Legacy Project
Side nav buttonsLegacy Project Homepage

Power of Age

"Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you've got to start young."

Fred Astaire

For the first time in history, there will soon be more people of grandparent age than children and youth. These older adults are more educated, active, and healthier than those of decades past. In fact, if you look at many of the statistics, today's 80-year-olds are comparable in well-being and vigor to 60-year-olds in the last generation, 60-year-olds are like 40-year-olds, and so on. We are aged largely by our culture, and often encouraged to dislike and limit ourselves. But as the baby boomers get older, they are increasingly proving wrong the stereotypes about aging. While aging can bring with it challenges, it can also bring options and rewards. This section introduces some of the ways in which older adults can continue to live active, meaningful lives. It lays a foundation for hope and for creating new life maps that enable us to live more fully at any age. There is more to come in future kits.

Young and old can support and encourage each other as we explore new visions of aging. One of the winning teams in the Something to Remember Me By Legacy Project 2001 Intergenerational Contest was grandmother Faye Mintz, 72, and her granddaughter Cassie Jackson, 12, of Toronto, Canada. Here is their winning entry:

Dear Grandma,

Every day I try to remember your favorite expression: "Be strong, be kind, be smart." When I want to laugh along with everyone else at the new kid who's tripped over her backpack, or when I want to go to a movie with my friends instead of studying, your words hang in the air. Sometimes it's hard not to do the popular thing, but at the end of the day, I look into the mirror and ask: "Would Grandma have been proud of me today?" Sometimes the answer is no. But most times it's yes. I hope that one day, there will be no more "no's" in the mirror. That is the legacy you have left me with Grandma.

My Darling Cassie,

You too have left me with a legacy. When others tell me I'm too old to do something (like travel to Africa on the photo safari), I always keep in mind your words: "Do you think you're too old?" Even at my age, it's hard not to give in to the expectations of others, but you have taught me to live up to my own expectations. And at the end of the day, I look into the mirror and ask myself, "Would my granddaughter be proud of me today?" And sometimes the answer is no, but most times it's yes. That is the legacy you have left me with. I love you.

Some books which offer different perspectives on aging: The Art of Growing Older: Writers on Living and Aging edited by Wayne Booth; The Virtues of Aging by Jimmy Carter; Granny D: Walking Across America in My Ninetieth Year by Doris Haddock; Finishing Touches: An Insightful Look into the Mirror of Aging by Lillian S. Hawthorne; What's Worth Knowing by Wendy Lustbader; A Map to the End of Time: Wayfarings with Friends and Philosophers by Ronald Manheimer; When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple edited by Sandra Haldeman Martz; Let Evening Come: Reflections on Aging by Mary C. Morrison; and Gray Heroes: Elder Tales from Around the World by Jane Yolen.

The Ages & Stages section in the Grandparents Day Activity Kit has many activities that explore different aspects of aging.


Fast Facts on Aging

  • Half of all the people who have ever lived to age 65 are currently alive. Today, an American at birth is expected to live 76 years compared to 47 years in 1900 -- an additional 29 years.

  • Since 1900, the percentage of Americans 65 years and older has more than tripled (4.1% in 1900 to 12.7% in 1999). In 1900 there were 3.1 million people 65 years and older; in 1999 that number had risen to 34.5 million.

  • The older population itself is getting older. In 1999, the 65-74 age group (18.2 million) was eight times larger than in 1900, but the 75-84 group (12.1 million) was 16 times larger and the 85+ group (4.2 million) was 34 times larger. And the number of centenarians is expected to jump from fewer than 30,000 in 1990 -- 80% of them women -- to more than 800,000 by 2050. Centenarians are actually the fastest-growing age group in the country.

  • By the year 2030, 1 in every 5 Americans will be over 65, totaling 70 million.

  • In recent years, researchers have divided older adulthood into three general groups: "young-old" (65-74), "old-old" (75-84), and the "oldest-old" (85+). Aside from chronology, the "young-old" are defined as functioning well and having few or no health problems that limit their daily activities. They live comfortably and are actively engaged in their families and communities. They act much like middle-aged people, except they're retired or their work patterns have changed significantly. One researcher estimates that about 80% of those over 65 can be classified as young-old and 20% as old-old. By age 85, nearly 45% might still be considered young-old. Their health is good and they need little or no assistance in preparing meals, shopping, managing money, or doing housework. 25% find their activities somewhat limited, and the remaining 30% need substantial help.

