Redefining What It Means to Accept Your Age

A New Approach to Age and Aging We Should All Consider

Senior couple dancing in living room
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Successful aging is usually thought of as simply avoiding illness and living a long life, but successful aging can have a deeper and more significant meaning than that. As a culture, we generally approach aging from a negative place conceptualizing it as the antihero to youth, a quality we value greatly. According to Bill Siemering, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Bill Siemering on Aging

Bill Siemering is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, one of the founders of National Public Radio (NPR), the director of programming with the staff that developed the famous radio show All Things Considered, and a long-time friend of mine.

In an essay originally written for, an organization whose mission is to "to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world," Siemering wrote about accepting your age and what that should really look like. After the essay was published, Bill and I reconnected and he sent me a copy to read. Needless to say, I liked it so much that I asked for permission to adapt it for this site. The following is that essay.

What Does It Mean to "Accept Your Age?"

We’ve all heard – or overheard – people say, “He should act his age!” or “She doesn’t look her age.” People who say they are a "young 60" or don’t want to give their age, have not accepted their age.

What does it mean to "accept your age," anyway? It’s as if we all have clear knowledge of what it feels like and looks like to be a certain age. Is there anything less known than the human being with a number for the years s(he) has been on earth?

We know what a dozen eggs look like, but we really have no idea what a person who has lived five-dozen years is like. Olympic swimmer medalist Dara Torres summed it up best when she said, “Age is just a number.” Exactly. And there is no other number that is more meaningless or misused.

The Nuanced Things We Say About Age

Though Torres may see age as just a number, most of us assign some value to it, whether it be positive or negative.

And sometimes we do it without even thinking about it. Here are just a few recent examples of the language that has been used within the context of four people who were nearly the same age:

  • Music critic David Patrick Stearns writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer about Julie Andrews (72) and her new touring show, The Gift of Music, the children’s books she writes, and her own publishing company, quotes her, “I’ve always thought. ‘Let’s try many many many different things.’” He adds, “She did, and still does, more than you might expect at her age.”
  • In the same newspaper, Peter Durbin, another music critic wrote: “In the United States and abroad, Charles Edourd Dutoit, a nimble, restless 71, might be the most visible conductor in the world for the next few season. He has shifted elegantly into elder-statesman mode, but it’s hardly his valedictory lap.”
  • Jennie Yarboff, writing about Woody Allen (72) in Newsweek said: “It became possible to imagine that old age, combined with a seemingly stable relationship…had given him a rosier outlook.”
  • Japanese painter and wood engraver Hokusai, (1760-1849) wrote that, “None of my works done before my 70th year is really worth counting.”

What age are we to accept? Is it someone else’s idea of what they think we should be like? The very idea of acceptance infers accepting your limitations rather than celebrating your strengths.

Age is Nothing But a Number

Many observations about people in the Encore generation who are doing remarkable work in the world are similar to the early days of the emergence of women in new roles: ”Look at what they can do now!”

Life is like slowly circling a mountain upward; you can’t help but see the world from a different perspective. The air is thinner, the vegetation has changed; you are aware that you are two-thirds to three-quarters of the way up to the top.

You focus on the trail ahead. You have scars from earlier rock scrambles that inform the way you climb now. The memories of all the trails you’ve climbed are embedded in your muscles. You are intrigued by what lies around the bend. You continue to enjoy bushwhacking, knowing you’ll find your way back. This is the time to appreciate where you’ve come from, the ever-changing horizon and the extraordinary view from this height.

An elevation marker is unnecessary and meaningless.

Essay Commentary

Though Siemering's piece is full of wonderful thought and sentiment, perhaps the most beautiful insight is into how age is defined. Is trying new things truly unexpected as a person reaches nearer age 72? Is a 71-year-old who chooses not to retire just yet actually restless? No matter how difficult to accept, it is clear that how our age defines us (or that it even defines us at all) is very much a result of society and our culture. So let's continue to redefine it, and learn from the healthiest, longest living cultures and approach aging with only positivity.

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