She’s determined to inspire us to take what she calls an “ageless” stance toward growing older. What does that mean? Dr. Christiane Northrup, a board certified OB/GYN and author of the New York Times bestseller “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,” is spreading the message that as you get older, you do not have to conform to the cultural baggage of what that means.
“Age is just a number, and agelessness means not buying into the idea that a number determines everything from your state of health to your attractiveness to your value,” she writes in the introduction to her new book, “Goddesses Never Age: The Secret Prescription for Radiance, Vitality, and Well-Being.”
Named one the 100 Most Trusted People in America by Reader’s Digest in 2013, Dr. Northrup says she is not afraid of growing older, nor is she looking to age gracefully. Drawing on academic research by multiple psychologists as well as on her own experiences, she says she has learned to embrace living in the moment.
In a phone interview with Senior Planet, she talked about how women and men alike can embrace their age without embracing the accompanying stereotypes.
You differentiate between “getting older” and “aging.” Could you explain why that’s an important distinction?
I like to draw on language from Dr. Mario Martinez, a neuropsychologist who said in his book “The Mind Body Code” that getting older is inevitable. It just means moving through space. Aging, on the other hand, is optional. What we’ve come to associate with the word “aging” in our culture is an inevitable decline and deterioration. What I’m talking about is reframing the experience of moving through time, so that as we do grow older we can step out of these age-based associations that can keep us in a cage. That’s why I tell people to stop celebrating so-called milestone birthdays after the age of 25. At 25 you’re legal to do everything, including renting a car. Then stop counting the years and making a big deal of it, because all you’re doing is putting yourself into a cultural portal that will dictate your future for you.
I get your distinction, but I’ll ask, What does “aging with attitude” mean to you?
I wouldn’t even use the word “aging,” I’d just say “getting older.” But yes, I understand your question, and aging with attitude means getting older with full access to your life force, to your passions, to your soul. It means growing older with all of you intact, and living from the dictates of your soul. It means knowing what’s worth getting riled up about and what isn’t. Aging with attitude means aging with full capacity to experience and know your own value. The other day I took my car to get fixed and I was so happy that the person who was there to help me was the owner of the shop, who has so many years of experience and who knew exactly what he was doing, and not some cute 25-year old. Yes, get me the person with some depth and experience, who is fully present and knows exactly what he’s doing. That’s exhilarating. That’s getting older with attitude – and skill and passion and expertise.
But let’s be realistic. Getting older typically doesn’t mean staying intact; people can develop health and emotional problems. What are the healthiest ways to deal with this?
Let’s talk about isolation. What you can’t do is succumb to the victim stance that you’re old and isolated and nobody wants you. I can throw a rope down that hole to help get you out, but I’m not crawling down that hole with you. Look at my own story. There I was living in Maine, not a very populated state, saying to myself that there were no likeminded people near me. I had this belief that to be near my “tribe” of friends, I had to travel. I also knew I’d always wanted to learn to tango. So I took a class. And then, over the next 10 years, which was the time when I was doing the research for my new book, I expanded that. I made my living room a dance floor. I started inviting some of the best teachers to come to my house and teach lessons.
What do you see as the role of technology in helping people stay connected?
I think it’s the coolest thing ever. I have a Pinterest Board called “Ageless Goddess: The Beauty and Power in Growing Older” and every time I see a rocking picture of someone over 50 I put it on the board, because we are changing the culture. And that way, people can see the beauty of getting older, the passion, how funny it is, how gorgeous it is. The Internet and technology allow us to have a virtual “tribe” that supports one other’s wellness. And that’s pretty exciting. No matter who and where you are, you can be connected. Just recently, someone I’m connected to on social media but had never met saw that I was going to be in Istanbul, in Turkey, and we ended up meeting in person, and she gave me and my family the most amazing tour of the city.
You’ve said before that you’re not interested in aging “gracefully.” Why not? What do you mean by that?
Well, I like the “with attitude” better than gracefully. Gracefully means resigned to the inevitable decline, to isolation, to inabilities. To me, aging “gracefully” would mean moving right into those cultural portals that I precisely want to avoid. We need to step out of those, because those preconceived notions about getting older can take the most experienced, able-bodied people and turn them into fumbling, shuffling old people. And sometimes they’re only 40! People will point to my daughters and ask me if I long to have their beautiful skin. Are you crazy? No, I don’t! I am where I am and I love it.
Why do so many people fear getting older?
Just think of all the cultural messages we hear and what we’re taught to say to ourselves. Things like, “at my age it’s too late” to learn a language, to drive at night, to travel on my own, to fall in love, to have a good sex life, to go to college. We’ve been taught to use our age as an excuse for no longer doing things. For me, the revelation, the freedom, comes when you realize that perhaps moving through time could be a different experience. We really need to reimagine what 80, or 60 could look like. And that’s starting to happen to some extent. Look at Helen Mirren [age 69], now the face for L’Oreal, and Joni Mitchell [age 71] who rocked the cover of the New York Magazine fashion issue in February, and Annie Lennox [age 60], who was a sensation at the Grammy Awards this year.
The title of your new book is “Goddesses Never Age.” What do you mean by “Goddess”?
I went through a divorce midlife, and I thought that was the end for me, that no one would ever want me, that I was too old. I was in a session with clinical psychologist Doris E. Cohen, and she told me that phrase, “Goddesses never age,” and she said that I had that Goddess energy. That phrase turned everything around for me. She was talking about the divine, eternal life force within each of us. It’s our soul, the essential “us-ness.” That’s what I mean by Goddess.
I suspect that kind of language and concepts like “life force” won’t resonate with some readers. How else can you explain the concept of living outside the cultural bounds of age?
We can talk about it in terms of mindfulness. As Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has explained in her books “Mindfulness” and “Counterclockwise,” the concept of mindfulness means having a love affair with right now. But it takes courage to live this way, because as Dr. Martinez points out, known misery is much more comfortable than unknown joy and happiness. I want to be perfectly clear, though. I haven’t written an anti-aging book, because when you talk about anti-aging you’re talking about fighting the natural process of moving through time. I’m not interested in that. If I die tomorrow, that’s OK with me. Living to 100 is not a goal of mine. My goal is to live mindfully, right now, loving today.
- Click here visit Dr. Northrup’s website.
- Dr. Northrup discussed the work of Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer widely in our conversation. Read the recent New York Times Magazine article about Dr. Langer’s work on mindfulness, “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?”
What do you think? Could living in the moment and forgetting about age help you counter cultural stereotypes and help you reimagine what 60 or 80 looks like? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Photo: From the November 2012 V-Day video “I Am Rising…”: Dr. Christiane Northrup