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Social Psychologist Katharine Esty Spotlights 7 Aging Fears—and How to Reframe Them as Possibilities

Social Psychologist Katharine Esty Spotlights 7 Aging Fears—and How to Reframe Them as Possibilities

By Katharine Esty, PhD
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Most people dread growing older. We cling to outdated information and hold onto negative stereotypes about older people. Even though aging has changed dramatically in recent years, many of us still assume that as we age, our lives will decline. Yet I believe it’s likely that as you grow older, you will experience some of your most fulfilling years.

I grew up with a very negative picture of old age. One grandfather died at 65, and two other grandparents spent the last 10 years of their lives bedridden. I was convinced growing old was going to be mostly unpleasant and difficult. And I was so wrong. As a psychotherapist for more than 30 years and as a consultant and coach for decades, I have years of experience listening to people’s fears and concerns about growing old while witnessing an often different reality. During the last decades, in my seventies and eighties, I have been focused on learning about aging as a researcher and a participant. At 89, I can assure you it’s time to update our assumptions.

What We Get Wrong About Aging

We have been trained to think aging is bad. Collectively, we spend a huge amount of money on cosmetics and surgeries—some $72 billion globally each year— to look younger than we are. I admit, I remember the upset I felt when wrinkles settled in around my mouth, and my naturally light brown hair became threaded with grey. Negative images of older people in the movies, on television, and online are alarmingly ubiquitous. A 2021 study focusing on media in the U.S. and U.K. shows that for every positive image of an older person there are six negative ones.

These ageist views feed negative and fear-based ideas about growing older. Here are seven things that most of us still get wrong about aging. We assume we will:

1. Be unhappy.

2. Get a serious illness and live in constant pain.

3. End up in a nursing home.

4. Lose our mobility.

5. Lose our cognitive capabilities.

6. Become depressed and grumpy.

7. Have a boring life sitting in front of a TV.

All of these things remain possibilities, of course. But what most people get wrong is how likely any of these outcomes are for us.

New Realities About Aging

How well we fare and how well we grow older depends greatly on the choices we make. As I’ve dug into this subject of aging, as a psychotherapist, researcher, and participant, I have come to see these fears as possibilities. Here is how I see them:

1. After 70, most probably, you will be happy.

Laura Carstensen at Stanford University’s Center for Longevity seminal research on happiness found an increase in happiness as it correlates to age. Specifically, she found that people in their seventies are happier than people in their sixties, and people in their eighties are happier than people in their seventies. While interviewing older people and their adult children for my book, Eightysomethings- A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness, the main headline was that older people are happy.

There will be difficult transitions and times after 70. I reluctantly left the home where we raised our four boys and moved to a retirement community to accommodate my husband’s poor health. I’ve been hospitalized, undergone surgery, and lost my beloved spouse. Despite this, I have been happy most of the time. I have made new friends and found a new love.

Losses are inevitable as we age. But it seems that as we experience losses, we become more grateful for what we do have. This is called the paradox of aging. So even though you are not expecting it, you will, no doubt, be happier than you expect.

2. Most of us will experience years of active, pain-free life after we turn 70.

The average life expectancy in the U.S. is 78, but some of us will live to our nineties and even to 100. We may have serious illnesses, but there have been dramatic improvements in treating cancer, diabetes, and heart attacks. And much has been learned about how to manage pain.

3. Less than 5 percent of older people over 65 in the U.S. live in nursing homes today.

The number of nursing homes (now usually referred to as skilled nursing facilities) is shrinking year by year as healthcare evolves. Most people prefer to stay in their own homes, being looked after by family or outside caregivers when they need more help.

4. Most of us over 70 are mobile and will continue to be mobile for many years.

Again, thanks to modern medicine, we get new hips, new knees, and PT (physical therapy) to keep us moving. There is more emphasis on staying fit, which helps with mobility. As we age, our balance may become an issue. Today, there are all kinds of hiking sticks and walkers to keep us mobile. I temporarily used a walker for several months after my surgery, and I admit I was resistant to it for the first few weeks. Then I said to myself, “What is more important, pride or being safe?”

5. There is progress and great hope around cognitive health advancements.

About 10 percent of adults over age 65 in the U.S. have dementia, according to a recent national study at Columbia University. Of course, this is not a positive finding. The specter of losing our cognitive capabilities haunts us all. But even here, there is some good news. The onset of Alzheimer’s disease is happening later and later in life, giving more people more years of full capacity. And new drugs show promise of slowing down the progression of symptoms.

6. Older people are less angry, less worried, and less stressed than younger adults.

In the past, many of us assumed that depression and irritability were just part of being old. Now we have learned about neuroplasticity, that the aging brain continues to make new brain cells, and that the brain can heal itself. It is not normal to be persistently depressed, angry, or worried. Professional help is called for if these symptoms persist.

7. Most people over 70 are leading active lives. The stereotype of an older person who watches TV all day long is outdated. In fact, most older people enjoy busy and varied lives. This summer, at 89, I traveled to Switzerland and vacationed in Maine with a bunch of friends. I write a monthly blog, meditate daily, and I enjoy my Zumba class. My new partner, age 88, sings in a madrigal group, and he takes a painting class. Many of us who are older expand our capacities by learning new skills like ceramics, woodworking, and drumming and taking classes in a wide range of topics.

A recent Harris Poll conducted by Age Wave found that perceptions of aging are shifting. A few years ago, 60 was considered old, but now many of their respondents see old as beginning at 80. They also see older people as more active and open-minded than in previous polls.

But the new realities are even more wonderful. Our older years are a time for continuing personal growth and development. Consider your later years as an opportunity. As poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The only person you are destined to be is the person you decide to be.”

Katharine Esty, PhD, 89, is a best-selling author, psychologist, a widow, a mother, a grandmother, and an activist for aging well. She’s on a mission to dispel myths about old age and to end ageism, which limits and undermines the most experienced among us. Her recent book is Eightysomethings—A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness. You can subscribe to her monthly newsletter here or visit her at

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