Isms here and isms there—let’s run through the gamut: racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism. Talk about a hornet’s nest of trouble. Proud sponsors of murder, persecution, prejudice, and just plain ol’ rudeness and disrespect over countless millennia.
If we take ageism as an example, it’s important to realize that the mistreatment of elderly people—because they are elderly—is only one facet of the damage. Equally troubling is the soul-sapping insecurity and depression caused by being looked down upon by the younger set. It’s an insult-to-injury thing.
So, 1. Your body’s breaking down and untrustworthy; 2. People dismiss you as old and feeble; 3. Self-doubt about your looks and irrelevance leaves you in a constant state of ennui; and, 4. You’re at the end of your life facing an imminent death. Sheeesh. Grandma deserves a hug.
Or, a copy of Carla Marie Manly’s Aging Joyfully: A Woman’s Guide to Optimal Health, Relationships, and Fulfillment for Her 50s and Beyond. In her review for the September/October issue of Foreword Reviews, Kristine Morris says Aging Joyfully is a “warm, insightful, practical, and humorous guide to a life period [Manly] calls the most rewarding of all, despite its challenges. … The book points to inner treasures that chronological age cannot touch and finds beauty in aging, deep love in elder years, and the joy of a mindset that is eager for what’s to come.”
With the help of the talented staff at Familius, we put Carla and Kristine together for this heartfelt and insightful conversation. Kristine, please take it from here.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, and for your warm, insightful book. Aging Joyfully casts a whole new light on women’s aging and brings a healthy, hopeful outlook to a time of life that’s too often seen as pretty grim. In affirming that aging, in itself, is not a negative process, but can be “a positive, incredibly rewarding part of life as a whole,” you bring light, hope, and real possibilities to current and future generations of women.
In your counseling and research, what is the number one issue that comes up for women with regard to getting older? What seems to be underlying this issue? What do you suggest to help them make peace with it?
The number one issue for women in regard to aging is wrestling with the stigma of being “old.” From changing looks to not feeling relevant in the workforce, the fear of being unwanted, unnecessary, or unlovable is enormous for many women. Given that we live in a very youth-oriented society—one that tends to idealize younger women and disparage older women—it can be challenging to embrace the idea that a woman is truly beautiful at every age. Making peace with these issues is not easy, particularly if a woman subscribes to the idea that she must be youthful to be beautiful, desirable, or relevant. A woman must be willing to take a solid look at her life—her roles, her desires, and her vision for the future—and do all she can to create a wondrous internal world and external life that radiates with joy and beauty.
Aging Joyfully states that “age-negative attitudes can have deep and far-reaching implications, for they hit at the very heart of an individual’s need to feel loved and safe.” With the messages of a youth-centered culture continually assailing an aging woman’s sense of self-worth, and its tendency to devalue the contributions of our elders, leaving them unemployed and unemployable due to age, many women may find themselves without the self-esteem, health, or financial resources needed to explore their own inner worlds, discover what would truly make them happy, and go for it. What might you say to those facing their “golden years” without the financial security to engage in the explorations and activities that might make them feel fulfilled and supported as they age?
I love this question, as it gets to the heart of how we can embrace internal work when financial security, health, and life issues don’t seem to support the process. Many women find that their “golden years” are less than golden when it comes to being financially secure, physically healthy, and in a psychological space that allows for self-growth. Yet, what I’ve found through my work with women is that issues such as finances and health don’t need to detract from learning to love oneself and thrive psychologically. For example, I run a women’s group every Thursday evening; if a woman doesn’t have funds to pay the nominal fee, the cost is waived.
When the women gather to share their woes, challenges, and successes the energy is highly connective and supportive. Over the years that I’ve run the group, I’ve found that it is not money, physical health, or “luck” that creates well-being among these women. What does create well-being is the joy of sharing, being validated, feeling supported, and knowing that you are valuable. I believe that women can create these groups anywhere—whether in a home or coffee shop—and learn to share and support each other as only women can. Magic happens when women lock arms to bolster and love each other.
Some of the things that contribute to a woman’s lack of self-esteem and to financial difficulties in later life have roots in choices made earlier. If you could go back in time and redo a few things in your life as a young woman that now, with hindsight, you know would have made for an even happier, healthier, more fulfilling later life, what would those things be? How might your life be different now had you done those things earlier? What do you think gets in the way of seeing the importance of these things earlier in life?
These are such wonderful questions, and ones that I’ve pondered in the past. We often think it would be lovely to redo a few things in the past, yet I continue to conclude that if I did anything differently, I would not be the woman I am today. In truth, every stumble I’ve made has allowed me to become more compassionate, aware, and informed about life’s challenges. I believe that my greatest growth has occurred as a result of my most significant struggles—facing them, learning from them, and choosing how I wanted to develop in the future. Thus, if I redid anything, I believe that I might not be as strong and aware as I am today.
As to what gets in the way of making better choices for ourselves, I believe that we are often blinded by fear during the course of our struggles. Our fears—such as the fear of not living up to others’ expectations and desires—take control and immobilize us. Rather than orienting ourselves in the direction of what we inherently know is best for our growth, we often crumble or conform in order to please others. This, in essence, is often the greatest impediment to seeing and living our truths earlier in life. In my case, I’m actually quite fortunate that my journey has been exceedingly challenging, for I know from personal experience how one can create a happy, healthy, fulfilling life no matter what occurred in the past!
What were some of the challenges you faced growing up and in adulthood that have helped you to become the sensitive, aware, and effective counselor and writer that you are?
