The World Trade Center - One Story
This Week in Elder News: 13 September 2008

Phooey on Active Aging

Crabby Old Lady grinds her teeth every time she sees the phrase “active aging” or is exhorted by “experts” and so-called life coaches to go back to school in her dotage, study a foreign language, take up belly dancing, do-it-yourself electrical wiring or bicycle across countries that have big, ugly bugs and no modern plumbing.

Not that there is anything wrong with those activities, but Crabby resents being made to feel that she is letting down her end of the elder culture or worse, slipping into senility if every hour of her calendar isn’t filled with self-improvement activities.

Active aging is all the rage. There is even an International Council on Active Aging that holds an annual conference and sponsors Active Aging Weeks or Active Aging Days in many cities.

There are fairs and “boot camps” for active aging, and for professionals in the field of active aging (who knew it is more than a slogan) there are seminars, a journal and at least one “summit.”

Okay, okay, Crabby understands that a lot of this active aging activity is devoted to health, fitness and getting one's butt out of the LazyBoy which can’t be a bad idea. But an even larger part is an excuse to sell products, insurance, services, memberships, vacations, exercise equipment, homes and trinkets to old people. Who needs fitness advice at an active aging event when you can walk five miles among the marketing booths.

Crabby suspects a whole lot of this active aging stuff is organized by younger adults to rake in the bucks while remaking old people into facsimiles of themselves, and she is annoyed with the coercion of old people to be busy, busy, busy. Crabby Old Lady was busy every day for the 50 years she worked for a living and she is busy now trying to make time to not be busy for some small portion of every day.

Apparently, there is at least one other person as concerned as Crabby with the desire for down time. A young mother recently wrote of a cross-country driving trip without (horrors!) a DVD player to amuse the kids in the back seat. Sara BonGiorni asks in her headline, What’s Wrong with Boredom? and continues:

“We had conversations that we would not have had if Scooby Doo, Shaggy, and the rest of the Mystery Inc. Gang were with us. With the Superstition Mountains in the distance, my husband told the children the legend of the Lost Dutchman's Mine and the many failed attempts to find the gold in the mountains near Phoenix. ‘Arizona is not as boring as Texas,’ our son declared. The children used diaper wipes to fashion capes for their animals. The baby learned to feed herself French fries with her toes.

"While there is no research on the benefits of eating French fries with your toes, I feel as if we all gained something in daydreaming out the windows. Our son sometimes settled into quiet contemplation of the landscape, which more than once he described as "big and square."

"I hope the trip gave him some of the resilience that comes from learning to entertain yourself, but I also wish for something smaller.

“Lazy, unstructured time feels like a luxury to me, and I hope that the kids learned something about valuing it instead of looking for the fastest way to burn it up before the next stop at Dairy Queen.”

- The Christian Science Monitor, 8 September 2008

Crabby Old Lady could stop grinding her teeth down to nubbins if the growing active aging contingent, so intent on filling every moment of elders’ well-earned rest time, would take a cue from Sara BonGiorni.

[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nana Royer reflects on being The Last Tree in the Forest in her family.]


In total agreement with you. I have worked and pushed myself for over 50 years. I am trying to slow down and it has not been easy. What is helping is that the energy level is not where it use to be. I am finding more and more contentment in staying home. In fact I am getting where I do not want to leave my home except for necessities.

My mom always said she wanted to spend her elder years counting the grains of sand on the beach. Both of us are pretty good at doing nothing. If I have a stack of good books I'm set for a day, a week or forever.
My inlaws at 80 love their peaceful routine of morning crosswords, afternoon reading and, for MIL, soap operas, and evening card games and wine on the deck.
My mom (77) runs a craft co-op, still makes jewelry which she sells at fairs, and travels to meet her friends at Josh Groban concerts. She went to London this year, by herself, for the first time. She doesn't exercise but when she travels she keeps up with friends 40 years younger. Don't know how she does it but I hope I am the same in 20 years!

