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The Art of Aging Gracefully

Experts say the keys to successful aging include accepting changes and finding meaningful activities.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

In Nora Ephron's best-selling book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, she laments the sorry state of her 60-something neck: "Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck," she writes.

"Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at the point where you understand just what matters in life. I can't stand people who say things like this. What can they be thinking? Don't they have necks?"

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With rueful humor, she writes about smoothing her face with Restylane and Botox, reading in large type, and grieving the deaths of beloved friends. Ultimately, Ephron concludes, "The honest truth is that it's sad to be over sixty."

Yes, getting older is rife with emotional landmines, gerontologists say, including fears of losing one's independence or getting a serious illness.  Aging gracefully isn't always easy, but attitude matters a lot, experts say.

"For some reason, our society is very obsessed with pointing out negative aspects of aging," says Susan Whitbourne, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is also the past president of the American Psychological Association's Division on Aging.

But Whitbourne cautions, "Don't get bogged down in all the hype about aging. Once you start thinking about it, it can drive you mad. There's nothing you can do; the clock is going to tick away."

Happy Camper

Of course, not all seniors are pessimistic. Some, such as Kirt Spradlin, don't care a whit about what their necks look like.

The great-grandfather is one of those vigorous and optimistic elders who astounds his peers. Naturally, he tires more easily and has to take things slower, he says. But having battled prostate cancer, the California man relishes every single month that life affords him. When asked his age, he proudly replies, "79 and a half."

The former electrical engineer took up a new hobby after retirement: mountain climbing. He has climbed Mount Whitney and Kilimanjaro and trekked to Mount Everest's base camp. Just last year, he and wife Donna went on a weeklong backpacking trip -- just the two of them alone in the wilderness. Donna is 80.

"People think we're nuts," he says. But for him, aging with a bad attitude is simply out of the question.

The Spradlins have grown old with astonishing grace and acceptance. But depression is a real threat among the old; some drift into isolation, bitterness, and a sense of meaninglessness. Still others put up their dukes, determined to go down swinging. Face-lifts and tummy tucks? Bring it on.   

Experts who have worked with thousands of seniors share their insights into how you can navigate emotional challenges in order to age gracefully. 

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