If people can age with class, then Harlene Goodrich, 80, and Dorothy Kelly, 91, could be aging’s rock stars.
These women — two strangers from opposite ends of the country and the poles of politics — agree on the basics on how to age well:
►Forming and reforming circles of supportive friends
►Actively participating in political and non-political groups
►Finding outlets for creative talents
►Keeping physically active
►Staying emotionally active in ways that inspire the mind and nurture the spirit
At a time when women increasingly live into their 90s and more men reach their 80s, the art of aging requires work, thought, planning and, yes, spontaneity.
Practicing this art is crucial, as many Americans now have a realistic chance of living beyond 80, said Mark Williams, an attending physician at the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C., and author of The Art and Science of Aging Well.
‘Grace and courage’
“I don’t think we give enough respect to what it takes to age well — until it happens to you,” said Anne Newman, 62, professor and chair of epidemiology in the Graduate School of Public Health at University of Pittsburgh. “It’s a balance between fighting it and accepting it that requires a great deal of grace and courage.”
And humor — perhaps, humor most of all.
Goodrich, a former schoolteacher who lives in Seal Beach, Calif., still meets regularly with her friends who retired from teaching. When the group gathered recently for a cookie exchange, Goodrich — who has had back and knee surgery over the past decade — heard several of the women, ages 65 to 83, complaining about aches and pains. She suggested they go around the table and each take five minutes to kvetch. Everyone broke out laughing, recalled Goodrich.
For Kelly, perhaps her key to longevity is her ability to laugh at things others stress over. “I’ve always preferred to look at the happy things in life,” she says. “When I turn off the light at night, I turn off the world.”
Though polar opposites politically, the two women agree it doesn’t matter what ideology you support — what matters is that you care enough to get involved.
Goodrich jetted cross-country from her longtime California home just blocks from the beach to join the women’s march in Washington, D.C., last year. Kelly, a retired pharmacist who lives in a retirement village outside Pittsburgh, was the first female Republican elected to the town council in her Democratic district — at age 78 — then was re-elected at age 81. And she still helps with voter registration.
To age well, both women say, is to positively begin the process while still young and stay engaged with people and stimulating activities.
“No one suddenly gets old,” Goodrich said. “I think we’re all on the path of life. I may be old in years, but I’m the same person who’s been living the same life. The key is to participate in each stage along the way.”
At 50, she returned to school to get her master’s degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California, has since won several playwriting contests, and those plays were ultimately produced at three different festivals. She also self-published a children’s book at age 60.
Both Goodrich and Kelly are widowed. Kelly lost her husband, George, just two weeks before what would have been their 50th wedding anniversary. They met as students in pharmacy school, got married, had two children and traveled the world together.
After George died, a grieving Kelly wrote daily letters to him for nearly two years, which helped her through the loss. “I have a whole stack of letters, but I’m not sure if anyone wants to see them,” she said.
Goodrich lost her second husband, Michael, also a schoolteacher, after 33 years of marriage, but not before the two accomplished an incredible feat: walking the state of California. They did this over many years in intervals starting in 1983, and finally completed the long journey from San Diego to the Oregon border in 2005, when Goodrich was 68.
But she’s not done setting goals. Goodrich works with a personal trainer twice a week and has recently taken up the ukulele.
Kelly, known for her cooking and parties, regularly lectures on historical figures from Benjamin Franklin to Betsy Ross, then donates her speaking fees for the protection of an 18th-century church that still stands not far from where she lives.
Neil Rosenthal, an author and counselor in the Denver area, has a simple term for what drives Kelly and Goodrich: a sense of wonder.
“If you don’t do these kinds of things, you will grow old; and if you do do these things, you will still grow old — but much more slowly,” said Rosenthal.
Aging well, Rosenthal said, is about the willingness — if not desire — to have “fun,” into your 80s, 90s and, perhaps, beyond.
Fun? Who equates aging with fun? Well, not long before her spinal surgery and knee replacement, Goodrich went zip-lining at 70.
Out of fear — or a need for too much comfort — the majority of older folks say no to opportunities that are put right in front of them, added Goodrich.
“I say yes,” said Goodrich. “I always say yes.”