As the footlooseness of my 20s has given way to the start of an era my ob-gyn labels "advanced maternal age," I am evermore conscious—fearful—of how life as a single woman might feel at 35. Forty-eight. Fifty-three. Sixty-nine. What if I turn out to be a penniless spinster, too senile to care for myself? How will I handle the ache, the space between episodes of intimacy? What if I haven't squirreled away enough cash to buoy me through retirement? What if I never have a partner, children, or grandchildren to share my days with? What if I end up utterly alone?
Intellectually, I know that life is ultimately uncertain. So why do my insides long for a policy—a backup plan? Because I know this is a society that prefers the taut glutei of a 20-year-old to the sagging chin line of an AARP member. And I'm afraid, because a world that worships youth and dismisses the elderly will ultimately throw me away, too.
Turns out I have company. When we asked on oprah.com, "What scares you about aging?" the dozens of women who responded—from ages 13 to 77—revealed similar anxieties. "I can handle anything but Alzheimer's!" wrote one. "How will I survive alone if my husband has a stroke?" e-mailed another. Time and again, the same fears popped up. Dementia. Caring for sick parents. Zip-o money at retirement. Menopause. Loneliness. Declining sexual interest and attractiveness. Wrinkles, wrinkles, and more wrinkles.
I invited some of the wisest women I know to get real about aging—to talk honestly about how they've dealt with their own fears and what they've learned by living through them. This is how they reassured me.
"What if I never marry or have children?"
Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, 67, clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings: "I have encountered two of women's greatest fears: I've been single all my life, and I've had Crohn's disease [a chronic inflammatory bowel disease] for the past 51 years. I always wanted to be a mother. I was one of the girls who played with dolls until I was 12 or 13 years old. I had the names of all my children picked out. Having a family was a major life dream. When I was diagnosed at age 15, it became clear that dream might not play out. Then as the clock ticked down toward 40, it was even more clear I probably wasn't going to be a mother. Because of my illness, it was very difficult for me to maintain a relationship. Men of my generation were looking for someone to take care of them, and I needed someone to take care of me.
"I hear women say, 'If it doesn't turn out the way I planned, what then?' Life is basically full of broken eggs. The whole art of this thing is finding your own recipe for making sponge cake. My mother's final words were 'I am satisfied.' How do we live so that at the end of our lives we can say those words? I have done that. I have learned that I can be a mother in many different ways. The people who are unhappy are the people who get stuck in one way of doing it. You have to have a sense of possibility. Of course it's a remarkable, life-altering experience to have your own biological children. As a former pediatrician, I've seen people transformed by this profound experience. But you can still grow people, even if they don't come from your own body. There are so many who haven't had parenting. You can be a mother to them. For the thousands of medical students I've worked with, I have done that."
"But if I don't have children, who will care for me when I'm old?"
Sharon Salzberg, 52, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of Lovingkindness and Faith: "I don't have children, and my whole family of origin was so fractured—my mother died when I was young, and my father was gone. So I've re-created a sense of family among my friends. Creating these kinds of connections is something we all have to do, whether we have children or not. Yes, some parents have close relationships with their children. Others don't. An adult child might get a job and move to the other side of the world. None of it is in our control. Because of the way my life unfolded when I was young, I learned the truth about change, the uncertainty of life. My meditation practice has helped me peel away my assumptions about how much control I have."
Rachel Naomi Remen: "I have to laugh. My life experience is that people with children are often alone in old age. Having children is not a safety hedge. I have friends with three or four kids who live around the country. These friends end up with a couple of phone calls a week, if that. They're often alone in the same way that women who are married might still feel alone. The fact is that everything is impermanent. I think the people who have connected only to their families may be more vulnerable than those who connect more broadly. We need to learn how to be alone. You do that by developing depth within yourself, interests that are yours, a connection to something larger than yourself. You develop your own sense of the meaning of life. Having children is no insurance policy."
"I'm worried about losing my looks and feeling the pressure to have plastic surgery."
Dr. Maya Angelou, 77, acclaimed poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: "The surface, the superficial, the way one looks has become valued too highly in our society. When the skin begins to sag, many women go for Botox. Why on earth would you let somebody stick a needle in your face just to get rid of a wrinkle? Here's the real question: What do we have to do to place more value on age? We have to value ourselves not for what we look like or the things we possess but for the women we are.
"The most important thing I can tell you about aging is this: If you really feel that you want to have an off-the-shoulder blouse and some big beads and thong sandals and a dirndl skirt and a magnolia in your hair, do it. Even if you're wrinkled."
