Millie’s Big Eight-Oh
Mom and Joe

Growing Old Gracefully

[NOTE: Thank you all who took part yesterday in the blosophere celebration of Millie Garfield's 80th birthday. What a large, rich variety of greetings you sent her. I had a terrific time visiting them all from the comment links at her blog.]

It is a phrase we’ve heard and used ourselves all our lives: “I intend to grow old gracefully.” I remember saying it myself over the years – when I was a good deal younger than I am now.

What I meant to convey by the phrase then is fuzzy to me now. Something, I suspect, about rejecting cosmetic surgery and accepting “gracefully” whatever time might throw my way in terms of changes in my appearance. Most certainly I appropriated the line from elsewhere without much thought to what getting older is like while imagining myself, in the remote future, in the third person - she, not I, would grow old gracefully.

Now that I have reached the age when such a state of being is an attractive idea, I’ve been wondering what it really means to do so.

Googling “aging gracefully” returns hundreds of thousands of sites which, after an hour or two of perusal, I found can be broken down into four categories:

  1. Pets. Weirdly, there is a lot written about helping pets age gracefully. Not quite what I was looking for.
  2. Christian sermons with a lot of Bible quotations.
  3. Health advice.
  4. Botox and cosmetic surgery proponents arguing against aging gracefully – that is, if appearance is all you think the phrase means; and I do not.

So the web, a rich source of answers for many other questions, failed me. And my growing library of books, reports and studies on aging doesn’t much address this question. Damn! No “experts” to quote.

The one personal ideal who comes to mind, Katharine Hepburn - who never gave a hoot about what other people thought of her - isn't a bad place to start this quest.

These, then, are some thoughts on aging gracefully. You may have some others.

  • The pursuit of the appearance of youth is vanity and it is demeaning. There is grace in wearing our years honestly.
  • Tolerate the inevitable decline in strength with a good nature. When needed, there is dignity, not shame, in asking for help.
  • Cultivate your friends, old ones and new ones, young and old, and listen – really listen – when they speak. It will keep you from becoming hidebound in your outlook, and everything is interesting if you pay attention.
  • Accept eventual death with forbearance and composure. The wheel goes ‘round everlastingly and we must make room for the next generations.
  • And live. Really live. Every day.

Look to this Day. For it is Life,
The very Life of Life.
In its brief course lie all the Varieties
And Realities of your Existence:
The Bliss of Growth,
The Glory of Action,
The Splendor of Beauty.
For Yesterday is but a Dream,
And Tomorrow is only a Vision,
But Today well lived
Makes every Yesterday a Dream of Happiness,
And every Tomorrow a Vision of Hope.
Look well therefore to this Day.

[from the Sanscrit]


Great post. Obviously written with some thought. The words make aging an acceptable thing regardless of the wane of flesh and beauty.

One thought to add to yours. It really helps to find an occupation that you are passionate about. Something to fill quiet times with purpose.

Interestingly, I too first think of Hepburn when the "aging gracefully" phrase pops up. The last time I saw her being interviewed, she was so very frail, and still was oozing life, vitality, and sensuality.

Considering your list, I would add one targeted at crankiness, crabbiness, and the word that seems to be applied only to older people, cantankerous. Maybe something like:

. Keep an alert and active mind, remain interested and interesting, and avoid becoming the ill-tempered, disagreeable victim that nobody wants to be around.

Ronni, you can probably find better words than mine, so feel free to edit freely.

Having passed the forty year watershed, I'm aware that time isn't marching backwards - and yet, I colour my hair. Should I? Or shouldn't I just wear my completely grey hair with pride? I've thought about this a great deal... and I've resolved it thus - I'm 41 years old, but externally I'm also not yet 2 years old. So, I'll indulge myself with just a *few* years of coloured hair (the same colour as it was when I was chronologically 2) before resuming my own graceful (well, maybe!) maturity.

"Keep an alert and active mind, remain interested and interesting, and avoid becoming the ill-tempered, disagreeable victim that nobody wants to be around."

Hmm ... interesting, Winston. I would agree with this for any age.

As I see it, I don't know about this "graceful" thing. It has so many interpretations. After all, if women would agree to be stereotypically "ladies" we might not allow ourselves to find our voice and become assertive.

