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Finding Power: Real Women Are Redefining Aging as a Source of Strength

Sue Campbell October 21, 2019
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The current generation of baby boomers is infusing aging with a stronger sense of power and agency.

“All your life, you think 60 is ancient, and all of a sudden, you find you’re 60 and you don’t really feel that different. I feel stronger and more engaged. This is the best time of my life.”

That quote, now an internet meme, is attributed to actress Glenn Close,72, who beat out younger nominees to win a Golden Globe for “The Wife” this year.

She’s not the only famous figure to find strength in age.

Politician Nancy Pelosi, 79, wields tremendous power as the speaker of the United State House of Representatives, the highest-ranking elected woman in the history of the country. 

In the world of media, Susan Zirinsky, 67,  is the first female and the oldest person ever to helm CBS News. When she was named president and senior executive producer of the division in January, the station’s morning show anchor Gayle King lauded her decades of experience and journalism chops, describing her on air as a “badass.”

Such examples of impressive women stepping into their power as they age seem to be popping up more frequently in media reports. But what’s the story for those who aren’t in the halls of power or on the silver screen? How are real-life women experiencing their sense of agency as they age?

Feelings of Power Aren’t Just for Celebrities

According to a recent Stria reader survey of more than 300 women, they, too, are standing up for themselves, making their own life decisions with confidence, and seeing themselves as very different from previous generations. Respondents over 65 have a strong sense of personal agency, saying that they don’t find it hard to stand up for themselves, and they don’t want to abdicate control over decisions.

That all tracks with what Margaret Manning, the founder of Sixty and Me, has found. Her website spreads the gospel of vital aging through content that encourages women to ponder their purpose in life and to be bold and fearless in pursuing their dreams. Clearly, the message resonates, reaching half a million visitors over age 60. There are 1600 videos on the Sixty and Me YouTube channel and three just-launched sister sites.

Stria’s survey-takers, too, responded to the idea that they are not done with growing and contributing. The majority of 65+ participants agreed that:

They feel they are growing as individuals.
They believe they can make a contribution to the world.
They feel they have untapped potential.
They have many dreams for the future (slim majority).

Reflecting Older Women’s Realities

Pamela Hill Nettleton, who teaches media studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, has a special interest in how women are represented in the media. She cites the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin respectively, as a sign of a societal shift toward acceptance of older women experiencing struggle, growth and power. She points out that Hollywood never leads when it comes to depicting reality, so she’s hopeful that the show means wider acceptance of and interest in strong, complex older females.

“It’s a really wonderful example of women of a certain age having vibrant lives. It looks at sex, marriage, dating, motherhood and friendship, showing how these older women are experiencing and grappling with issues relating to all of the above.”

Nettleton has her own story of finding her power later in life. After years as a writer and editor, she returned to school in her late 40s and earned her undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degree all in a five-year span, finishing in her early 50s and joining the faculty at Wisconsin’s Marquette University.

Despite her own success launching a new career after 50, Nettleton says she’s not sure society has looked ageism squarely in the face. “I don’t think we’ve really dealt with it,” she says.

Plenty of older women have shared stories of feeling invisible. Some, a Sixty and Me survey showed, feel lonely or set aside. Stria’s survey showed older women feeling less confident than their younger counterparts when it comes to technology skills and personal safety.

Yet, the current generation of baby boomers is redefining how they will age, research shows. The current cohort of older women are de-bunking stereotypes that say they shouldn’t live alone or make decisions for themselves, that assume they don’t enjoy sex and have nothing left to offer the world. They do. The Stria survey showed they feel more satisfied than younger women do when it comes to friendships, hobbies, spirituality, doctors and finances. 

Having that kind of positive attitude about aging may actually help people live longer, one longitudinal study found

Surely there’s power in that.

Stria sponsor Life Reinvented made “The Truth About Older Women” special editorial series possible.

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Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell has been a digital and print journalist for 25 years, and was the editorial director for PBS Next Avenue She started her career as a magazine writer, and holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing. For 15 years, she lived on 13 acres in Scandia, Minnesota, where she raised chickens -- and three children.

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