To age well... or not to age well?

Do you really need to ask?

The population explosion that occurred throughout the decade following WWII created a boom that was felt, if not heard, across the country. And its waves have continued to reverberate through the ensuing years as Baby Boomers have made their way through the seasons of their lives.

As the largest population in the history of the country brought unprecedented vitality, innovation, narcissism, and progress to each decade it defined, the idea that these Boomers would age seemed, if not inconceivable, too far away to imagine.

In 2000, according to Christie L. Carter (Alliance 2003), 35 million seniors accounted for 13 percent of the population. But now the country is poised for a perfect storm, projected to hit by 2030 when the number of seniors is expected to reach an unprecedented 70 million, representing 20 percent of the population.

The bad news is that the Baby Boomers are starting to get old. The good news is that there's still time for them to age well, creating the potential for the healthiest senior generation in history. But only if they start now.

"Staying healthy in the face of aging," says Martin Skerritt, licensed clinical social worker with Community Hospital's Behavioral Health Services, "means striving for physical and mental fitness, eating healthfully, and staying as socially involved as one can. Those who are the models of healthy aging are active and have thought about it long before they hit 60. They find meaningful connections to life, seek mental stimulation, have psychologically accepted the aging process, and are more willing to accept support or assistance when needed."

Certainly one of the most privileged generations in history, the Boomers have been concerned with their well-being to a degree never seen before. The question is whether well-being includes health, or merely the appearance of it.

This is, after all, a group that has driven the creation of services such
as LASIK eye surgery, Botox®, and liposuction. But it has also pioneered hip resurfacing, drive-through vaccinations, and preventive medicine. Researchers may have even discovered a compound in red wine that could extend the human lifespan. If they have to age, they're going to do it without getting old.

"It's a complicated subject," says Skerritt. "Despite the fact that we will all become seniors if we live long enough, we are a youth-oriented society. That focus, in direct contrast to the fact that we will age, puts a lot of pressure on us to evade the inevitable. Vanity is important to many, and that perception of not going gray or keeping up a youthful appearance may be viewed as a critical part of their self-esteem."

Depending, perhaps, on what youthful means to you. For many, that youthful appearance is less about fine lines and more about fitness. It means preparing for advancing years with more fresh
vegetables and less frozen pizza, more slow cooking and less fast food. It means replacing bacon grease with olive oil, milk chocolate with dark. It means eating less and sleeping more, sitting less and walking more, exercising the body and the brain, taking an interest in your life and others'.

"I always thought by the time I got to this age," says Carmel Valley photographer Doug Steakley, 63, "I would be older. I don't want to say we're in denial about it, but (my wife) Jackie and I seem to have a different reality than I see in a lot of other people. We have always eaten well and exercised, so we never had to get to that ah-ha moment where it was time to catch up and get healthy."

Steakley, who continues to participate in 200-mile bike rides, six-day backpacking trips that log 10 miles a day, and hiking in Yosemite, keeps pace with a pack of guys half his age, as well as a cadre of age-group colleagues as intent as he is upon maintaining a vigorous lifestyle.

"I notice my aging," he says. "I'm not nearly as flexible (as I used to be), and if I get injured, I don't recover as quickly. I switched from running to cycling a year ago because I can continue to ride almost forever, but running will wear your parts out. I don't have a Peter Pan complex about growing old, but I do think about it. So I do what I can in terms of exercise and nutrition and creative expression to keep from getting old as I age."

Regardless of where you are in the life cycle, creativity can be a vital component to healthy aging.

"Another key to coping with advancing age," says Skerritt, "is whether or not your life has meaning. An example of this is the woman whose pain is less intense when she starts painting. Also, those who help others are statistically happier than any other group - particularly when they volunteer in ways that are uniquely meaningful to them. You can get a greater sense of life meaning if your contribution feels significant."

When it comes down to it, if you've chosen to do your part to stay physically vital and mentally agile, you've surrounded yourself with a caring community built largely by your own interest or investment in others, and you've found ways to participate in creative, meaningful pursuits, thereby increasing your chances for aging gracefully. But if it helps your self-esteem or relationship with the mirror to cover the gray in your hair and use a bronzer for a healthier glow, or to opt for more invasive cosmetics in the form of a nip, tuck, or texture, that, too, is your prerogative. If anyone can pull it off, it's the Baby Boomers.