So, as I age, I want to find my voice, express myself loud and clear, dance and sing and live life to the fullest. Often, there is nothing graceful about what life has to offer. For example, does being graceful mean I can't complain? Or laugh out loud - heartily, from my guts? Or be "outrageous?" I need to do those things to get through this life. It is way too messy an operation - life that is - for me to do it "gracefully."

So, in conclusion, I'm not sure I'm capable of "aging gracefully," and thank goodness for that.

There are/have been so many good examples of people aging gracefully: Lena Horn, Rosalyn Carter, Rose Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, a lady at the nursing home where I serve as volunteer ombudsman, Bella Abzug, my maternal-line great-grandmother (and my paternal grandmother and most of the women I knew in their generation), Coretta King, Harry Truman....

One of the crucial aspects of aging happily (as opposed or maybe not opposed to aging gracefully) is to play by your own rules and not be too influenced by societal expectations. One of the pleasures of aging is not having to worry so much what other people think of us - so if we get face lifts and keep coloring our hair it looks to me like we are accepting the view that being old is worse than being young and we are crummier than younger people - so we need to ape them. Like black people getting their hair conked and using "whitening" cream on their skin.

I think the first challenge is to accept that it's happening to me. I'm "only" 58... It isn't time for that to happen yet.
I used to think 50 was old, but it wasn't... and neither is 58. It isn't happening to me yet... all evidence to the contrary.
Is this denial or what?

I think I'd rather grow old disgracefully!!


I've always attributed the qualities of "growing older gracefully" coming from within...not at all external...with humor as the most important component of the equation. Nice post Ronni.

I will have lived 70 years next month..........How old am I?
How do you know when you are "old", much less if you are doing it "gracefully"? I am not sure it has anything to do with "rejecting cosmetic surgery".......or that decline in strength is "inevitable". If you are always worry what other people think of us Good friends ones are always hard to come by. And I am not sure (until I get there) that I am passive enough to accept death with "forbearance and composure." ("Kicking and Screaming" will probably be more like it!) And I have to agree with Tamor: "Often, there is nothing graceful about what life has to offer." I am in the process of being Nurse to my 71 year old (never-be-sick-a-day-in-his-life) husband after a major me: there was nothing "graceful" about that...but it is part of my life right now.
I think we are "old" much like we were "young".......(Ms. Hepburn (also one my personal favorites) really didn't change that much through out her life. And she died like she lived, if I can believe what I read about it.)

I keep thinking of that wonderful question: (something lie...) " If you didn't know your age old would you be?"
Today I am 69.


I don't put hair coloring in the same category as cosmetic surgery, and I don't think it applies in regard to graceful aging. I've been gray since my early 30s and stopped coloring my hair only about two years ago, which you might have noticed at Blogher - the ends are still a fading red.

Unlike when I was a teenager and in my 20s, when hair "dye" then was still considered a bit sleazy, everyone colors their hair now just for fun (with or without gray) and I think we can credit teenagers back in the eighties when they first started using raspberry and green and purple hair colors. Before then, the goal of hair color was to look as natural as possible.

And two other things. In my lifetime, our life expectancy has grown so much and we tend to look younger than our parents at the same age (some say due to better nutrition growing up), so gray doesn't feel as right a lot of the time on 40-year olds as with our parents. As with wisdom teeth, perhaps evolution hasn't yet caught up with other human changes.

And I think it's very different for women. Men, when their temples go gray, are considered distinguished. Women are just considered old when 40, these days, is no longer old. So it makes sense to me to color our hair if we want until it doesn't feel right anymore. Two years ago, it stopped feeling right to me - and I never liked hair shops anyway.

Hair shops? Geez, last time I had my hair colored there they charged me $80, and that was years ago. I can do it myself for less than $8. Now I don' teven go for haircuts - just let it be long and trim my own bangs! So much easier....

I want to grow old *healthy* more than anything else. And as happy as possible. Other than that, who is to judge me "graceful" or not?

You gave me much food for thought, as usual. I just finished posting my thoughts about personally growing older gracefully on my site.

"Growing old gracefully" is to me one of those phrases that allows anyone hearing it to interpret it as they wish. Another in the same vein is "acting one's age." I believe I am doing both, although while in the latter case I am acting my age, I am also writing the script.

I think for me it's about making my old woman interesting and alive, a woman people enjoy being around, one who is living with what is but never has forgotten the lessons of what was-- who has stored in her heart the days of lushness but doesn't allow those memories to ruin her current reality, a woman grateful there are memories but not dwelling in them. I don't think aging with grace is about hair coloring or surgery but more the inner light. I've seen those who color their hair and it looks great and those who shouldn't have and same with nips and tucks.

On a small physical note, when I got to a certain age, I noticed that if I didn't make the effort, my mouth naturally drooped down. I began to notice other ages and saw children's mouths tilt up, many older folks have mouths that head downward. Just the tiny shift of making sure you always have a pleasant expression on your face can make a huge difference in how others see you. And when you smile at others, it often lifts their day as well as yours.

Your writing is skillful and your insight deep. Sure wish you had a blog. You have lots to offer the world.

I think it's not the same for everyone.

To me, one thing that aging gracefully means is that if time shuts a door, we look for a new one to open, rather than banging on the one that's closed to us.

Ronnie...wonderful blog today! All of the posts here were great.
For me, growing older gracefully must come from within. It's a state of mind, an attitude, a feeling. I have a hard time identifying with girlfriends who constantly moan "it's my age" or "I'm getting old."
I've been with women in their 80's and 90's and the word "old" isn't in their vocabulary. Why? Because they keep themselves busy, they socialize, they read, they stay abreast of current events, they listen, and each day they continue to learn and grow. They don't "feel" therefore they're not. growing old gracefully.
PS...right on, Ronnie, about the hair color. For now...I still choose to cover the "white" that I have. Yup....was gray in my 30's and white in my 40's. A pretty white, but white, nonetheless. It's in my genes and my pigment. Doesn't have a thing to do with AGE....just like wearing glasses doesn't.

Refrain from discussing personal ailments ad infinitum. We went to a friend's 75 birthday party last night and most of us there were in that general age vicinity. I had on my boot-cast and had a cane for the torn tendon problem I am experiencing so naturally there were questions. I simply said it is a torn tendon and that I have wearing boot cast for almost 6 weeks. And, no, I don't know how I tore it or when it happened. Simple as that.

Several others there gave complete run downs on their state of health or illness, recent surgeries, hearing loss, bad eyesight. You get the picture.

We have other friends who are 91 and 88. Husband and wife. They never discuss their health problems therefore they are fun to be with.

Another growing old gracefully is from Katherine Hepburn's autobiography. Kate made sure she stayed extra clean. She showered 3 times a day. So never neglect personal hygiene.

Learn all you can about aging and prepare for this age as if planning to travel to a foreign country. B.F. Skinner had that advice in his book "Old Age"
I just found these exerpts from B.F. Skinner's book "Old Age" so I am including them:

It is always interesting to know what experts in a field do when it comes to themselves, and that question is particularly intriguing when we seek to learn what B.F. Skinner, world renowned behavioral psychologist, sought to do with regard to his own aging process. His ideas and practices were captured in a book he co-authored with gerontologist Margaret Vaughn (Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self-Management, W. W. Norton., 1983).

Though the book is out of print, the value of its contents -i.e. how Skinner applied his own ideas to life as an aging person - is still worth considering, especially for readers who may not be able to locate this book easily.

Enjoying old age - Skinner's secret

As Skinner puts it, people should pay attention to what they like or do not like to do, but he adds an important caveat: What we like will depend a lot on the consequences of our actions, whether they reinforce us with positive experiences. While it is impossible to always arrange matters so that we get to do what things are most reinforcing to us, for Skinner this is the secret of enjoying old age.

Keeping in touch with the world

Keeping in touch with the world is an important way to continue receiving positive reinforcement in life. Reading newspapers, magazines and books, for example, or surfing the internet for information are all potential sources of "positive reinforcement" - i.e. something that offers us a pleasurable reward for our actions

Techniques for effective dealing with differences have been around for some time and have produced results in various areas including politics, business and marital counseling. What is common to all of these settings is a set of skills that can be learned. With practice, they allow people to move forward in a way that leaves all parties feeling satisfied.

Keeping up with the world also means paying attention to one's senses -especially to small differences in pain and pleasure. Skinner recommends that one avoid situations and people who do not give pleasure to the senses; for example, avoiding restaurants where music is played so loudly people have to shout to be heard. Additionally, it can be gratifying to give up items, events and activities that are annoying. So if your chair, bed or lamp no longer suit you, throw it out and replace it with something that gives you pleasure on a daily basis. In other words, you do not have to put up with something that feels uncomfortable, especially if you have the option of changing things.