Joan Hamburg, radio host of The Joan Hamburg Show, WOR Radio in New York: "Would I have a facelift? No. I'm sure I'd be the one whose nose would end up on my boobs! I might be the only person in America who feels that way. I just came back from a 60th-birthday party, and I said to my husband, 'My God, I'm going to be the oldest living human being. Look at these women—they're all sucked and pulled and tucked.' But you can tell. In my head, I'm still 20. Yes, my body could use a zipper, but that's okay with me. When I get up in the morning, I look at all my parts and I think, This is good. This is good."
Barbara Ehrenreich, 64, political essayist, social critic, and author of Nickel and Dimed: "I've had fears about my body changing, and I've dealt with that by becoming kind of a jock. During my early 40s, I developed terrible back problems. I thought, This is just a completely downward trajectory unless I change my life. So a friend dragged me to a gym—I had always disdained fitness as a yuppie obsession. But once I began, I thought, This is great. I'm actually much stronger and more fit now than I was 20 years ago."
Elizabeth Lesser, 52, cofounder and senior adviser of the Omega Institute: "I've realized that aging is the younger cousin of dying. Is my face sagging? Is my body creaking? These questions just bring up the ultimate one: How much time do I have left? We become aware that we're on the downside of the mountain, coasting toward our final days. I was with my mother as she was dying last year, and I became aware that yes, indeed, it's true: Each one of us does have a short time on earth. The wrinkles and the double chin are smoke screens for what we're really afraid of—mortality. I happen to believe that our souls continue after we're gone, and that makes life on earth less fearful. We're here for a reason, and challenges are handed to us so we can grow and become more of who we're meant to be. So I deal with my fear of aging and death by making it my spiritual practice. Not turning away from it, not pretending it doesn't exist, not slapping on a cosmetic Band-Aid. But by taking on a more fearless attitude toward what really is happening to my body and my life."
"I dread the feeling of becoming invisible. What if I never have sex again?"
Abigail Thomas, 63, fiction and autobiographical writer and author of Safekeeping: "I wouldn't even go back to as young as I was yesterday. Being this age is completely freeing. To walk out of the house without wondering who's looking back at you makes it possible to focus on what you really want to focus on. It makes it possible to get your work done. For a long time, all I thought about was, Who's looking at me? Who's interested? I didn't even really look at what I felt like looking at on the street. That's what I called sexual power. About ten years ago, exactly what I'd feared came to be: My 'sexual power' changed. For so long, how I looked represented everything to me: who I was as a woman, my power, how I could engage. When it was over, I discovered so many other things. I began to write. I started to see that I wasn't at the world's disposal—I call the shots, and what I'm interested in is what I'm interested in. One day in my 50s, I just woke up and realized I really didn't care about any of the rest of it and hadn't for quite a while. The heat was gone, and what replaced it was an avid desire for life."
Maya Angelou: "At 50 I began to know who I was. It was like waking up to myself."
"I'm terrified of ending up alone."
Florence Falk, PhD, psychotherapist and author of On My Own: The Art of Being a Woman Alone: "Historically and prehistorically, women have existed in a context in which, because they bore children, they stayed together while the men were out hunting. So in terms of our collective unconscious, we have a history of being in some kind of connection with other people. We've been nurturers in an earthbound role, so it's difficult for our psyches to contemplate anything else. What's it like not to be tethered with the responsibility of a mate and children? We haven't had a template for that. Of course, it's a human reflex to want to be connected to others. But for women, we expect the connection to make us feel more realized, whole, alive. This is where many women get caught: wanting to be in connection but at the same time resenting it."
"What if I leave my jerk husband but find myself too broke to survive on my own?"
Elizabeth Lesser: "I've gone through a divorce and the terror of leaving a marriage. I know what it's like to feel stuck in something that is draining your life force, to stay because you're afraid of what's on the other side, especially financially. Helen Keller has become one of my heroes. She was blind, deaf, and mute, and you'd think she'd sit cowering in a corner. Yet this is what she once said: 'Security...does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.' I often think, If she could live life as a daring adventure, then any of us can. I used that when I finally made the decision as a 32-year-old mother to become a single parent and to leave a marriage that had been difficult for 14 years. It was about going for quality of life as opposed to security. It's not just in marriages that this decision is required. It's in everything—your job, where you live, how you relate to people. Much of the time, choosing security isn't a good idea."
Joan Borysenko, PhD, 59, cofounder of the Mind-Body clinical programs at two Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals and author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind and Inner Peace for Busy People: "I've left a couple of husbands, and here's what I've learned: If you cannot support yourself, you set yourself up to be a prisoner. We can't stay home like June Cleaver and expect a man to take care of us financially. The world doesn't work that way anymore."
