We'd all love to age gracefully, but it might be easier if we knew what the heck that meant.
Does aging gracefully mean cheerfully accepting gray hair and other physical changes, the way Barbara Bush (87) seemingly does? Or, on the other hand, does it require staying eternally gorgeous as the years slide by, like Sophia Loren (77)? Is it keeping a busy schedule of work or public service, like Jimmy Carter (87) or Betty White (90)? Or being super fit, like 68-year-old champion long jumper Carl Etter of Duluth (see cover story)? Or maybe it's gradually slowing down, relaxing, spending time in the garden, enjoying the grandchildren ...
Depends on your perspective.
A few years ago Ecumen, the giant Shoreview-based senior housing and services company, compiled a list of graceful aging suggestions from customers and staff. They included such time-honored pieces of wisdom as "get enough sleep," "exercise," "get a yearly checkup," "drink and eat in moderation," "treat others with respect." Those tips, of course, are sound advice for people of any age. Others were a little more specific to older people:
• Realize that although your body deteriorates, your spirit grows stronger if you allow it.
• Dress in current styles. By adding a trendy piece to a classic outfit, you will look and feel good.
• Maintain muscle mass, which will protect you from falling.
• Create milestones and work toward them. No matter how big or small, the journey is a growing experience.
Want more? We decided to ask a few other local people with ties to organizations for older people what "aging gracefully" means to them.
"Coping with the vicissitudes of aging with spirit, dignity and humor," is the succinct summary provided by LaRhae Knatterud, director of Aging Transformation for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
One of Ecumen's tips was "Practice acceptance. Know that there's a very good chance that your mobility will lessen as you age. Think about how you will deal with that so that when that time comes, you can still live fully."
Nancy Eustis, 71, learned that lesson rather abruptly at age 40, when a car accident left her quadriplegic.
Since then, Eustis has worked on skills such as acceptance, gratitude, optimism, and taking one day at a time. As a retiree, she has been active in local organizations for older people, including Vital Aging Network and the Invisible Force.
"I have goals, projects and involvement with other people," said Eustis, retired professor emerita from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School. "I try to contribute, I get out of the apartment, and my juices keep flowing."
Graceful aging, like so many other things, can depend on financial security, noted Milford Johnson, 79, a volunteer at the state Council on Black Minnesotans and host of the radio show Senior Perspectives at KMOJ, where he is popularly known as Brother Milford.
In his senior-housing building, "there are women who have buried three husbands and sold three homes. They're growing old rather gracefully. They're out to the Ordway and the Guthrie and other cultural things," Johnson said. "But people living in the poverty sector aren't living that kind of lifestyle. ... If you've got a minimal pension, social security and medicare, then you're living from month to month, for the most part."
Joel Theisen, CEO and founder of Lifesprk (formerly AgeWell) an organization that provides home care and other services for seniors, has problems with the term itself. To him, "aging gracefully" sounds too safe and passive, too much about riding quietly off into the sunset.
"A lot of people want to project the image that we receive in this country of aging. Not to be a burden. Not to do too much to rock the boat," he said. Don't settle for graceful aging, Theisen said. He encourages people to "age passionately," pursuing their interests and dreams with the help of loved ones and community resources.
Think, "What are my passions, what are my priorities, how do I get what I want?" Theisen urged. "I understand I've got some physical limitations, but I've got to find a way to live the way I envision myself living."