It’s not about trying to look like a 20-something.
Dan spread his legs shoulder-width apart and placed his palms on the ground in front of him. He kicked his right leg high in the air. Then his left. He jumped up and down five times and then jogged in place for almost 30 seconds. He had beautiful pearly whites, bright blue eyes, and practically unwrinkled skin. For the next four hours, my buddy and I chatted with Dan in between swings out on the golf course. He was sharp. He was witty. He hit the ball a mile. He putted with pristine accuracy. He sprinted with joy and screamed loudly when he hit a good shot.
When we finished up our golf round, Dan elbow tapped us and said how he’d like to play with us again sometime. He offered that we play a course a little closer to his house next time, so he didn’t have to drive too far. Then he said something that completely took us by surprise. He said that the course close to his house had an amazing senior rate. “Senior rate?” My friend and I said harmoniously. We thought Dan was in his thirties.
“I’m 67,” Dan then told us.
After playing with such a youthful, energetic guy, I thought about how baffled I was that he was older than my parents. My parents are in their early 60’s and to me, they’re doing great! I’d say they look younger than their 60’s, but in no way do they look like or act like Dan. I then started to wonder about the aging process and why different people age in various ways. There are so many factors that go into the aging process, but I wanted to learn more about how Dan was able to age so gracefully.
For that, I turned to the people who study aging for a living: Gerontologists. Gerontologists are people who study growing older and help people maximize this unavoidable process. The following are some tips gerontologists provide for a more graceful aging process. Perhaps following these will give you the youthful exuberance Dan was able to maintain well into his sixties.
1. Aging and Deteriorating are Far from Synonymous
“Aging is NOT an inevitable decline and deterioration,” says Lewis Lipsitz, MD, Chief of the Division of Gerontology at BIDMC.
“In fact, with appropriate geriatric care, attentive to the medical, psychological, social, and personal challenges that everyone faces as they grow older, most people can enjoy an advanced age with good health and independent function.”
One of the first steps in understanding graceful aging is awareness. It’s being aware that graceful aging is a possibility. It’s believing that you have an opportunity to enjoy your life — what you do, how you look, and how you feel — no matter what the number is you celebrate on birthdays. Having the mindset that age is just a number is truly powerful.
Dan was proud to share with us his age at the end of our time together. He smiled widely when he let us know that he was able to get the senior citizen discount. Getting older is inevitable. But feeling older is not. Whether you are twenty and afraid to become thirty, or seventy and afraid to become eighty, the better you’re able to adapt a mindset of “my biological age does not determine how my body feels” the more graceful the aging process will be.
2. Stay Sharp by Being Intellectually Curious
According to data-driven studies provided by Brown University’s Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research, brain stimulation through programs like music or active exercise is critical to healthy aging. Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, a professor of educational psychology and distinguished researcher in the field of aging and cognition delivered a keynote speech for the Virginia Tech Center for Gerontology. In it, she described the “Use it or Lose it” phenomenon in which she found that individuals who used more mental cognition throughout the day had longer-lasting cognitive abilities throughout their lives, and less risk of dementia and other memory-related diseases.
By continuing to learn, new neural pathways are continuously built, thus enabling more cognitive ability in the future. By reading, doing crossword puzzles, or playing memory games daily, individuals are able to better perform on cognitive functioning tests for a longer period of time.
Dan mentioned how he was still working five days a week. On the weekends, he enjoyed reading the newspaper. He was up to date on his Tik Tok and Instagram knowledge by often learning from his kids and grandkids. Other adults often attend continued learning lectures at local community colleges. It does not matter the exact activity but learning anything is critical in aging more gracefully.
3. Spend More Time With Yourself
This final piece of advice goes in two directions. The first is simply based on loving yourself and your own process of aging. Gerontologist Dr. Ayn Welleford shared the following about this idea.
“We are all on our own path. Gerontologists and gerontological specialists can share tools but ultimately each of us must determine what works for us. Each individual must seek evidence-based information from knowledgeable others, explore the information provided, and decide which practices are realistic and beneficial.”
Spend more time with yourself to better understand you and your needs. This aging process is yours — nobody else’s.
The second direction is in regard to solitude. The literal and physical act of being alone with your own thoughts is so advantageous for graceful aging. Dr. Welleford recommends this as one of her keys to healthy aging because it heightens one’s awareness of where they are and where they want to go in life. Also, solitude activities like meditation relieve stress, and stress is common for causing extra wrinkles, so a side-effect of solitude may be in physical appearance as well.
Although Dan asked that we come to play closer to him next time, he also mentioned how much he loved the long drive to this course. He drove with no music on, no audiobooks. He just watched the cars and the world around him. When my buddy and I finally were able to express our surprise at his age, Dan told us that it’s not a race. Some people looked older than him, some younger. He was just worried about his own health and well-being.
Be Proactive vs. Reactive
Upon the first read, this piece may seem like its intended audience is people bordering that transition between what is perceived as young and old. But as you read it again, consider this. Do you want to be proactive or reactive? In other words, no matter your age, do you want to start practicing these habits now before you’re further along in the aging process? Or would you rather wait until aging has taken some negative tolls on you?
Successful aging doesn’t start when you are able to get the senior discount at the golf course or movie theater. Successful aging begins with your everyday habits no matter your age. Simple actions like healthy eating, mental and physical exercise, enough sleep, doing what you love, avoiding bad habits, are critical components to graceful aging, but this should be obvious.
Whether you’re in your twenties or sixties, if you want to age like Dan, then you have to live intentionally. You should try your best to spend more time with yourself, stay hungry for knowledge, and understand aging is a part of life. But it doesn’t have to be a negative part. In fact, it can be just as fun as 18 holes of golf with a couple of new friends.