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Aging Authentically: Older Adults Defy Stereotypes

Aging Authentically: Older Adults Defy Stereotypes


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“I can’t imagine not working.”

Carol Shelly enters the preschool she works at with homemade play-dough, pumpkin scented. In her bag are vegetable puppets she crafted. She consults her schedule, which is written on a sticky note stuck to her water bottle. She’s off to Ms. Davis’ classroom for now. Teachers seem to exhale when she walks in their room. 

“Hi Ms. Carol,” a small chorus of children chant. “Come play with us.” 

A former at-home daycare provider, Shelly is employed as an aide at the preschool housed in her church. Shelly was only retired for one summer, which she spent sewing and hanging out with her beloved dog Boo. But when a friend called and asked for help moving into a new home, Shelly was excited to have a project.  

“It felt good to do something for somebody,” Shelly said. “I don’t like putzing around. I need to feel like I’ve accomplished something; and it can’t just be for me.”

Hand-made vegetable puppets Carol Shelly made for the preschool where she works. Photo: Zoe Jennings

Shelly, now in her 70s, has usually worked two jobs at a time. She worked production and ticketing for both a rock promoter and the circus. She did bookkeeping and ticketing at the Lakewood Cultural Center. Shelly has always taken pride in her work. 

Through her jobs at the circus and with the rock promoter she traveled the country. She remembers meeting Elton John, Bob Marley, Etta James, the members of Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones, among many others. She worked about 400 shows a year. She shared a liquor bottle with Keith Richards and Tina Turner once asked her if she wanted any Chinese takeout. 

“It was kind of like working at the preschool,” Shelly said. “I was doing production, so you had to plan things, and once musicians got there you just tried to keep them busy and keep them happy, although there were no diapers involved.”

When the preschool needed help and word got out to Shelly, no one seemed to be surprised she jumped at the chance, she said. 

“It keeps me young,” Shelly said. “I think being around kids makes you humble. Don’t ask a question you don’t want a straight answer for, and you best be prepared for it.” 

Shelly never hesitates to lift buckets of toys or pick up a child. Her bone density tests have improved from the weight lifting involved with the job.

Carol Shelly enjoys building strength by lifting objects at the preschool. Photo: Zoe Jennings.

“It’s really helped my health, not so much my nerves, but my health,” Shelly jokes. “I hope I can work as long as I physically can.” 

She wonders what her retired friends do all day. “I can’t imagine not working,” Shelly said. “I’ve never had a job I didn’t enjoy.” 

Shelly is grateful she’s able to see the education field evolve from practices she experienced when working at her in-home daycare center and watching her daughter go through school. 

“Kids are so much more informed,” Shelly said. “The methods of teaching are much different. It’s not this cookie-cutter version of things. I love seeing kids receive accolades for their talents, and support where they need it. I think it’s such a marvelous way to approach kids. This has been a whole new chapter in my life.” 

Shelly hopes to travel to Patagonia and Italy soon. Her inspiration is actually pretty simple: she wants to. 

“I’m enjoying this part of my life as much as I’ve enjoyed any other part of it,” Shelly said.  

Shelly approaches aging with a “go for it and be happy” attitude. She pays no mind to older celebrities who don’t represent the authentic picture of aging.

Carol Shelly plays a game of basketball with children at the preschool. Photo: Zoe Jennings.

“I think you either buy into it or you don’t,” Shelly said. “Think about all the older stars that you see pictures of. They all have personal trainers and dietitians.” 

For now, Shelly is grateful she’s able to play with kids and keeps up with an active social life.  

“I have trouble thinking of myself as an older person,” Shelly said. “I know I am, and the kids occasionally ask me about it, but I don’t feel old. I think age is a state of mind.” 

Healthcare for supporting your passions

Shelly’s generation appears younger than previous generations, both physically and mentally. A recent study hypothesized that with education becoming more accessible and mainstream it has slowed cognitive aging in older adults. Shelly learns a lot from the children and teachers at the school. Motivated by a desire to continue learning, Shelly is considering taking college courses to become a lead early childhood educator.

“Our aging population is quite incredible,” said Liz Lycett, a doctor at the Frontier Internal Medicine Office in Longmont, who provides primary care for older adults aged 70 and older. “We have patients older than 75 who do power lifting, downhill skiing, farming, teaching, working, volunteering, horseback riding, and even cattle roping, to name a few. Health care can support aging by recognizing that when folks retire, they cannot retire to their couch. Staying active is the goal.”

“We have patients older than 75 who do power lifting, downhill skiing, farming, teaching, working, volunteering, horseback riding, and even cattle roping, to name a few.”

An upside for older adults in a post-COVID world is increased communication with doctors through telehealth. Plus, many older adults are too busy traveling to make regular in-person appointments. Older adults are often seeking guidance from healthcare professionals to continue doing the things they love. 

“Many ask the question what they can do safely on their aging frame,” Lycett said. “For a patient with osteoporosis and compression fractures, riding horses may be their reason to get up every day, so avoiding it is not an option. Instead, they need assistive devices to mount horses, or suggestions on how to ride with less spinal impact.” 

Lycett cites a few recent medical advances that assist older adults in maintaining mobility and health as they age. Surgical and perioperative advances allow pursuit of joint replacement for osteoarthritis. There are new medications for those with respiratory illnesses. There are some immune therapies for those with degenerative disease such as Rheumatoid Arthritis. There are advances in oncologic care that are less toxic.

“In our communities there is more encouragement to keep folks active as they age, which helps ease the burdens of an aging body,” Lycett said. “There are also some great social groups for older populations. In the past, often children moved away and older relatives were left on their own with little activity or engagement. Now, I care for many grandparents that are so busy they have to decline some invitations and social events because they’re too busy.” 