I'm 67, nearing 68 and about this exercising thing.... I did most of mine between the ages of 8 mos. and 55. Before I was a teenager I roller skated, played Tarzan on vines in the woods near our home, drove a tractor for 5 summers to help my uncle get the hay cut and then into the barn for the animal, rode in rodeos, swam all summer long, hiked, rode my bike, ran away from home at least 4 times by the time I was 6, went on trailrides with friends for an entire day, played Cavalry using road apples as bullets, built a dam in the small creek, stole some cigarettes and smoked the whole carton in the outhouse in the cemetary, found duck eggs in the woods, played in the loose hay doing sommersaults and flips off the beams into the soft hay I help gather, gathered eggs, slopped the hogs, played football and baseball, played tag and so much more. So I figure that I've done all that exercise stuff already and now I swim a little, walk the tredmill a little, pull a few weeds, play with my cats, sweep and mop the floors now and then, play a little golf and spend time with friends. Sheeze folks, leave us alone to do what we want. We've earned it.

I think this is just a continuation of the go, go, go mentality that exists everywhere. I'm 49, single, and with my old house to take care of, a huge yard, a demanding job and a number of cats, I can't wait to retire and have some down time! I just took two weeks off to do things around the house I never have time to do, clean gutters, paint wicker furniture, de-jungle my side yard. I had plans to go downtown (DC) to see a couple of exhibits, but I decided not to. That would mean having to deal with the awful traffic and that is one of the reasons why I decided to stay home and not go anywhere!

All these type A personalities will love this active aging. My boss will be one of them. We had a board meeting in Santa Monica a few years ago. The meeting ended around 2:00 pm. He was not able to get a flight out until 9:00 that night. He was freaking out beforehand of what he was going to do! My God, I said, you're in Santa Monica! Sit and read on the boardwalk, do some sightseeing. He just thought it would be too boring and lonely as nobody would be there with him! He really can't deal with non-structured time.

I think the lack of down time is a problem with our entire society. Kids no longer have any--parents are too afraid they will get into trouble that they try to fill all their waking hours with activities.

I am perfectly content to just sit. My life seems to vary between screamingly busy, and totally relaxing. Right now, I'm ready for the latter!

Since I retired, oh how I love my down time - I've turned into a complete "home-body" too. There are hours of unstructured time every day and after working so long and hard for so many years, I love this freedom. So for those into "active aging" - let them have it, I'll just stay at home.

Oh, was I glad to read your post this morning! This "active aging" may be a great new money making ad for those with something to sell, but like you and your viewers, I love having time to do my own thing -- whatever that is, or do nothing. The first few years of my retirement I did have trouble trying to figure out what to do with all my "free" time, but I'm a master at it now and it is my own thing not someone else's idea of what that should be. And, yes, it's good for kids to have the same, the chance to just be a kid with no step by step instructions.

Who cares if I’m active or not really? Unless someone stands to profit as you say by convincing me to believe it’s necessary, no one. I work 10 months full time and for the months when I’m not working, I relish doing a lot of nothing. Attending a class or two for fitness at my local Y has been a practice of mine for many years. I find them beneficial both physically and mentally. I feel I’ve reached a point in my life that, except for work, I want to be in charge of me. I’m not certain I even understand what those signs mean that advertise living space for “active older adults.” Are they actively reading, jumping up and down on trampolines, spying on the neighbor, etc.?

Great post. I also defend the right to do what suits the individual. If that's running around all the time, fine. I did that when I was younger and have had enough of it. I like the freedom to do what the day brings (mostly) but be open when something new happens to change my plans. Like you, I enjoy a routine, but try to also enjoy nice surprises (or deal with not so nice). I do what is right for my personality and emotional needs and do not need someone telling me shoulds anymore. I have had those. Now it's my time for wants

I'm starting a new business, filling a void. There are thousands and thousands of life coaches. How do you know which life coach is the right one for you? Hire me as your life coach coach - and I'll find the best life coach for you!

