Reading: How Not to Feel Bad About Aging

Mind Health

How Not to Feel Bad About Aging

Cultural conditioning has led most of us to accept that getting old is bad. Karen Walrond, author of Radiant Rebellion, shows how to change that mindset

By Harriet Riley

At 56 years old, writer, leadership coach, activist, and speaker Karen Walrond calls for a revolution in how we think about aging in her newest book, Radiant Rebellion: Reclaim Aging, Practice Joy, and Raise a Little Hell. In it, she offers a clear message about the joy of aging and how we can fight the anti-aging culture. Through interviews with physicians, social workers, clergy, and activists, Walrond delves into the cultural expectations of aging and takes herself on a journey to realize the true joy of getting older.

Luckily for us, Walrond shares with CoveyClub how to keep a healthy and positive mindset about aging. 

CoveyClub: Why did you decide to write this book?

Walrond: It was 2022 and I was turning 55 and I was celebrating my 20th anniversary. Also, my daughter was turning 18 and about to leave home for college. So, it was a real milestone time for me. And I was thinking about what all these things meant. What was really interesting was that the only thing that people seemed excited about for me was the 20-year marriage. Everybody was saying, “Oh, 55, how are you doing? Are you okay with that?” Or, “Your daughter’s graduating. Are you sad?” I kept thinking, first of all, with my daughter, that was always the goal — to raise her up and out of the house. Then 55 is no big deal. I’ve never been somebody who particularly gets worried about aging. 

So, I decided to write this book for two reasons: One was to convince people that getting older is not a big deal because that’s how I felt; and the other thing was to interview all these people who had some wisdom around various aspects of aging almost to kind of convince myself that I was right. Like for me, it was like, I feel great about aging, but what if I’m the crazy person and aging is awful, and it just hasn’t hit me yet? So, I planned to talk to these people to figure out what practices I can use to keep that positive mindset. I wanted confirmation that aging is no big deal.

joy of aging, book coverCoveyClub: What did you learn about aging through research for your book?

Walrond: I think the reason we are negative about aging is because our society, particularly American society, is designed to make us hate aging. This is 100% a historical thing that happened really in the early 20th century. Before the 20th century, we were all okay with aging. In fact, we used to love aging. 

I [learned about this through] the research of psychiatrist and medical historian Dr. Laura Hirshbein. She wanted to know if we always viewed aging negatively. In her research, she decided to look at popular magazines from 1900 to 1950 and see how articles were written about aging in the past. She figured popular magazines are a great way to tap into the psyche of the time. She found out that most of the older people who wrote the articles or were interviewed focused on the strengths and the beauty of old age. Fast-forward to the Great Depression and two world wars, and all these people who were in their 80s were still working because they were still feeling very vibrant and generally healthy. But younger workers weren’t getting jobs and they had families to feed. That led the US government to create a mandatory retirement age to get the older people out of the workforce and get the younger people jobs.

Now older people were no longer contributing to society, so they started to be seen as a burden. While that was happening, pediatricians and child psychiatrists decided that they were going to expand their research to figure out what happens when you age. Child experts were using the attributes of 5-year-olds as the standard of normal ability. So, if you are not as cognitively quick as a 5-year-old who is sitting there learning because they’re growing, you are impaired. Or if you’re not as spry and as agile as a 5-year-old, you are impaired. So now all the articles written by doctors are showing that older people are impaired. So now you’re impaired; you’re a burden on society. 

And then there was Clairol. Clairol was telling women starting in the 1940s you don’t want people to think you’re getting old. You should dye your hair. And then a huge anti-aging industry followed. That all happened by the way, in the first 50 years of the 20th century. So, it is literally baked into our society to hate aging.

CoveyClub: What was most surprising to you from your research on aging?

Walrond: We are so conditioned to use old as shorthand for bad. And young as shorthand for good. My friend and ageism activist Ashton Applewhite taught me this. She said that a problematic thing we say all the time is, “I don’t FEEL old…” Why is that bad? And she says, “I suspect when you say that, you mean ‘I don’t feel I’m sexy,’…  or ‘I feel invisible.'” And she explains, ‘I don’t know about you, but when I was 13, I felt unsexy and invisible. Those aren’t things that are age-related.’ But we use that. [In other words] it’s problematic when we start to say, “how old do you feel?” or  “you look good for your age,” or “you don’t look your age.”

I look my age. I look at what 56 is supposed to look like on me. [Applewhite] really helped me question my own language because I’m thinking I’m not ageist. And then I suddenly realize, of course, I am ageist and furthermore we all are because we are living in a society that’s designed this way.

So now, if I’m speaking to somebody who is younger than me, I might say, instead of saying I’m old, I say, “I’m older than you, and this is what my experience is.” I never say, “Oh, I’m just getting so old” to a 20-year-old. I may be getting old, but to an 80-year-old, I seem very young. Age is a spectrum. So, it’s important to figure out how to use your language and what language you’re using that perpetuates ageism.

Writing this book has [taught me] I need to be more mindful about the way I speak about myself, and also the language that I use to describe other people. Really the word old should not be offensive. 

CoveyClub: In Radiant Rebellion you recommend readers reclaim the act of aging and learning to embrace getting older. What are some tools for doing this?  

Walrond: [In the book, there are]  journaling prompts to ask yourself questions like, “What are some of the preconceived notions I’ve held about aging? What do I think it means to be young? What traits of being young are attractive to you?”

Brainstorm all the traits. Once you’ve made your list, figure out how you can do that more. Unpack your own thoughts about your own age and your own life. It’s not a midlife book. It is very much a book about living.

joy of aging, Karen WalrondCoveyClub: How do you feel about your age?

Walrond: I’m 56, how old do I feel? I feel 56. Why shouldn’t I, because I’ve lived 56 years on this planet, now I feel vibrant and I feel healthy, and I feel all these other things.

CoveyClub: How can we raise hell or rebel against conventional thoughts on aging?

Walrond: I hope people start to question how they perpetuate the anti-aging culture and question what’s being sold to them about aging. That’s everything from buying a product to remove fine lines and wrinkles to dyeing your [graying] hair. I want to be very clear that I am not telling everybody to suddenly give up using any cosmetics or stop dyeing their hair. What I am asking people to do is to consider why they’re doing it.

I want to emphasize the idea that you can create and curate your own life separate from what society says you should. I quit dyeing my hair a year ago. My hair is now decidedly salt and pepper and that’s good. I cannot go out in public right now without somebody complimenting me on my hair. But not coloring your hair is not for everyone. We all need to create our own way of moving forward.

CoveyClub: In what ways do you embrace aging?

Walrond: One of the things that I’m very mindful of is that aging is living. Living is aging. The question should be: “What do I do to embrace living?” That’s an easier question.

Here’s what I do: I stay curious. I try new things. I experiment with stuff. I hula hoop. I take surfing lessons. I want to make sure that I am as healthy as possible. I meditate because I want to make sure that I’m as calm as possible. 

CoveyClub: What’s next for you at age 56?

Walrond: I’m working on my next book. It’s about the art of being an amateur, about doing stuff for the fun of it, not for the excelling of it. My husband and I are going to take sailing lessons. And basically, I’ll just be living. 

  1. Kathy Koenig

    Thank you for this beautifully articulated article. I love the historical perspective on aging and how we can manufacture reasons to reduce and diminish others. I’m aware of new vibrancy as I age, leaving behind outdated beliefs. I appreciate the recommendation of how to communicate from an older viewpoint which has the power to open the dialogue without falling to agism.

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