Lycett’s advice for the aging generation that doesn’t want to stop? “Stay active, and stay social,” Lycett said. “It keeps you young. And of course, take naps if/when you need them so you can keep up. Even if it’s every daythat’s a normal part of aging.” 

Health & beauty tips for a well-lived life

Research coming out of the Memory and Brain Wellness Center at University of Washington Medicine shows a Mediterranean diet to support an aging brain. Mediterranean diets include minimal red meats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and healthy fats.

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As older women are expected to look physically younger than their male counterparts, more older women are rejecting beauty standards by not wearing makeup or refusing to dye their hair. Shelly proudly doesn’t wear makeup or dye her hair. Some people question her about this and suggest that she wear makeup, she said. 

Kaleigh Webb is a local esthetician who works with older adults. She says that many of her older clients just want to come in and relax, usually they get facials. She thinks fondly about her grandmother who came out of retirement to work at Walmart and has been known to date younger suitors. 

Webb recommends clients on blood thinners or any other medications to tell estheticians because they can interact harshly with some products. She recommends microblading, cryotherapy, microneedling, IPL treatments, dermaplaning, chemical peels, anti-aging facials with more natural ingredients, and using the lifting machine for her older clients.

“Chemical peels are really good for fast results,” Webb said. “It’s really good for wrinkles and that darker pigmentation color.” 

In some cases, Webb has seen chemical peels take 10 years off of someone’s face. The client must have about a month of down time after to heal, she said. 

Ingredients to look for in store-bought products are vitamin C, arbutin, kojic acid, licorice extract, niacinamide, and retinols. Webb recommends ordinary retinol cream and Sanitas ReVitaLize mask.

“Peptides are going to be your best friends,” Webb said. “A little trick I’ve learned is when you’re doing your skin care routine, you put moisturizer or any serums on the back of your hands and rub it in because your hands actually age the fastest.”

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Webb recommends a simple routine that will go a long way to all of her clients. “When you think about it at the end of the day, you don’t really need a big, giant, crazy skincare routine. The ultimate thing is as long as you have a good cleanser, good moisturizer and a good toner, or you can replace the toner with retinol, it doesn’t have to be a crazy 20-step program for your face.” 

Companionship keeps you young

Recent studies suggest that people who feel younger than their actual age suffer less from mental illness and may have increased longevity.

Every Saturday for decades Shelly has eaten lunch with her friends at the same Italian restaurant. Her friend Charley Wilson loves pyrotechnics, “not blowing things up,” he’s quick to add. The two met when their children attended school together. The weekly lunches started when Wilson was out of work as a way to maintain normalcy, and it stuck. Pat and Tony Selby sat at a different table for weekly lunches as well. Soon the group merged.

“I just got tired of turning my head to talk to them,” Wilson said. “I got a crick in my neck.” 

The group enjoys laughing and talking about their hobbies and shared interests. They talk and sing songs from old Broadway shows. Pat and Tony Selby met in Chicago in a rock opera theater group at Columbia College, back in the “hippie days.”

Tony Selby, Charley Wilson, Carol Shelly and Pat Selby (listed left to right) enjoy their weekly lunch together. Photo: Zoe Jennings.

“It was really cool, but I just don’t remember it,” Tony jokes.

Pat worked for the Children’s Chorale as a dance choreographer for 23 years and also performed dances for schools. Pat likes to quilt and give away the quilts to her family and charities. It helps build strength in her speech and hands.

“She has been recovering in leaps and bounds from her stroke,” Shelly said. 

She sips on a Patarita, a margarita without tequila. 

Pat and Tony regularly try different restaurants. They enjoy vacations to Bonaire where they snorkel, dive, and take underwater photography. Tony was a chemist and chemical engineer who has worked in the industrial water technology field since 1965. He still gets called on for certain jobs or to serve as an expert witness in court. 

Pat remembers the generation of women before her didn’t have much freedom, except the suffragettes, she said. World War I pushed some women to have a life beyond their family. 

“I think you have a lot more choices,” Pat tells me, talking about younger generations. “It’s very dynamic. Women are now having children closer to 30. It’s probably better for some of the women.”

“Women are now having children closer to 30. It’s probably better for some of the women.”

Pat and Tony have many children, grandchildren, and some great grandchildren. “It’s been interesting to watch grandchildren grow up and then become parents,” Tony said. 

Wilson’s wife Gwenn recently passed away. Gwenn was a foodie and a caterer. She made ice cream in excess and loved to give it away. The friend group feels different without her, but they support each other through all of life’s hardships.

“Gwenn was a really good cook, and she really liked Italian food,” Wilson said. “When she started going in the kitchen, she would invent things. After we ate, I would go, ‘did you write that down? That was really, really good.’ It was always the same answer every time: ‘I know what I did.’”

Older adults in many ways are reimagining the way aging looks, acts, and feels. They are traversing the country in their RVs, working jobs that they truly enjoy after retirement, and having fun with friends. With medical advances and pushback on social constructs, older adults refuse to be a stereotype. Some push back against the stereotypical angry boomer caricature. There are some shared experiences that living to an older age will always encompass.

Actor Jane Fonda said: “We need to revise how we think of aging. The old paradigm was: You’re born, you peak at midlife, and then you decline into decrepitude. Looking at aging as ascending a staircase, you gain well-being, spirit, soul, wisdom, the ability to be truly intimate, and a life with intention.”

In a consumerist society obsessed with looking young, it’s brave to own your authenticity and not buy into the fear of aging.

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