Being active is great, but it's an obsession in our culture. It's also important to stop the activity long enough to contemplate life. We need to contemplate death too, but the minute I write that, I realize that some people will view that as negative. It isn't, necessarily. I think the flood of "active retirement" stuff, besides the marketing angle which you point out, is perhaps a way for younger (and older) people to remain in denial about aging. It may even be a way for younger people who are frustrated with the job that they feel stuck in to idealize a future of travel and fun - without physical limitations, illness, deaths of friends, etc. I worked in health care, and when I visit my former clinic, I run into younger co-workers who seem to want to hear about how wonderful retirement is. When I'm at the clinic, however, it's usually because I'm sick. I'm afraid I let them down when I tell them that. Retirement has been a good stage of life for me so far, but it isn't a constant round of fun activities, and it doesn't have to be.

It is not only Elders who are encouraged to keep busy. I see it in spades in my young grandchildren who not only attend a demanding private school( an outstanding one at that) but have almost every waking hour scheduled after school and most week ends with home work, multiple sports, music lessons, scouts, after school activities and the like.

When do they get time to just sit and dream?

We’d all like to grow old gracefully but for many, that’s just not happening. I too get annoyed at all the suggestions for elders. Lately I’ve been picking and choosing the advice that I want. It’s good not to have to dye my hair to look younger to hold onto my job - I tell myself that silver is a great color. I also look at young models with thick eyebrows and have an excuse for not waxing mine. As far as those extra pounds, I justify the extra weight with Zsa Zsa Gabor’s line that as women age “they have to decide between their fanny or their face.” (The extra weight seems to plump out the face and minimize the wrinkles.) What I have a hard time with is exercise. Because of a genetic neurological disorder, muscles in my legs have atrophied. I now walk with a cane at a snail’s pace. I miss long walks, hiking and being able to climb up on a step stool. Doing housework, going shopping and lugging in the groceries, doing stretching exercises, and swimming is about all the exercise that I can manage. However, most of the advice for the elderly advocates more strenuous exercise. I recently had a talk with myself and told myself to be more gentle with myself because I am doing the best that I can with what I have - enjoy the extra time that you have for reading and watching movies – you earned it.

Excellent post!

We all need to learn to take some time to look at the stars, read a book, hang a fishing pole into the lake -- even if there's no bait on it!

Taking time to be quiet and listen is a lost art, but because of the benefits, it's certainly one that ought to be taught!

Maybe under the stars, while relaxing on the beach...or whatever quiet place does it for you!


I'm reminded of one my favorite quotations. It has been rendered in several versions, but I like this one:

"All man's miseries come from not being able to sit quietly in an empty room."

Blaise Pascal

I'm trying to figure out at 62 why the early bird dinners are looking good.

Does this happen to all of us...?

Although, my partner and I started our new business when I was 60 and we're doing great...and I'm working my day job as well.

So these golden years are still wonderful times and I want more...I'm pushing for 38 so I can squeeze everything in..and have fun...

Dorothy from grammology

I am not an A-type personality, but I am just not a sit at home type. At least, not yet at age 54.

Whenever Kman and I get vacation time, we cram it with an ever-on-the-go schedule. We don't sit still very often.

Not sure what our future years hold, but for now, we are content with the "let's go!" attitude!

As a recovering alcoholic, 60 year student of Buddhism, today's column resonates like London's Big Ben. I taught my troubles to swim so well I finally had to drain the pool and it's taken me most of the last 60 years to integrate the idea of "emptiness" into my everyday thinking.
We can't escape our troubles through booze, weight-training or prayer and we can't fill the emptiness inside of us with anything- it's always going to be there no matter what we do. We can't escape death by running away-not even on a treadmill!

"We are alive, therefore we will die."
Like you said Ronni the "active aging" crap is "an excuse to sell products, insurance, services, memberships, vacations, exercise equipment, homes and trinkets to old people."
I ain't buying it.

Double phooey on "active aging!" If I wanna be active, I'll be active. If I wanna loaf, I'll loaf.

No one knows better than I do what I need/want. So, at almost age 67, I'm my OWN life coach.

Works for me.

LOVED your post, Joel. Hope you stick around.

You made me laugh.

Darn straight I relish my freedom to do what when where and how, and to spend as much time as possible rooting around in other people's gardens, getting dirty thanking my lucky stars not to be standing in front of 35 grade 9ers...

No dress code, no bells, boring meetings, reports, open houses...exams..

No boss and no one telling me why I should buy or join this or that.

