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Aging & Society

How Women Can Thrive in Their 70s and Beyond

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As women reach their 60s, 70s, and beyond, they can grow not only older but wiser, more authentic, and more joyful.

That’s the message that psychologist Mary Pipher, Ph.D., shares in her new book, Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing as We Age.

Pipher, 71, sees aging as a period of redefinition that is filled with both exhilaration and anguish, much like our teenage years, a subject she explored in her 1994 bestselling book, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.  She recently spoke to GetOld from her home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

GetOld: Let’s start with the big question: What does flourishing as we age mean?

Pipher:  Basically, it means growing into a bigger version of yourself to meet the challenges of what’s potentially a very difficult life stage. Around 65 or 70, people start having experiences that let them know their life is changing. Maybe somebody in their family dies. Maybe they stop being able to be runners. Maybe they retire.

And, as those things happen, people have a choice. They can either become diminished versions of themselves, or the challenges can call forth a growth spurt into a new, bigger identity.

GetOld: What does flourishing look like?

Pipher:  Many older women I know are having the best time they’ve ever had in their lives. They’re taking creative writing classes and painting classes, doing yoga, taking long walks with their friends, and enjoying time with their grandchildren. They’re really having fun. They’re waking up in the morning, having a cup of coffee, and not rushing out to a job.

At the same time that they’re having these blissful moments, they’re going to more funerals, and they’re spending more time visiting doctor’s offices.

This pendulum swing between joy and despair can propel us toward more spiritual growth, growth in empathy and in emotional intelligence. We learn that happiness is a skill and a choice, and we acquire the ability to take responsibility for our own emotional weather, no matter what.

As I say in the book, “Attitude is not everything, but it’s almost everything.”

GetOld: When we look back on our lives, many of us may have wished we’d made some different choices. What’s a healthy way to confront these woulda, coulda, shoulda regrets?

Pipher: I recently officiated at the funeral of a man who had told his wife before he died, “I have no regrets.” I’m just not wired that way. I have regrets about what I did and didn’t do in the last half hour. I have regrets that I didn’t do a better job in this or that and regrets about some of the ways I acted as a parent. That doesn’t go away. But most of the time, I’m making an intentional effort to be grounded in today and to be grateful for what I can be enjoying right in the moment.

Wisdom is the ability to select the stories we want to tell ourselves. Looking back on my own family, there’s real tragedy that happened and difficult relationship issues that still come up. At the same time, when I think about my family and my past, I choose to remember things that made me very happy, like how much my grandmother Agnes loved me, visiting her in a little town in Colorado, and raiding the cookie jar.

GetOld: You say that every day we can make the choice to build a good day. Can you share what that looks like in your life?

Pipher:  The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is have a cup of coffee. If it’s winter, I’ll sit and look out the window. In the summer, I go out in the garden. I savor the moment. I think about how good it is to be alive. I think about what I’m doing today in a positive way, not as a to-do list. If I’m in a really gloomy mood, I’ll think who in the planet would appreciate a call from me, and I’ll reach out to them.

I read a lot. I exercise every day. I have reasonable expectations. I try to leave my day open for surprises, so if something happens that I hadn’t expected, I’m ready to enjoy it. Take yesterday, when my husband and I drove out to see one of our granddaughters play basketball. Later, as my son chopped up vegetables, making us a beautiful soup for dinner, I asked each of my grandchildren to tell me a story about something that had happened that day. I remained awake enough to notice the possibility of that gift.

And I try to start each morning and end each night with gratitude. That’s building a good day.

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