healthcare system than they did. They want to focus on how to stay functional and active in the community, and that’s our goal in geriatrics,” Goldstein said.
The subjects in Afacan’s book exemplify staying active and in ways warding off the aging process. However, Afacan still talked with them about death.
“We were so afraid to talk to them about it because these people are closer to death than us,” said Afacan. “But what they shared changed everything for me.”
“One woman told us that funerals were just another social occasion for her. That they were life coming in a full circle. That death made her appreciate the beauty of a flower a little more.”
Getting out and smelling the roses is what Goldstein suggests people do if they’re afraid of getting older.
“The worst thing you can do if you are worried about aging, is worry about aging. The people who say, ‘I don’t want to go outside, I don’t want to fall. I’d rather not do that and rather stay in,’ are the people who tend not to do well,” he said.
“Eat well, go to the doctor, follow the doctor’s recommendations — but really, it’s about active, healthy living. That’s the key.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who specializes in stories about health, mental health, and human behavior. She has a knack for writing with emotion and connecting with readers in an insightful and engaging way. Read more of her work here.