Joan Hamburg: "Even some of the smartest married women don't know their financial standing. I once talked to a bunch of women at a bank in Staten Island, and I asked, 'Do you know what's in your husband's will? Do you know where his papers are? Do you even know what you're worth?' Not one woman knew. The truth is that we're very complacent when it comes to seizing control of our finances. It's part of that old syndrome: Be the best girl possible, make people happy, and Daddy's going to take care of you. That's over. For women, dealing with money doesn't seem graceful. Many see it as sort of embarrassing to know about money. It's time for us to step right up to the plate and learn. One reason women are so totally unprepared for the financial devastation that can come after a divorce is that they have no clue how to handle their money."
"I'm anxious about the burden of caring for aging relatives."
Cicely Tyson, actress, starring in the upcoming screen version of The Help: "I've cared for my mother, my father, my sister, my brother. I've lost everyone in my immediate family. And when you're faced with those situations, despite the fact that you feel, Oh, God, if it ever happens to me, I won't be able to handle it, you don't know how you'll actually respond until you're in the circumstance. I never anticipated that I'd be the sole surviving member of my family. And I found that when the time came, I did what I had to do. I think all human beings would do the same thing."
"I'm scared about not being able to work as I get older—and about society's ultimately throwing me away."
Abigail Thomas: "Society has little to do with it. You throw your own self away. You decide that you're irrelevant. The trick about getting older is to find something you don't know how to do—something you want to improve on. And since I write, I want to get better at that. It has to become about the next thing to do, your passion, something that comes out of yourself. Without passion, we're all sunk—we're just consumers who go out and buy another toaster."
Joan Borysenko: "I never plan to retire. On the other hand, I don't want to be forced to work 60 hours a week because I can't afford my mortgage payment. So there's something to be said for having a financial plan that allows you to retire when you want. We've got to recognize that the old model of staying with a job till you're 65 is dead. It's over. Prepare to be your fullest self at every step of the way—to do the things that are most resonant with your deepest inner values, even if you don't make as much money as you did in your younger years."
Joan Hamburg: "A few years ago, I read a fascinating study about people 90 and over. It looked at how they'd survived to this age, despite the fact that many had suffered illnesses or eaten fast food night and day. The commonality among those studied—Jews, Italians, Poles, people of various races and family backgrounds—was a sense of optimism, a sense of being needed. For some, that meant having to babysit a daughter's child; others were still going to work every day. All of them had a sense of hope and purpose. If you don't have that, age sits and looks at you and says, 'I'm waiting.' I just about fainted the day, at age 50, when I received information from AARP. I threw it in the garbage. That's not me. There's still too much stimulation and joy in my life to sit around and wait for the end.
"Women have skills that we don't even know we have. You've got to learn to reinvent yourself. Write 'new' on the box. Never be complacent. Stay ready to go to the next step. Think the way Americans thought in the early days of our nation: We are entrepreneurs, grasping opportunity, unafraid of rejection. We've got to get into the habit of constantly learning something new."
"What if I end up a bag lady?"
Florence Falk: "The fear of becoming a bag lady represents the fear of becoming marginalized. To be a bag lady is a metaphor for being cast out—and women have always been cast out of society unless they've made it a point not to be. I had this fear, What if I can't depend on myself? The sense of dependency is deeply conditioned in us culturally. That's why it's terrifying to think that you might not be able to take care of yourself. Others can look at you and think, Why is she still single? And men might feel threatened by a woman who's comfortable in herself. The world beckons men to be independent. Not true for women. That's changing, but it's a very slow turnaround. Women don't realize how bound they are to these cultural ideas."
Joan Borysenko: "I've already had many conversations with friends about living in a group, both to cut expenses and to stay connected. We've all agreed we don't want to be old bag ladies. So how can we devise a lifestyle that makes this possible? It's not about surviving on cat food. The question is, 'How do we live to our fullest potential and have a lot of fun as we get older together?' That's what I'm planning for."
"What if I become ill or incapacitated?"
Rachel Naomi Remen: "Having worked almost half my lifetime with cancer patients, I've seen people discover that they can endure things they never thought possible. When you become ill, you discover a lot about yourself. Your relationships can become far more genuine. The ones that aren't real fall away. It may sound strange, but many people talk about a sense of gratitude for the deeper, fuller life they lead. It's a discovery process. Alzheimer's is a whole other thing. That's something I worry about. I identify with my mind. It's who I am. Losing who you are is different from having a physical illness. How do I handle the fear? I just have to live with it. Yet the fear gives me an appreciation for my capacities today. It awakens me to the richness of my life now."