  • A small number (about 1.5 million) and percentage (about 4.5%) of those 65+ live in nursing homes. The percentage varies with age: only 1% of adults between 65 and 74 live in nursing homes; only 6% of those between 75 and 84; but the proportion rises to 22% among adults 85 or older.

  • Most of our physical capacities reach their peak when we're teenagers or young adults, and begin a gradual decline after that. The decline is so gradual that we usually hardly notice it until decades later.

  • No matter what age we are, we all have some level of impairment. No one has perfect everything -- vision, hearing, physical agility, and so on.

  • More people over 65 have chronic (long-term) illnesses that limit their activity (43%) than younger persons (10%). The most common chronic illnesses among older people are arthritis (49%), hypertension (36%), hearing impairment (30%), and heart disease (27%). But, older people have fewer acute (short-term) illnesses than young people.

  • While there may be some minor, occasional lapses in memory with age (we all forget where our keys are once in a while), creativity and judgment improve for many people as they grow older.

  • Only about 5% of adults over 65 have an incurable form of dementia such as Alzheimer's Disease. Even among those 80 years and older, only 20-25% have some form of dementia.

  • There are a number of factors that determine how a person ages. In general, environment counts for 20%, and heredity counts for another 20%. Another 10% is medical. But 50% is your lifestyle (e.g. nutrition; whether or not you smoke; level of exercise; exposure to the sun; even occupation, education, and income).

So there you have it in a nutshell. Yes, there are some things that change with age. The body of an 80-year-old is unmistakably different than that of a 20-year-old. But what is the exact nature of these differences and how important are they? How much do they really affect the quality of your life? Keep in mind that good health in later life depends very much on healthy habits developed during youth. Further, what we lose physically, we can often compensate for in other ways. The human body is like a long-distance runner with its own sense of pace. As the years advance and steal some vitality, there is still plenty of physical capacity left to sustain an active life. It's very much disease and bad habits that interfere with our quality of life.

How we experience aging also has a great deal to do with how we view it. We have to overcome some huge cultural challenges. We live in a youth-obsessed culture that's both gerontophobic (fearful of aging) and ageist (prejudiced against aging). It's not easy getting old against this cultural backdrop. It makes life, and developing a new life map, a lot harder than it has to be.


"Good" or "Bad"?

Saying that aging is "good" or "bad" is just as silly and simplistic as saying life is "good" or "bad." Life can be good and it can be bad. That's life. And that's aging. The problem is that we all -- old and young -- tend to have a negative attitude toward growing old, assign negative characteristics like unattractiveness and illness to being old, do not perceive anything positive about being old, and tend to prefer the company of the young and have limited contact with and knowledge of older people. But as demographics change, it's in all our best interests to create a new understanding of old age, one that gives us meaning and fulfillment throughout the life course, and create new life maps that help young and old get the most out of their entire lives.

A word of caution: we can't go too far toward either extreme image of aging -- the "ill-derly" versus the "healthy, wealthy, and wise." This feeds a false pessimism or a superficial optimism. On the one hand, you hear jokes about old age ("senior moments" or "39 and holding") and the losses (e.g. of a spouse, parent, mind, abilities). On the other hand, you also hear wonderful stories of incredible old people who are active, productive, healthy, financially well off, adventurous and free of pain, suggesting that old age should not be feared. But old age, like youth and middle age, is a complex thing, and there is no guarantee of happiness. Life doesn't come with a money-back guarantee. You can't just focus on "healthy aging", "productive aging", "successful aging" or however else you'd like to characterize it. There is also a hard reality that many older people face. There is pain, anger, disappointment, fear, and enduring diminished expectations.

Maybe this is more than most of us would like to know. But maybe in knowing it and learning some fundamental life lessons earlier rather than later, we can improve the quality of our life over our entire life course. You might as well think so and give it a try. The alternative is just to roll over, die, and be done with it. Not my choice. A realistic hopefulness, a kind of wisdom, lies in being open to the possibilities while accepting the difficult things you simply cannot change.

Florida Scott-Maxwell wrote passionately and insightfully about aging:

Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting, and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age. To my own surprise I burst out with hot conviction... I want to put things right, as though I still owed a debt to life... Age is truly a time of heroic helplessness. Age defines one's boundaries. Life has changed me greatly, it has improved me greatly, but it has also left me practically the same. I cannot spell. I am overly critical, egocentric and vulnerable. I cannot be simple. In my effort to be clear I become complicated. I know my faults so well that I pay them small heed. They are stronger than I am. They are me... A long life makes me feel nearer truth, yet it won't go into words, so how can I convey it? I can't, and I want to. I want to tell people approaching and perhaps fearing age that it is a time of discovery. If they say -- "Of what?" I can only answer, "We must each find out for ourselves, otherwise it won't be discovery." I want to say -- "If at the end of your life you have only yourself, it is much. Look, you will find."