Meeting the challenge of keeping in touch with the world

Keeping in touch with the world also becomes more complex with age. As Skinner advises, one must compensate for lagging facilities in memory by creating physical reminders that replace cognitive skills. For example, keeping notes and lists, rather than trying to commit things to memory. Of course, since forgetting names is not just an "old person" problem, the usual remedies for remembering names, such as reintroducing oneself, are suggested.

Similar solutions are suggested for times when thoughts become muddled. Again keeping calendars, notes and lists is suggested.

In addition, however, being in good physical condition is important, since the brain is a bodily organ after all. Thus, being tired may actually be at the root of much confusion, rather than old age per se.

Simplifying and clarifying one's environment is also recommended, because if there are too many things in too many different places in one's life, anyone can become confused - at any age!

Keeping continuously involved with things that matter

It is important to stay continuously involved in things that matter and that are significant to oneself. Keeping in dialogue with others stimulates the skill of speaking intelligently, which can be lost through disuse. In addition, trying out new ways of doing things and new ways of exploring and thinking about things is also important.

Recognizing that creativity is a life long process

It has been noted that although major contributions are often made by people in their 30's and 40's, other peaks in performance often occur in the 60's and 70's. In lyric poetry, for example, often considered the province of the young romantic, superior work was noted among those 25-29, but another peak period for these poets was between 80-84. In the Louvre, significant works are represented by painters in their 30's as well as in their 70's. Michaelangelo died at 89 - still painting- and Verdi wrote Falstaff at 80.

Achieving satisfaction through satisfying relationships

Skinner proposed that getting along with other people is a primary factor in terms of making life more enjoyable. If one wants to have friends, manners and good comportment are as important at 80 as at 40.

Living with others is one way to facilitate having satisfying relationships. While it is sometimes difficult to adjust to living more closely with a partner after retirement, it is generally worth the effort. Living with someone who is not one's marriage partner can also be a viable idea. Keep in mind that living together involves various arrangements, including cohabitation in either a platonic or a sexual relationship. There are many variations on platonic relationships, from roommates to those who take in boarders.

Reacting to emotional distress

The authors also address problems of emotional distress. To the extent possible, they suggest that the most important strategy is to shift the circumstances that give rise to the discomfort or distress. For example, instead of trying to feel more cheerful through an act of will, a depressed person might try to change the circumstances that feed into the depression.

Additionally, distress can be alleviated or at least made more tolerable by keeping in mind the fact that it is not possible to feel sad and be intensely involved in something at the same time. For some people, fear of death is a strong negative emotion. However, when these people are fully engaged in an activity, these fears tend to disappear.

Additional recommendations

Other recommendations include keeping busy, especially at productive and interesting activities, whether paid employment or volunteer work. Keeping active also entails such things as the pursuit of leisure, and, building variety into one's pursuits.

He suggests pursuing activities that also produce excitement, and adds an idiosyncratic list of possibilities. For example, he proposes that gambling adds enjoyment to life as long as it is done within the bounds of affordability and agreement with one's significant others. Gambling is not done to win, of course, but to risk uncertainty, which brings a certain pleasurable tension. According to the authors, watching sports, especially with a little side wagering, is a good psychological lift for the same reasons.

Additionally, he suggests that reading and watching soap operas can also be exhilarating pastimes. Sexual activity is also recommended, either through direct involvement or through vicarious substitutes, if the latter are more practical.

Creating a new kind of future

What matters the most in aging is the way in which you construct your world. If you have created a world that "permits you to live a tranquil, dignified, and enjoyable life, you will be doubly admired - not only for a great performance, but for writing a last act that plays so well." (pg. 153).

This is a powerful suggestion. In saying this, Skinner tells the reader that the act of creation may challenge our cultural expectations and deviate from existing views on aging. But it also means that people have choices as to how they "play" out the role of 50 and beyond- and in so doing- create a happier and more satisfying future.

This suggestion opens the way for considering the role of the older person as open-ended, with new options dependent on the ways in which people think about them creatively. Thus, how one "plays" 50-and-beyond creates cultural expectations that may deviate considerably from prior models of aging.

I forgot to sign the previous post.
Ronni..I hope it not too long. If so just edit please.


I am 70. I say that with great pride because I never thought I'd make it. I've have read all the comments and have fond myself in them several times. I do feel my mouth curving downward most of the time. But if I walk into a room or meet someone on the street I feel the smile automatically appear. When I smile it makes others smile also.