People dance around in skin tight jogging clothes, or jump on trampolines. Well, if they like that, cool, but don't try yanking me along toward stuff I already did.

We're far ahead of these speeders. They have to get where we got and it won't be a cake walk.

Some of them will try taking short cuts. Some wish we'd just move over and let them have our stuff.

But, like Dylan said "you gotta serve someone."

I'm the boss of me.

Seems like marketers want to plan our retired lives for us, making sure we have not one nanosecond to think.

Reminds me of a sign we saw last visit to NYCity that said "don't even THINK of parking here."

So when the big female cop walked over to me, I told her I was thinking of something else...

Now, if anyone in NYCity wants a gardener from Montreal, call me.

Send your private jet or return bus ticket, and watch me make your garden shine.

The best part of this new life is I can wear high heels or thigh high boots to garden if I choose.

We're heading down to NYCity tomorrow for a week. Anyone need gardening done?

Who ya gonna call?

Wow. Crabby, thanks for sharing that. Your "that's poppycock!" is right on the money. Literally.

At SXSWi last March, I attended the only "real" session by (sorta) and about marketing to boomers. Note the word "marketing."

The panel was made up of successful "boomer" bloggers who gave a quick sampling of their and other boomer bloggers. An excellent group, by the way.

The most revealing portion of the session were the questions and what they revealed about the audience. They seemed to be at a real loss to understand people older than they were.

Or at least how to sell stuff to older people.

There were a few silver heads, but not many.

I charged to the microphone with the last word--"I would hope that you're interested in more than just selling stuff to us. But whatever your goal, all you have to do is talk to us. Walk up and say something. Ask a question. Involve yourself. And most likely you'll find an interesting person who might just be able to find the right bit of wisdom that will change your life and your career. Take a chance. Communicate directly."

I am maximally annoyed at the ads att/yahoo put on my e-mail home. THEY ARE ALL ABOUT GETTING RID OF WRINKLES!

I don't even have wrinkles. At least none that worry me for even a nanosecond.

Well, yes, it was a mini-rant, but I put out the offer to come and talk to me after the session, anything, let's get a convo started, I can twitter, FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn, but I can also converse f2f and prefer it whenever possible. That's for another story :)

Thanks, Ronni, you and your commenters always make me think, and it's always a relief to confirm that I still can.


Great post! Makes me feel even better about how I live. I've been way too busy for way too long, and now it's time to rest, relax, and do what I want to.

I'm busier than I want to be and am going to change that.

A few years ago I saw a magazine interview with Jane Fonda, who, when I think of her, brings to mind a demanding call: "Feel the Burn, Feel the Burn, Feel the Burn" (and nothing to do with Hanoi). She was asked if she "works out" and she responded with something like "hell no, I never exercise anymore!"

I do yoga and not regularly enough because it keeps me stretched and energized. I walk our Standard Poodle and Old English Sheepdog around the neighborhood. This summer, at 57, I told my husband that last summer was my last for pushing the mower and weeding and I hired a guy to do it. There are two pampered inside cats with the dogs, and four cats who sleep in the garage who adopted me. So, Joel, you might be surprised in retirement just how much organizing and caretaking you still may be doing. What's good, though, is that the activity is on your terms. I haven't "felt the burn" for a long time, and the other morning as I dressed I had one leg in and one out of my jeans when the thought came that I can't remember the last time I wore a dress. Yea!

I don't know much about this mass movement for active elders, but on a very personal note, everything I want to do takes time and energy. Much of it, like writing and meditating, can be done while on my butt. So perhaps both the active aging folks and the spend time on your butt crowd would approve of my lifestyle. One privilege that comes with age (hopefully) is the wisdom to do what works best for ourselves.

I can only add that the greatest joy in old age, is having your loving spouse with you, and both of you enjoying good health. You who fit that description, be aware of your good fortune.

Why is it that so many who posted, including Crabby, seem to view active aging in a negative way? "Active" doesn't equal "busy" in my dictionary. What could be wrong with people or organizations helping to promote a long and healthy life for others -- or promoting the tools I may choose to acquire to achieve an active life. Bravo to everyone who encourages healthy, joyful active aging!!

The comments to this entry are closed.