We need to overcome our struggles with ourselves. To create genuinely satisfying, realistic images of aging, we also have to understand its complexities -- with variations dependent on class, culture, income, education, gender, and more. We also have to face our prejudices.



The term "ageism" was coined in 1968 by psychiatrist Robert Butler. Ageism has been called the third great "ism" in our society, after racism and sexism. Like racism and sexism, it is prejudice or discrimination against a category of people -- in this case, older people. Ageism is different though in two important ways from racism and sexism. First, everyone, if they live long enough, will become a target of ageism. Second, many people are unaware of it.

How ageist are you? Close your eyes and think of a college student. Draw a mental picture of what he or she would look like. Now imagine a recent retiree, a grandmother, and a first-time father. Compare your mental images to the following facts:

  • Each year, half a million people over 60 years of age are studying on college campuses.

  • Retirees from the military are typically in their 40s or 50s.

  • In some inner-city neighborhoods, it's not unusual to meet a 35-year-old grandmother whose teenage daughter or son has a baby.

  • It's no longer surprising for men in second marriages to become a father for the first time over age 40 or 50.

A recent survey revealed that the experience of ageism is widespread and frequent. The most frequent types of ageism were people showing disrespect for older people, followed by people having assumptions about ailments or frailty caused by age. But ageism can take many forms: telling a joke that pokes fun at age; sending a birthday card that pokes fun; being ignored or not taken seriously; being called an insulting name; being patronized or talked down to; being denied a position of leadership; being rejected as unattractive; being treated with less dignity and respect; having a doctor or nurse assume an ailment is caused by age rather than investigating further; being denied medical treatment or employment; assuming someone cannot hear well or understand.

Ageism can be well-intentioned. It is just as ageist to say that older people "should" be healthy, engaged, productive, and self-reliant than to say they aren't. Much less attention has been paid to positive ageism than to negative ageism because positive ageism is less common and it's not perceived to be as harmful. There are at least eight positive stereotypes that many people associate with older people: kindness, wisdom, dependability, affluence, political power, freedom, eternal youth, and happiness. None of these are any more true than the negative stereotypes. For example, people who were unhappy when they were young tend to still be unhappy when they are older. And, although calling someone a "sweet little old lady" isn't negative, it does marginalize them.

Since the 1960s, there's been a growing effort to eliminate the negative stereotypes of and prejudice toward older people. But ageism may be most harmful when older people look at themselves and the stage of their life negatively. We've been taught that success and power belong to the young. Research has shown that individuals who are exposed to negative age images tend to demonstrate worse memory performance, self-efficacy, handwriting, and will-to-live. In contrast, older adults exposed to positive age images tend to show positive changes in these same areas.


Build on the Possible

There are actually many advantages to being old that most people don't think about. Advantages can be grouped into two general categories: those that benefit the older person and those that benefit society. For individuals, advantages include: people older than 65 have substantially lower victimization rates in nearly all categories of crime (contrary to popular belief); older people have fewer accidents (car, work, home) than any other age group; they receive Social Security and other pensions; they receive tax benefits, discounts from retailers, and free or a reduced rate on many programs and services; most older people no longer have child-rearing responsibilities and they don't have to worry about unwanted pregnancies; older people are often retired and many can choose what work they wish to engage in; older people have lower rates of mental illness and fewer suffer from addictions; older people have more social freedom to "be the way they are" without censure. Older people also offer advantages to society: they tend to be more law-abiding; they tend to be more involved, informed citizens and vote more frequently; they serve society by volunteering; they tend to perform as well or better than younger workers on most measures; and, if you assume wisdom can come from years of experience and maturity, older people have more wisdom to offer.

As we age, there are many possibilities still to be pursued. "The human mind," said Gertrude Stein in 1936 at age 62, "has nothing to do with age. As I say so, tears come into my eyes."