Cosmetically I use lipstick--any color I please because in my rule book there is no rule governed by age. My hair is grayish-white and has been since my late 40s. It matches the the laugh lines in my face. My beauty treatment is soap and water. I know that my looks could be improved but this is one of my ways of accepting growing older gracefully.

I sometimes get confused or forget something but there are so many thought whirling in my mind that organization gets difficult and I appear to the people around me as weak in the head. When unpleasant things happen and the do in everyone life to all of us I worry.

But the most important thing in life is that I am loved and that I love. Be it people, animals, birds,or any other living thing I feel love.

My goal in life is to reach out and grab the hand of another to let them know that someone cares.

I am 52. somedays i feel 20 , other days i am pushing 80 if a day.
Growing old gracefully to me is allowing yourself to really be yourself... young or old, gray of colored, tucked or not.
Aging is not a disease. Aging is a journey and unless we as women are trully ourselves, how can we tell anyone what the trip is like?

Growing old gracefully is not just for those that are senior citizens. Being graceful is an attribute people of all ages should strive for. What bothers me is the attitude of some younger people that old people are feeble and therefore should "age gracefully" as one said about an actress in her 90s, both off and on the screen.
That is what brought me to this site.
I think the key word is "gracefully" not "age". And its meaning is as ambiguous as "act your age."
Glad I found this page and in addition to Hepburn was Harry Fonda who starred with her in on Golden Pond. IMHO the older generation deserves to be treated "gracefully."
Nuff said.

I,too, Googled looking for answers about aging and how to handle/accept it with grace. I am 55. I look in the mirror and I've become an unfamiliar face looking back. I want to lose that unfamiliar feeling and move on doing my 50's and beyond with grace and confidence. I see pictures of myself and that's when it's most disturbing. I have those OMG-please-tell-me-that's-not-really- what-I-look-like-now! moments. When did that stuff start hanging down under my chin? I've never had a weight issue in my life, but crossing into the 50's I put on 10 pounds that never bothered me, until I saw pictures of what it looked like. I'm now built like a rotweiler!
I guess the question I'm looking for answers to is how do I accept what aging looks like? I'm not vein, by any means, but I don't know how to dress this new "vehicle" to make it look *right.*
I've always dressed modestly feminine. Now I feel like I have to hide what I've become. I want to overcome that feeling and find that feminine comfort again... for my age.
I might add that I'm in the Happily Ever After of my life with my husband whom I adore. My 3 children are all grown living very independent responsible lives. They are the light of my life. I have 3 beautiful grandbabies that are the twinkle of my life. We live a life with a tremendous amount of humor and music involvement. We live in the country and have a very healthy lifestyle.
It's that person in the pictures that I can't figure out how to come to grips with.
I have truly enjoyed reading the comments here, especially from those who are years ahead of me still living life to it's fullest. Thank you for leaving it all public for the past almost 3 years. My eyes were meant to be here at this time.

I too was searching for wisdom on aging gracefully! I'm 57 and last April, I got my hair cut very short because I was tired of coloring my hair! I have sisters who are older than I and they still color and I am the gray one! But, I know that aging gracefully is not about the physical but about your zest for life, even through society tells us that we are not as valuable anymore. At least that is what I think the general concensus is on age, especially about women. I can't stand to be around people who only talk about their aches and pains and all the tragedies of the day, personal and global. That type of conversation makes me feel like I'm in a prison of backwards thinking! I still want to kick up my heels and continue not caring what anyone thinks!!!

physical but about your zest for life, even through society tells us that we are not as valuable anymore. At least that is what I think the general concensus is on age, especially about women. I can't stand to be around people

Sally, I quite agree. I am 72 years old/young, but accepting of the inevitable ageing process. At 60 I stopped colouring my grey hair for it was too much bother as my hair grows very quickly, and it was too expensive. It has gone from being iron grey with dark streaks to silver with its own highlights and looks marvellous. I had its unruly waves cropped short to suit my petite size and face. The men love it! The women think I should grow it. My crop keeps me looking younger than my age, but more than this my attitude is not to care what anyone else thinks. I am more self confident now at this age than I have ever been before in my life. Once we women can get past the notion that other people are looking at us critically, and don't give a cent what they think, but just get on with living each day joyfully, it is a blessing, a freedom quite unlike any other.

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