Barbara Ehrenreich: "My father died of Alzheimer's when he was 72, so the fear of losing my mind haunts me. How do I handle it? I want to wire my computer up so that when I start making too many mistakes, it'll automatically electrocute me. No, really: I read little health tips all the time about how to keep from getting Alzheimer's. The reason I went on hormone replacement therapy is that ten years ago, doctors thought it would prevent Alzheimer's. Then, of course, I got breast cancer at 58, probably with some help from the HRT. So I haven't figured out what to do with my fear—but it does make me ask myself, What things do I want to get done while I can? I think that's an important question.
"I'm worried that I'll get to the end of my life and realize I haven't even used a fraction of my potential."
Maya Angelou: "Becoming a bag lady. Getting Alzheimer's. Ending up alone. All of these concerns speak to a fear not of aging but of living. What is a fear of living? It's being preeminently afraid of dying. It is not doing what you came here to do, out of timidity and spinelessness. The antidote is to take full responsibility for yourself—for the time you take up and the space you occupy. If you don't know what you're here to do, then just do some good. I'm convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they're stones that don't matter. As long as you're breathing, it's never too late to do some good."
Abigail Thomas: "You're worried about how you're going to feel at the end of your life? What about right now? Live. Right this minute. That's where the joy's at.
"To have a fear, you have to be able to imagine the future. I never think about the future. Ever. Has that always been true? God, no. For much of my life, everything was in the future. Everything was just about to happen for better or for worse. I had absolutely no awareness of what I was doing at the moment. Now it's all about what I'm doing now. The present. I'm not interested in the future. I have so much less of it than I used to.
"Bad things have happened to me—five years ago, my husband was hit by a car and suffered traumatic brain injury. He has only the moment available to him. He has no short-term memory, he has no thought of the future. So my life circumstances make it easy for me to focus on where I am right this minute, and to enjoy the hell out of it. Yes, the whole thing is heartbreaking. It's agony. But the advantage is that I've learned how a moment can extend itself, can contain so much."
Joan Borysenko: "At age 59, I worry less than I once did. I see that impermanence is not just some concept that the Buddhists developed. Everything is going to change anyhow. I can't control it. And so I can simply be here now. The work that you do in your lifetime—accepting yourself and forgiving your parents—all comes together. You just get up and you say, 'Aha, this is the fruit. I am a woman I love.'"
Rachel Naomi Remen: "I'm a successful author, and I travel all over the United States—a very good life. There are many people who have made my life deeply meaningful—and I hadn't met one of them by the time I was 42. I had a whole other career as a physician. Then at 42, I became involved with people who have cancer. I became involved with their psychological and spiritual growth. I got my first book contract when I was 56, and it became a New York Times best-seller.
"Here's what I want to say: Your life can change and deepen and become profoundly satisfying in middle age. I thought that if I didn't 'make it' by the time I was 35, it was all over. At 35 I would have been stunned to know the way things would come out for me."
"I don't know how I'll be able to handle the pain and regret of losing those closest to me."
Maya Angelou: "For me, 76 was the hardest year. I lost friends. I try to remember all the good times. I keep photographs around. And I speak to my friends and family who have gone on. When I look out my window—everything is so lush in North Carolina—I see a Japanese maple tree. It's a burnished purple against a background of honeysuckle that reaches up into the oak tree. I think of my mom and my brother and people I love who would love to see this. I'm seeing it. And through my eyes, they're seeing it as well."
Rachel Naomi Remen: "When my mom faced the death of her last surviving sibling, she was left alone—she had a lifetime of memories and nobody to share them with. That's one result of aging: Nobody recalls your family nickname, your stories, your years. Because my mom had a heart condition, I was afraid she'd have a heart attack at the news of her brother's death. That's when she told me the most interesting thing: 'Rachel, I couldn't have dealt with this when I was 40. But now that I'm 80, I'm strong enough. The only way that I am weak is in my body. It takes a lifetime of experience to learn to deal with trauma like this.' I was blown away by my mother's words. There's a saying, 'Life makes you ready to meet with the things you met with.' At 67 I can deal with things that would have completely devastated me at 33. Like the death of a friend. The person who's going to deal with Alzheimer's is not the 33-year-old you. The person who's going to deal with Alzheimer's is a person who has built courage and tenacity. Most people in the United States are not aware of the power that you get simply from life experience. We build strength, disappointment by disappointment."
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