We need to ask ourselves how old "too old" is? On January 1, 1999, 89-year-old Doris Haddock (her new book is titled Granny D: Walking Across America in My Ninetieth Year) began walking from Pasadena, CA to Washington, DC to lobby for campaign finance reform. Ignoring her bad back, arthritis, and emphysema, she completed the 3,200-mile trip in 14 months, shortly after her 90th birthday, arriving in Washington on February 29, 2000. 2,200 supporters greeted her, shouting "Go, Granny, go!"

Doris Haddock is one of many people to accomplish something significant in their later years. Consider these famous individuals:

  • Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) published his well-known work The Ego and the Id at age 67 and The Failure of an Illusion at 74.

  • Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein (1879-1955) collaborated to publish Why War? in 1933. Freud was 77 and Einstein was 54. At age 74, Einstein published one of his many papers, "The Meaning of Relativity," developing his earlier theories.

  • At 65, in 1998, Philip Roth (born 1933) won his first Pulitzer Prize for his 19th novel, American Pastoral.

  • At age 76, John Glenn (born 1921) made his second trip into space in 1998.

  • Liberace (1919-1987) played piano by ear at 4 years of age. At 66, he broke all box-office records at the Radio City Music Hall in New York with his flamboyant performances.

  • French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) explored and worked underwater until he died at age 87.

  • Political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) successfully completed negotiations in 1947, at age 77, for India to gain independence from Britain.

  • Golda Meir (1898-1978) was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974 (between the ages of 70 and 76).

  • George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) had a stroke when he was 52, but went on to create The Messiah five years later.

  • Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) was 65 when he became Prime Minister of Britain for five years during World War II. He was re-elected Prime Minister at 77, holding the office until the age of 81. He also won a Nobel Prize in Literature during this term.

The moral of this story? You are never "too old."  


The Oldest Worker in America

In 1998, Green Thumb, Inc. launched the National Prime Time Awards Program to highlight the valuable contributions older Americans make to their communities and places of work. Each year, there is a search for the oldest worker in the country.

The 2000 winner was Robert "Robbie" Eisenberg. At 102, he is known as the "dean of the zipper business." A consultant to Zabin Industries in Los Angeles, Mr. Eisenberg is the oldest working member of the industry. He manages the California zipper plant, negotiates with vendors and clients, and services some of the company's longstanding accounts. He was born in Denver, CO, of Polish parents who immigrated to America in the 19th century. He studied pre-med at New York University. He was drafted during World War I and was scheduled to ship out to Europe; but on the very day he was to leave, the war ended. After the deaths of his first wife and his only son, killed in the Pacific during World War II, Mr. Eisenberg moved to California with his second wife and daughter. In 1954, he partnered with the founder of Zabin Industries. He retired at age 70 and spent the next ten years "on the loose." He and his family traveled the world and he indulged his interest in game fishing. But by the age of 80, he was bored and ready to get back to work. For more than 20 years, he's been on the job at Zabin.

The 1999 winner was 100-year-old Dr. F. William Sunderman. He is a world-renowned physician, pathologist, clinical scientist, chemist, toxicologist, author, editor, photographer, and lifelong violinist. He still gives concerts on his rare Stradivari named "Saint Sebastian" made for the Cardinal of Cadiz in 1694. He has been a professor at eight universities and the chief of clinical pathology at the Center for Disease Control. Dr. Sunderman teamed with researchers at Los Alamos during World War II on the Manhattan Project, and worked as a medical consultant with NASA. As an author, he has written more than 350 papers and 44 books. His autobiography was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

The 1998 winner was Milt W. Garland. He was born in Harrisburg, PA and received a degree in mechanical engineering after serving in the Navy during World War I. At age 104, he went to the office every day, serving as Senior Consultant for Technical Services, working for the same firm that gave him his first job 81 years earlier. He was the holder of 41 US patents, including the process that gave the US military artificial rubber tires. Another of his patents made possible the refrigeration engineering that cooled American submarines in the South Pacific, gold mines in South Africa, ice cream in factories worldwide, and the concrete that otherwise was impossible to pour in the construction of Nevada's Hoover Dam. Mr. Garland also invented the refrigeration process to freeze indoor ice rinks, paving the way for professional ice hockey and other indoor ice sports. A great-grandfather seven times and also a great-great-grandfather, Mr. Garland passed away in July, 2000, after a very long and very productive life.

From Holiday Activity Kit by Susan V. Bosak ©2003

Get a complete print edition of this activity kit

Get on our confidential Priority E-Mail List to be automatically notified when the next free activity kit is available

Go to the Table of Contents for this activity kit

Go to the main page for the Legacy Project