I grew up in a chaotic, dysfunctional household where children were to be seen and not heard. As the ninth child out of ten, I learned that my chances of surviving the chaos were highest if I just “did as I was told.” This worked for me in many superficial ways, yet it did not protect me from abuse, and ultimately took a great toll on me. In learning to “be small and keep quiet” and not question authority, I grew up not knowing who I really was. As a child, I desperately wanted to be a psychologist. Something in me knew that my hurts were to be transformed into helping others. But being the “good daughter,” I abandoned my own dreams to fulfill the dream my father had for me—that of becoming a lawyer. In my first year of law school, my body and psyche rebelled on my behalf. I suffered from anorexia and weighed just 84 pounds. I nearly died.
I left law school and eventually enrolled in a master’s degree program to become a marriage and family counselor. I met my first husband while in recovery from anorexia. My self-esteem was very low, and I didn’t realize that the marriage was a mistake until it was far too late. We had two sons, and given my Catholic upbringing the thought of divorce was impossible for me. I found joy in my sons, but for fifteen years my life was dreary and dark. At the age of forty, I felt trapped and depression was setting in. I knew I had to make a change, if not for myself, then to show my sons what a vibrant, empowered mother looked like. Since I had been supporting my husband in following his various dreams, I prayed that he would support me in my dream of becoming a psychologist. But he refused.
At forty-five, I left the marriage and was accepted into a doctoral program. During this time, my parents passed, and my family of origin fell apart disastrously. I revamped my life while working full time and parenting my amazing sons as a single mom. It was terrifying at first. I had no idea how I would pay the bills, handle the workload, and do my internship. But, as often happens when we take risks for the right reasons, the Universe, or the Divine, ensured that my needs were met. Our little trio scraped by and, slowly but surely, my life transformed into the life I now live. My new husband, my sons, and my friends are now my family, and my sons continue to radiate the most wonderful energy and light.
These days, isolation is becoming epidemic, and loneliness is taking its toll on the mental, physical, and spiritual life of people of all ages. How does isolation impact an aging woman’s self-perception, and how does one go about finding, or creating, communities of women that will love and support each other so that no one has to face the challenges of aging alone?
Isolation is incredibly damaging, both psychologically and physically. In fact, research shows that we heal from health challenges more quickly when we are connected to and supported by loved ones. An aging woman’s self-perception is certainly negatively affected when she does not feel connected to others; we are gregarious creatures by nature, and it’s vital to our sense of self to feel that we are loved and valued by others. As women, we thrive when we feel connected to a close circle of friends and family and to a greater social network. Many women confide to me that they feel alone and friendless, particularly after they retire and relationships from work fall by the wayside. The “cure” to isolation is both simple and difficult: one must persevere in creating new friendships, whether through joining social groups, attending religious or spiritual events, volunteering, or taking classes. And many women find great success in creating reading clubs, potluck events, or hosting game nights. It may take time to break into existing groups or form new ones, but warm-hearted perseverance eventually pays off.
What attitudes in our society might stand in the way of this happening?
It can be scary for women to break out of their shells, particularly in a culture that does not support assertiveness in women. Society stands in the way of connecting, given its focus on “living independently,” and “standing on one’s own.” With this mindset, many people are afraid of being honest about feeling lonely and isolated. They fear that they are “defective” if they admit to wanting or needing connection. But, in truth, it is healthy to want and need others, and the rewards of connection are immense.
Living near, or below that poverty level in America often means that one’s surroundings are grim, that care for physical or mental health issues may be inadequate, and that optimal nutrition may be impossible due to healthful foods being unaffordable or unavailable nearby. What can women living in these conditions do to have the kind of joyful, fulfilled life you suggest is possible in the elder years?
Women who are living near or below the poverty level can band together with other women to create communal support. When women work together, the resources of the group can be combined to allow each woman to support others, and be supported, in unique ways. Where one woman is fragile emotionally, another may be strong in that area yet more needy financially. Where one woman is wise and grounded yet health-impaired, another may be able to offer physical support and receive guidance in return. This, indeed, has been the way of many ancient cultures who were able to thrive despite poverty by utilizing combined resources. And there also are skilled professionals who are responsible for reaching out to underserved and marginalized communities to offer supportive services.
It’s surprising how even the simplest things can bring joy. I’m thinking of your story of a woman whose neighborhood had a littering problem and how she discovered great joy in picking up the trash as she went on her daily walk. This started her on the path to discovering a multitude of things she was passionate about and turning her drab, grey life to “technicolor.” Can you tell our readers another story that illustrates the power of simple things to set us on the path to joyful aging?
One beautiful story is that of a woman who’d lost her husband to cancer. Her world was very dark after his death, and she felt as if she had no purpose. Although her financial means were limited, she took my suggestion to begin volunteering one day a week. Although hesitant to venture into something unfamiliar, she chose to volunteer at a local food pantry. She found that she couldn’t wait for her volunteer shift, for the work she did gave her incredible joy. Before too long, she decided that she wanted to garden again—a passion she had left by the wayside—specifically so that she could share her harvest with those in need. She has found incredible joy from the gardening itself, her volunteer work, and the new friendships she has formed. Through opening her heart and giving of her hands, she has created great joy through simple acts of love and connection.
Might you consider writing a sequel to your book that would address some of the issues we’ve talked about here and give some guidance to those in a position to take action?
I would love to write a sequel that addresses other issues involved in aging, from the importance of choosing care facilities to outlining resources for underserved populations. It is only by bringing these issues to light that we can propel the change that is sorely needed.
What message would you most like readers to receive from your book?
Most of all, I want readers to know that age is a state of mind. When we learn to focus on what we have, rather than on what we might be “losing,” we become more grateful. And, out of gratitude—deep, heartfelt gratitude for life and ALL that it brings—we find great, eternal joy.