Jenny Joseph’s little poem “Warning” about growing old is a beautiful epitaph to youth and a glorious embracing of age. She writes about wearing purple and red hats as a way of giving in to the reality of age. Mostly it is a promise to herself to quit worrying about what others think and simply enjoy life in whatever eccentric manner she chooses.
Joseph’s famous verses were recognized as the United Kingdom’s most popular post-war poem in a 1996 poll by the BBC. The English poet has received numerous awards for writing and in 1999 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Meanwhile the Red Hat Club phenomenon for senior ladies has grown internationally by doing the unthinkable — wearing purple and red together to celebrate the inevitable state of advanced age.
I always hoped to grow old as gracefully as others I observed. Instead of complaining about aches and pains, the state of the world, and the antics of their offspring, some women I know live in the moment, an overused phrase these days but perfect for describing the art of enjoying the exact moment in which we exist.
The Present Is a Gift
The old adage – yesterday is history, tomorrow is a myth, but today is a gift, and that’s why it’s called the present – reminds us of how much of our lives over which we have any control.
I haven’t always been successful at aging gracefully. In fact there have been times when I felt as if I were being dragged into later life with my heels leaving furrows in the dirt.
I’m shocked to find my formerly fit body has become slower, fatter, wrinkled and sun-spotted, and I’m a little put off that no one looks askance when I request a senior discount. I dislike the fact that I must take a handful of pills everyday to stave off the damages of age. (Although I’m grateful for the miracles of modern medicine.)
Some believe marriage helps reduce stress. Carole Lieberman, MD, MPH, a member of the faculty at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, says, “Stress depresses the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness, so by lowering stress, marriage could be protective.”
Remember the old Jamaican reggae song “Don’t Worry – Be Happy?” My father used to say, “There’s no point in worrying. It doesn’t change anything, and it make you feel terrible.”
Live, Laugh, Love and More
I’m going out on a limb here with a few suggestions for aging gracefully, based my own informal research, the advice of a dozen close friends, and the fact that I am older than dirt.
1. Laugh. Long known as a healing agent, laughter is a positive force that helps relieve pain, inspire happiness, and even increase immunity. The Theory of Positive Psychology by Martin Seligman, puts laughter and a sense of humor among 24 signature human strengths. Laughter yoga clubs are emerging across the country, and LOL, or laugh out loud, has become perhaps the most popular acronym of the texting generation.
Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones, provides physical and emotional release, creates an internal workout, distracts us from anger, guilt and stress, gives us a more positive perspective and has great social benefits – helping to connect us with others.
2. Love. The glorious gift of love has surprising health benefits—lower stress, better brain health and longer life. The impact of a simple hug, based on research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, indicates women who reported the most hugs with their partners had the highest levels of oxytocin, a hormone sometimes known as the cuddle chemical. Eating chocolate evidently releases the same hormone, though for a shorter time.
Scientists believe marriage or cohabiting help ward off mental decline and are linked to a lower risk for cognitive impairment. Similar studies show that even loving a pet leads to a longer, healthier life.
3. Get a life! – or a job or a hobby. Life is as fulfilling and rewarding as you make it. Numerous groups welcome volunteers – retirement homes, senior citizen centers, Sunday Schools, hospitals, daycares and more. Many hospitals recruit senior citizens to rock babies in their neo-natal intensive care units. There are no words to describe the pure soulful satisfaction of cuddling a preemie whose parents may live hundreds of miles away and can’t be at the hospital every day.
4. Be spiritual. Last but not least, become more spiritual. However you translate that, this simple action promotes mental, physical, and spiritual well being. Whether you worship in a church, a temple, a mosque or your own backyard at sunrise, give in to the human need for a connection to God and His universe. Meditation and prayer are potent activities for stronger mental health. While you’re keeping your body healthy with anti-aging tactics, take time to nurture your soul.
In the 1980s Dr. Bernie Siegel, M.D., wrote a runaway bestseller, Love, Medicine and Miracles, about self-healing based on his experience with exceptional patients who influenced their own recovery. My precious mother read it during her four-year battle with cancer, and I’ve passed that same book to half a dozen friends through the years.
Dr. Siegel’s subsequent successful books on the same subject were joined by You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay, Healing and the Mind by Bill Moyers and a multitude of others. You can lose half a day surfing through the on-line book-and-author descriptions on Amazon, ebay or Froogle.
So whether you call yourself aging, old, senior, gray panther, silver boomer, mature or active adult, or even if you are in total denial, go forth; but for heaven’s sake – and yours – go gracefully!
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickles for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised.
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
Written in 1961, published in Joseph’s collection Rose In the Afternoon (1974) and The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse.