I’m not going to lie. I was much more prepared for puberty, pregnancy, motherhood, and even menopause than I was for aging. And you all know that’s a big deal to say because we’re largely unprepared for all the other phases of our lives, too. But the reality is, we’re aging from the day we’re born, and much of what we’ve internalized about aging – the fears, judgments, stereotypes – and even ‘symptoms’ if you will – have much more to do with the culture of ageism we’re steeped in from the time we’re little – whether that’s the ‘old hag witch’ in the woods who eats children in fairy tales and movies, to the anti-aging creams that women are already now using in their 20s (and younger) thanks to an industry that instills in us that aging is ugly.
My guest, Karen Walrond, is the author of Radiant Rebellion: Reclaim Aging, Practice Joy & Raise a Little Hell, an investigation in how we can resist ageism and live a light-filled life along the way. And – I don’t say this often or lightly – this book has blown my mind. It was exactly the dose of vitality and fire I needed right now – a mind-shift on my own journey – of aging proudly and powerfully while I also navigate all that means in our culture, and in work that puts me front and center on video, in media. I truly believe every women over 20 in our culture should read this book, gift it, share it, talk about it, and then read it again.
In this episode Karen and I discuss:
- The cultural beliefs, stereotypes, and fears that contribute to ageism
- How internalized ageism can affect women's self-perception and confidence as they age
- How to challenge ageist language and attitudes
- Embracing aging and reclaiming vitality can lead to a more joyful and fulfilling life.
- The role of the global anti-aging market in perpetuating ageism and sexism
- Variation in cultures on the perception of elderhood
- The importance of community and intergenerational relationships for well-being and a sense of purpose in the later years
- Listening to your body's cravings and embracing guilt-free eating
- The impact of alcohol on health and weight management
- How important it is to appreciate the wisdom and beauty of body changes
Let’s listen to the interview. And then, as my guest says, raise a little hell. Or as I’m saying, raise a lot of it! You’ll see what I mean.
Please share the love by sending this to someone in your life who could benefit from the kinds of things we talk about in this space. Make sure to follow me on Instagram @dr.avivaromm to join the conversation.
Aviva: Welcome, Karen, and let's dive into this right off.
Karen: What an amazing introduction. Thank you. I am thrilled to be here.
Aviva: Oh my gosh, I can't tell you. I love my body. I'm a midwife. I love women's bodies. I have friends and people in my life of all ages, and there's that proverbial every now and then when I'm like, oh, my neck looks a little different or my hair is a little thinner. And it's like, it's really shocking to me how affected I am by that. I never anticipated that I, ‘Miss Nature,’ love nature, love my body, would feel that way. And also, even more for me as something that deeply has resonated with your book is I'm already kind of like a perfectionist urgency culture person. And I really have to work on that in myself.
And I'm very mission-driven and I'm like, oh, I'm 57, I've got to do all this. I got to do all that. And my husband's actually 10 years older, so I also have to remind myself there's time, there's space. This is not a race to the finish. And your book has really been this deep balm for me at a time that I've already kind of recommitted to creating more glow and rewilding of myself. So, I can't thank you enough for your book, and I haven't picked up a book in a long time that I thought, okay, I felt a hundred percent felt unseen. So, I want to stop talking and hear about your personal journey because you had a glance in the mirror moment in your life and can you take us on that journey? Yeah.
Karen: So, thank you so much for that. And I love the word balm. I'm glad that's how he felt because that's what I hoped for people when they read the book. I like You am a person that has never really worried that much about getting older. I've always enjoyed my birthday. I've just never had a big thing about getting older. But I wrote this book last year in 2022, and it was a really, really big year for me. I was turning 55 in 2022. My marriage was turning 20 and my daughter – only child – was turning 18 and graduating high school and going off to college. So, there was that. A lot of things were happening, and I was very excited about all of them.
But I found that when I told people about all those things that were happening, they were only happy about one thing. And the only thing they seemed to be happy about was the 20-year marriage. When I turned 55, people were like, Ooh, double nickels. How are you feeling? Are you okay with that? Right. Or my daughter graduating like, oh mama, are you okay? She's leaving. And I was like, that was always the goal. The goal was always that she would graduate high school and go to a college.
And so, I was really interested in one, why people felt the way they did about aging when I didn't. But also, two, there was a part of me that was like, well, what if they're right? What if it is all awful and it just hasn't hit me yet? So, what are some of the things that I can do to make sure that I stay as optimistic as I do? And so really that's what I'm wrestling with in the book. I talk to experts and take their advice and sort of listen to kind of what aging means and how it's changed over time. So that's what the book was. Now, the mirror thing that you were talking about was not what?
Aviva: … It's not what people would think. And I love that about this little story.
Karen: What was really interesting about that. So, about a year earlier, yeah, maybe a couple years earlier, I live in Houston, Texas, and in 2017, I think it was Hurricane Harvey came to Houston and obliterated the city and we were casualties of Hurricane Harvey. We lost everything in our home. We lost absolutely everything. Then it was sort of the end of the summer of 2017. 2018 was really spent trying to rebuild- rebuild a home, literally getting everything from the ground up. We had to raise the ruin that was our house and rebuild.
Aviva: I can't even imagine.
Karen: It was bananas. I remember wading through the water and thinking, I've seen pictures of this on the news where other people are flooded and walking through the water and now it's me.
So, 2018 was all about rebuilding. And if you've ever been in any sort of catastrophic situation, whether or not it's a health scare or something like that, people always like to say, you're so brave. But in my opinion, you just put one foot in front of the other. You're in it. You don't even think about, “Well, what's the brave thing I can do today? I got to just deal with it.”
And so, 2018 was all about just dealing with it. And at the end of the year, I was in our new house, and I walked by a mirror and sort of started at the reflection. I thought, my first thought was, who is that person? And then I realized it was me and my first thought was, “Oh, I've aged. This whole experience has aged me.” And so, then I am staring in the mirror and I was like, let me see where those signs of aging are. And I couldn't really find them. It was like I was still dying my hair at the time, so my hair was black, and I don't have many wrinkles and still didn't. And so, I was like, what is it that made me say that, that I'm aging and I'm not actually seeing any true signs of aging like white hair or wrinkles. And I was like, oh, that's not age, that's stress. That's what I'm seeing. And it made me wonder about how often we conflate the two. We look at something, look at ourselves, and go, “Oh, I've aged.” What you're actually looking at is the effects of stress on your body.
So, for 2019 I decided I'm going to figure out what I can do to reverse stress because it was actually really exciting for me. I thought, well, I can't reverse age because age is going to age, but maybe I can reverse stress. And so just little things like drinking a lot more water, trying to move more, trying to sleep. I'm a huge evangelist for sleep, making sure I get eight hours of sleep a night. And a year later, a friend of mine looked at me and she said, “What's going on with you? What have you done?” And I said, “I've not done anything.” She goes, “No, no, no, no. What have you done? There's something going on. You're looking really good.” And I told her the story and I said, I realized it wasn't age. And she interrupted me. She goes, your pilot light had gone out. And I was like, that's exactly it.
And the last year I've been trying to relight my pilot light, and so much of the writing the book was about that sort of caretaking of my pilot light and really coming to the understanding that again, age is going to age. I think if we really were honest with ourselves, it's not the aging that we are worried about. It's the losing of that vibrancy and how can we take care of that? Because that you can have at any age, you can be a vibrant glowy person at 150 if you want it to be. And that I think is what we really want. I don't know about you, but I have no desire to look 20 again. I have no desire to look five again, but I do want to look like I enjoy my life and that I'm taking care of myself that I definitely want. And so that's really sort of what I was wrestling with in the book.
Aviva: I love that. I had a similar but different experience in that I hadn't done any photos for my website in quite a few years. And it's funny, right before COVID, I was turning 54 and I'm 57 now, and I was so excited about my 54th birthday because I'm a born and raised New Yorker and girl, I was in it. I was 12 in the disco era in the city, and Studio 54 was everything. Not that I've ever been, but that vibe. And so going into my 54th year, which was 2020, I was like, this is it. I am owning this year. I mean, I was going to get an old fashioned, seriously, a girl version of one of those Earth, Wind and Fire lame jumpsuit, the whole thing. And then covid happened, and then fast forward to turning 56 and 57. So I hadn't had photos done from my website all that time, and we were trying to do some things. So, I had some photos done, and I looked at the photos and I had the same thing. I was like, oh my God, I look so much older.
And I realized what it was wasn't actually my face. It was that I didn't have as much sparkle in my eyes because the 54-thing never quite happened. And then there was COVID, and it felt like I had this feeling of losing a couple of years in my life. And then suddenly I was in a different age range. I was over the 55, and I internalized that in some way. And I realized for me, there had been a variety of family stressors. COVID had happened, just different stuff. And so for me, I like to pick a word every year. I saw that in your book. I was like, oh my God, this is a sister from another mother here. So my word for the year has been rewild. So for me it's about reconnecting with my deeper self, but it's also about reclaiming those practices, those simple everyday practices.
A word I want to go into 2024 with is glow. Well, I got that from reading your book because I think part of what you were reclaiming is, I think you may even said it, was re-finding your glow or your friend had said, “Oh, you're glowing”. And I thought, oh, what is it that creates glow? How can I go into 2024 really using? Because for me, when I pick a word and I'm imagining it's for you to, it almost becomes sort of like the compass by which I make decisions.What are the things that create glow? And it's the joy, all those things. I just loved all the things. I feel like your book is a guide to reclaiming those things.
You shared with me, you said that you believe one of the biggest ways we can fight ageism is by addressing our own internalized ageism. And you used some examples that I thought were really, really powerful how we think of the word old and what that means, or when we think of the word young. Can you talk about how you sort of woke up and realized you were like, oh, I've got this internalized ageism and how this show up unwittingly for us as women in our culture at any age, but especially as we do get older?
Karen: Well, I mean like you, like I said, I never worried about aging. And also I'm a lawyer by training and I had done a lot of work in age discrimination and that kind of thing. So I literally walked into this book with the arrogant belief that I was like the oracle. And I will just tell you aging is no problem. Why are you worrying? Why is anybody worrying?
And one of the first people I interviewed for the book who appears very early in the book is the anti-ageism activist, Ashton Applewhite, who is amazing, love her, she has a wonderful Ted Talk. I encourage everybody to watch her TED talk on ageism. And we were talking and I said, well, what are some of the things that you notice that people do that help perpetuate this sort of ageist idea and sort of internalized ageism? And she says, well, I'm really interested in how people use the words young and old a lot of the times that's really problematic.
And when she said that, I thought, well, I mean young is young and old is old. What's the problem? I don't understand. So, saying more, she goes, well, for example, I hear people say all the time, I don't feel old. And I said, yeah, I say that all the time myself. I don't feel old. Why is that a problem? And she was so gentle. She said, well, Karen, when you say I don't feel old, what I suspect you're saying is I don't feel invisible or I don't feel unsexy. And I said, okay, yeah, sure, that is part of it. And so she said, well, I don't know about you, but when I was 13, I had spells when I felt invisible and unsexy. She goes, those aren't age-related attributes. And that was like, it blew my mind. She goes, we use old as shorthand for bad and young, for shorthand for good, and we don't even realize we're using it.
It was sort of another mirror moment, honestly, because it was the first time that I had ever considered that my language might perpetuate ages stereotypes. I really sort of interrogate a lot of my own language. It is rare, I use the words old and young anymore, but I will use older or younger because the truth is at 56 now to my 20-year-old, my 19-year-old, I'm sure I seem very, very old, but to my 84-year-old mother, I seem very, very young. It's such a spectrum. I might say to a younger person, well, I'm older than you, so my experience is X. As opposed to saying, well, I'm old, which we kind of just do without even thinking about it or senior moments, right? Oh, I can't find my keys as senior moments. Well, my daughter, my teenager loses stuff all the time, and we don't call it a junior moment. So, sort of really understanding how we use language. So that's one thing.
The other thing about interrogating is also what are we accepting as okay for ourselves, which is actually ages. One of the things that Ashton used, this is her example, is when she went to the doctor because of her trick knee, and her doctor said, oh, well you're older now, so that's what that is. And she said, Well, okay, but my other knee's the same age and it's fine. So can we please figure out what's going on with my knee?” Right.
Aviva: Sounds like a joke. It sounds like an old standup joke.
Karen: Exactly. Right. But that sort of idea or if somebody says, oh my gosh, you look great for your age,
Aviva: It drives me nuts.
Karen: Right? Well, it drives you nuts, but there's a part of you that's like, oh, well thank you.
Aviva: Well, you know, I used to think that in my forties, but now I'm thinking like, okay, so how old do they think I am? I'm like, it's flipped in my mind in a whole different way now.
Karen: But also, and this is an Ashton thing as well, is that the older they get, the more diverse we get. The way that we age is, it depends on a lot of things, like if we have access to healthcare. There's a lot of that helps, but also how much stress we've had in our lives as well.
The way I look at 56 is going to be totally different from the way anybody else looks at 56. The idea of you look good for your age, it's like, I look like 56, 56 looks like this on me. It looks very different on Halle Berry. It looks very different. It's going to look very, very different. And sort of really unpacking when somebody says something like that to you and you do feel a little bit of, “oh, that's a little bit of ‘zhuzh.’ “
But then also there's a part of you that's like, is that okay? Why can't I just look good as opposed to for your age? And so just sort of understanding when I buy this anti-aging cream, am I buying it because I don't want to look older or am I buying it because I actually just how it feels on my face, right? And really sort of interrogating our purchasing and understanding what our motivations are, I think is really, really important.
Aviva: It's so interesting. I'm on, as you are, I'm sure, video for social media a lot and other media things. And I didn't even own makeup until I was almost 40 and didn't color my hair and never would imagine myself even considering Botox or anything like that, and totally understand why women do it, But I never would've even imagined that those thoughts would cross my mind. But one of the things I'm finding really interesting is that I watched The Morning Show recently and realized that many of the women in the show are our age, and they don't look normal because they don't look our age, but they also look distorted because of all the filler and all the things. And I feel like, what if we all just actually looked like whatever we looked like naturally at the age that we're at, how would that also ease our perceptions of ourselves in our culture? So that's one thing I think about.
And then the other thing is that I had a social media assistant who was 26 or 28, and I was expressing to her that I'm kind of struggling a little bit with doing some direct to camera and being so high def, but I don't want to use filters because that doesn't feel fully authentic to who I am and what I want people to see. And I said, I feel like being older, I'm really struggling with this. And she said something so life-changing to me, which is, “Oh, Aviva, I really respect that you feel that way and I honor how you're feeling because you are 56, 57. But just so you know, I feel this way about being on camera and I am 20 whatever. And my friends who are in their early twenties feel that way too.” It's that there's so much pressure around what we look like at every age. It's nuts.
Karen: At every age. It's really nuts. And what you're saying about how do we know what to look like? I feel like let's just go with hair. I feel like when you see women in media, and I'm talking famous women, they are all sort of preternaturally young, like the J. Lo's and the Halle Berry’s who still look like they did 30 years ago, or if they have silver hair, it's supposed to be almost like, well, you're impaired or you're just like your seventies, eighties, nineties, but you don't actually know what fifties looks like anymore.
And I remember when I had made the decision not to stop dyeing my hair, which is only in the last few years, one of the things that sort of propelled me to do it was I was watching a cop show, and it was a British cop show. It was one with the older wizened sort of detective, a man and his young ingenue detective, like brand new detective, a woman. And they zoomed in on her face at one point, and I noticed a silver hair. And I remember thinking, how old is she? So, I googled the actress and I wish I could remember the actress who it was, but the actress was 33 years old. And I remember thinking you would never see that on an American show. You would never see a 33-year-old with a stray silver hair. You just wouldn't see it…
Aviva: Or imperfect teeth or any of the things that when you watch a French or British show, you see much more of.
Karen: What I thought was interesting was that so normalized. I mean, I had a roommate in college who has beautiful white hair now, but we were freshmen and she was already getting silver, right?
Aviva: Yeah, my mentor, she was fully gray, fully silver haired actually at 35.
Karen: And who would know that that is a thing from watching television. And so, I feel like there's a dearth of what does a woman in her mid-thirties to her mid to 60 look like? I feel like we don't really see it because we are so conditioned, and frankly, Hollywood is so conditioned. You have to look as young as possible. And that I find that sad. That said, to your point, I would never judge anybody who uses fillers or who dyes their hair or anything like that because we are in such an ageist society, there are serious consequences for some of these decisions. There was an anchor woman last year who went silver during the pandemic in Canada, and she got fired for it. You can lose your job. I've had single friends that tell me “If I stop dyeing my hair on the dating apps, I'd never get a date again.”
Aviva: Well, even women in corporate America who are saying that when they hit their mid-fifties, if they're not doing some kind of facial, whether it's Botox and filler to look younger, they will be aged out – “catacomb-ed,” as you say.
I was late to start being gray and have continued to color my hair. And I'll tell you why. Two things. I'm not fully ready to be silver haired yet, and I don't know when that's coming, but I feel like it's coming soon. And also, I noticed during the pandemic, I didn't color my hair for two years so people can see what my hair looks like when it's silver, it's kind of more salt and peppery. I noticed that my clothing that I was wearing looked really different and my skin looked really different with my hair, a different.
You can choose whatever the hell you wear, whatever the age you want to, but for me, the disconnect of that color hair and what I prefer to wear was really interesting. So, it's a weird thing. I do natural Aveda, whatever, it's still doing it, and I definitely am aware that I'm doing it and I don't judge myself. And again, I don't judge any woman. And I'm also really excited by this really big movement to see women going silver haired whenever that age is for them. I love it.
Karen: It. I love it too. And yes, when I decided to go silver, it's very interesting what you said about how colors do look different. And I was like, I'm not wearing black again. I'm only going to wear color. And then I let my hair go silver, and I've suddenly realized that I have a love affair with gray because I like how the gray looks with silver. But I did have to sort of rethink about the clothing, the colors of clothing, because it does make a difference.
Aviva: One of the things that I think is so profound and powerful is to realize just how insidiously culturally driven our beliefs about aging are. I think sometimes we think that what we think is free will and independent thought, and then we're like, oh, actually no, I'm seeing this everywhere. And your research really revealed a lot about the fear and loathing that we have in our culture specifically. And when I say culture, I mean our western patriarchal, commodities-driven-centric culture and how this is also very different from both a hundred years ago say, and other cultures. What are some of the biggest ahahs that you had from that?
Karen: Yeah, so this was the first, and it's funny because I don't know that I was going to go into this in the book until a very good friend of mine who is also a person who does not fear aging, I asked her, I was like, “I'm writing this book on joyful aging and what is something you wish a book like this touched on?” And she sort of looked at me and she goes, “I'd be really interested to know whether we always hated aging”. And I thought, that's a really interesting question. I will look into that.
In my research I stumbled upon the work of a Dr. Laura Hirschbein who is a medical historian and a psychiatrist, and she wrote a medical article about our perception of aging from 1900 to 1950, so the first half of the 20th century. The way she looked at her research was she looked at popular magazines that were written during that time and figuring that popular magazines would sort of tap into the zeitgeist of what people were feeling. And she found that in the 1900s, most articles about aging were written by people who were in advanced years in their seventies, eighties, nineties say. And they loved it. They loved being older. They were like, this is great. I feel like I'm the keeper of tradition. I feel like I'm wiser now. Yeah, okay, I have a backache or something like that. But whatever downsides there are to getting older, they're far outweighed by the upsides. And so, people really loved getting older. I think one of the articles talked about the gift that America has in their octogenarians.
Fast forward two World Wars and a Great Depression. And what was happening was that all of these 70, 80, 90-year-olds were continuing to work because they loved working. But 30-year-olds, 20- and 30-year-olds, primarily men, weren't able to get jobs. So, the US government decided what we're going to do is we're going to institute a mandatory retirement age so we can get these older people out of the workforce. So now that there's some jobs for these young 30-, 20-, 30-year-olds to support their families, men primarily. So now all of these people who are 65 and older are now, and I'm using air quotes, “burdens on society” because they are not contributing to the economy. So now it's starting to look bad for people who are getting older.
Aviva: They're literally in the way for younger people.
Karen: Pediatricians, child psychologists decide to expand their research into what happens when you get older, because geriatrics really wasn't a thing at the time. And what they use as their standard for normal were five-year olds. So basically, if you didn't have the cognitive ability of a five-year-old whose job it is to grow and learn, you're impaired. Or if you do not have the physical agility of a five-year-old, you're impaired. So now all of these articles are being written by this new research that is showing how impaired these people are because they are not as agile or as quick thinking as a five-year-old, right? So that adds to it.
And then enter Clairol. Clairol comes in and says, well, you're aging. You don't want people to know you're aging. You better start dyeing your hair. And nowadays, 70% of women dye their hair in America. So literally between 1900 and 1950, we went from loving it to aging is a problem that needs to be fixed. And that is why generally speaking, we hate aging. When I say it's literally the capitalist patriarchy, it is 100% that. It's not for anything else. And for me, just learning that was like Neo in The Matrix. I just took the red pill. You can't unsee it,
Aviva: Right? No, seriously, my mind was blown as I was reading this. I was like, because there was a similar phenomenon after World War II where women who had been holding down the fort on jobs while the men were overseas fighting were similarly pushed out of access to jobs while men were given the jobs. And I had no idea that sort of this paired ageism-sexism thing was happening. And it just makes so much sense. It's so stigmatizing, too.
Karen: Yeah. Yeah, it's insane for sure. And then when you start to understand that, oh, this was created, this was created for us to believe this about aging, you suddenly realize that you have more agency to create and curate how you want to age going forward when you start to realize this is actually fabricated and I don't have to buy into that. I can take the red pill, I can see the matrix, I can create, this is what I want to do when I'm aging, and there's really nothing stopping me from doing that. It's smoke and mirrors really.
Aviva: It's so interesting. Just think about so many things like that, what we believe about pregnancy, what we believe about motherhood, all these sort of industrial, patriarchal, economically-driven industries that get us to believe certain things that then get us to buy certain things.
So, we've got this global anti-aging market, and you cite that it's nearly like $37 billion internationally, and it's really invested in making everyone feel bad about getting older, and especially women. And I want to swing back around, but there's this ageist factor in here. There's this sexist factor in here.
Karen: The World Health Organization has done this huge study in 2021 about ageism, and they say that it costs economies billions of dollars when people have ageist and views, and 1 in 2 people all over the world have ages. And I think that that number, I'll have to go back and look in my own book for this, but I think that number, that 37 billion, I think that's just the us. I think it's actually a trillion-dollar anti-aging industry, and it's largely unregulated. And that's the thing, I think you sort of mentioned it, the average target age for anti-aging products is 24 years old. So, you are being targeted five years from your teenage years to buy these products. And of course they want to fear aging because that's how they make their money. It's going to be creams, it's going to be hair dye, it's going to be makeup, it's going to be clothing, it's going to be even retirement homes. And all of that is tapped into that. Younger is better, older is bad, it's absolute smoke and mirrors, and
Aviva: It's so different traditionally. And in other cultures. It's funny, coming from the framework of being a midwife and an herbalist, there are two professions where as you get older and white haired, you're actually still seen with that kind of respect of an elder that we have lost in so much of our common culture – this idea of elderhood and this idea that we become invisible or unimportant and I think along with losing our vitality, I think so much of us fear becoming irrelevant because that is how our culture treats older folks. And I want to say I listened to an interview, I don’t know if you've listened to this podcast, it's Julia Louis Dreyfuss…
Karen: Fantastic podcast.
Aviva: Yeah, amazing, right? Yeah. Did you listen to the Diane Von Furstenberg one?
Karen: I did. I Loved it.
Aviva: So, for those of you, I highly recommend it, Julia Louis Dreyfuss, she's got a podcast called Wiser Than Me, and she's in her early sixties at the time that Karen and I are having this conversation. But she's interviewing women who are in their later sixties, seventies, eighties and so forth, and she interviews Diane Von Furstenberg who said, I don't ask people how old they are anymore. I ask people, how long have you lived? And she said, I might ask a six-year-old. So how long have you lived little one? And I love that. How long have you lived?
Karen: Love that reframing.
Aviva: Yes. Isn't it beautiful?
Karen: It's such a great way to reframe it. And we talked a little bit at the very beginning of this about language. It's like, how can we shape our language so that it's, and we do it not just to change the way society talks about it, but to change the way our brains think of it. If you start thinking about, “So Aviva, how long have you lived? There's something so not respectful, honoring, that's that word I'm thinking honoring. It's that I'm going to honor that you have walked this earth for a certain amount of time and all the riches that has given you. And I want to sort of hear more about that.
Aviva: It's a curious question, isn't it? It's curious.
Karen: Yeah, it's a wonderful one and less judgmental, which I think is really lovely.
Aviva: And loaded. There's so much value judgment, old and older are kind of loaded words that we almost can't even fully reframe. We need a different lens altogether.
Karen: I was looking actually on Instagram today, and one of the women that I follow on Instagram, she just celebrated her birthday. She's in her sixties, and she says, every time I celebrate my birthday, I always tell my people what my age is, but I'm wondering whether there's something to be said for not telling people your age because of how loaded the judgment is.” And I'm a person that I always tell people what my age is.
Aviva: Same here.
Karen: But I was also very, very careful, and I say this in the book, not to say the age of the experts that I interviewed, because I don't want people to assume certain things. I want you to take their wisdom in for what it is, for what it's wisdom. And so, unless they say their age, I don't provide it. There is something about that. If I tell people I'm 55, there's sort of an assumption that comes with that. And how do you take away the assumptions from the age, because age should not have as much weight as people like to ascribe to it, right?
Aviva: Yeah. As I said, I'm a New Yorker, but I live two hours outside of the city in Massachusetts, and I was down in the city last week – The City, you can tell where I'm from. I have friends who are from Washington state or Oregon, and they'll say they're going down to the city. I'm like, what city? And they're like, Los Angeles. I'm like, that is not the city. That's a city. I’m such a snob.
It was in New York. I told you about my Studio 54 idea. I was in New York last week, and I said to my husband, I have always loved my birthday since I was a kid. I love it. And then this past year I was a little bit like, “Ooh, okay.” And then so I'm in the city and I'm like, I had this idea. We were on 57th Street and I said to my husband, “Babe, I have an idea every year on my birthday for the rest of my life, I want to do something on a street in New York that is that age. So maybe I can work my way all the way up to the one- teens, which is where I was born.” I was born in Spanish Harlem. So, if I could work my way all the way up to the one-teens, okay, so next year I'm going to do something on 58th, and then the year after I'm going to do something on 59th. And he was like, “That's a really cool idea.”
Karen: That is a cool idea.
Aviva: I know, I'm excited. One of the things you talk about in the book, and I think it's so powerful, is that we fear aging because we associate it with physical and mental decline. And yes, of course. I mean, maybe our knees do creak a lot. I'm like, wear and tear, is this a normal thing of anything that lasts a long time? But ironically, ageism shows up, as you said, in the medical system as a tendency to normalize symptoms and brush them off. I want to talk about two things, if you will. One, there is this assumption that as we get into our fifties, sixties, seventies, we have more likelihood of being depressed and less sex. And actually all the data is that people in those years are happier. And actually research has shown it's not because we're more forgetful and we're forgetting the bad things. We actually just have more or we're just happier. And for women and people in long-term relationships, sex gets better because we're more comfortable knowing what we want and articulating that. So, I'd love to hear your thoughts and your interaction with the research and people you've talked to about that.
And then also this dismissal of health concerns. Because the other thing that is really important that you talked about in the book that I found really enlightening and illuminating was the idea that we're also afraid that we're going to end up in nursing facilities and the data doesn't show that. So, if we could talk about depression, sex, ending up in nursing facilities, medical dismiss, all the things.
Karen: For sure. So, I mean, I think that's what a lot of people think. They think you're going to get older and you're going to end up in an institution somewhere drooling, forgotten in a wheelchair, in a fluorescent lit institution that's miserable. And it turns out that that is not true. That for one thing, for example, the rate of Alzheimer's is actually decreasing over time. The percentage of people who are suffering from Alzheimer's is actually going down, but we would not know that we think we're all going to end up with dementia. It's actually decreasing. More people are living fully independently in their homes and not in institutions then or not. The percentages are something really, really small like 8% or something like that. It's really, really small.
Aviva: I was shocked by that and deeply relieved. Partly also as a physician who has worked in nursing facilities, I will say the specter of that can loom large and anyone who's had a family member in one, it can feel, especially if you're not loaded with money and can't go to the’ chichi’ ones that cost a million dollars a year, it can be scary. So, I think that's such reassuring data.
Karen: For sure. The other thing is it's what they call the U-curve of happiness that we tend to be happiest in our youth, and then it drops in sort of midlife honestly, and then it goes up again. You start to get happier. People are actually not depressed as they get older. You're actually more depressed in younger years than in your older years generally. I'm speaking in huge generalizations here. Actually. I remember I talked to somebody just personally, I talked to somebody when I turned 50 who was in their sixties, and they said, “Oh, if you're loving 50, wait until you get to your sixties.” And I said, “Is that true?” And she had, there were acute few people around and they said, “Absolutely.” And I said, “Why do you think that is?” And it was really interesting. What they said is, in your fifties, a lot of times you're dealing with children leaving children getting and trying to launch your children, but you're also managing aging parents. But by the time you get to your sixties, your parents may have gone, your children should have fully launched by then in theory, and they're probably starting their own family. So now you're a grandparent, which brings its own joy. I had never really considered that stage.
And so, if you think about it that way, that you are now, as you get older, you become more independent of having to care for people, which opens up a whole lot of possibility. And then plus you have these now younger people that are part of your life that can help bring you joy, these grandchildren. It's sort of this really interesting, what we think about the stages of life as opposed to the ages of life. If you think about the stages that happen when the grandkids start coming and retirement allows you some more freedom, hopefully if you can afford to retire that things can start to be a little bit happier.
Aviva: Also, I just want to add from the women I know who I take care of in my medical practice and for myself, it may also be that you're 60 and not choosing to retire at all. You finally have the freedom to do that thing that you've wanted to do, to study that thing or start that business, which is an amazing thing too.
Karen: And do that was again, when I said I didn't understand why people were so fearful of aging when my experience of my friends in my age or older were that they were doing just that. They were starting new businesses or winning Emmys or becoming playwrights, and they were starting to do these really, really exciting things.
Aviva: Yeah… travel.
Karen: For sure, travel. And there were so many of these other potentialities. And I think that's what honestly, if we get down really to the root of why people are afraid of aging is that they don't realize how much potential there is. There's so much potential in coming years.
I come from a family of long livers, so I have a grandmother who died at 102. But even if you don't, let's say 80 is the average life expectancy, well, when you get to 40, you have your entire life again to live, except this time you don't have to learn how to walk or talk or go to school. You've already got all that experience. You know what you like, you know what you don't like, and you have your entire life again to live. That is a huge amount of potential that's right there in front of. And I think a lot of times we don't think that we're inundated with the 30 under 30 lists and have you achieved what you wanted to achieve by a certain age? And it's like, but who said that you had to do that? I am way more experienced and smarter and self-assured and have more self-knowledge at this age than I did even 10 years ago, even at 45, even certainly 35 or 25. And so when you start to think about the potentiality of what's ahead, that's when you can start to get really, really excited about what to do.
And then also don't take no for an answer my friend Ashton did with her knees. If something is bothering you, then get the answers you need to be able to get them treated. It's about curiosity and not taking no for an answer I think is really the key to aging well.
Aviva: One of the things that you cite in the book is research on not just the negatively internalized stereotypes and beliefs about aging, but the profound impact that these can have on us. So much so that one study at least showed that people with a more positive and curious perception of aging live on average seven and a half years longer. And that's actually a huge amount of time.
Karen: And those are seven and a half good years too.
Karen: Those aren't like seven and a half years that are impaired. That's good. Solid happy years, which is great.
Aviva: Yes. And we know that in cultures, Dan Buettner's work on Blue Zones really shows that in these Blue Zone cultures where it's not just how people live, although that's a part of it, and I want to swing back around to that, but these are often cultures with better attitudes about being older. People do live into those sometimes nonagenarian and centenarian years of those nineties and hundreds, again, still independent, which is really important because so many people in our culture, and believe me, I've worked in geriatrics in hospitals – it ain't pretty if we're not taking care of ourselves– and we tend to really medicalize those last couple of decades.
So, what do you think about this phenomenon of, I mean, to me it's such an incentive, even if I do feel have negative thoughts about aging, I don't want to judge those. I mean, we live in a culture that bathes us in them, but it sets an incentive for me to be conscious of those and to work to reframe those. Tell me what you think explains this phenomenon.
Karen: I've read Dan Buettner's really interesting books, and there's a lot of things like he talks about as legumes, like what to eat and stuff like that, which is all well and good, but for me, the thing that I think is really, really potent is the concept of Ikigai, I think he talks about, which is finding meaning and purpose in your work. And I will say just anecdotally, when I think of in my own immediate life, my dad is an octogenarian and he rides 15 miles a day and he's very, very active and he really, really is somebody who loves life. He loves life. And he's never been plagued by any worry of getting older. But also, he's so curious and he has really tapped into that ikigai. For him, it's teaching. He loves teaching, and so he volunteers to tutor kids in math. My dad has a PhD in petroleum engineering, and he tutors elementary school and middle school kids and math because that's really, really what he loves. And that's something that he's been able to use his experience as an engineer in order to give back to kids.
And I think that's sort of constant – what is the way that I can give back to my community? What is the way I can give back to my family, to my friends, to that? What is something that really lights me up? And I have another book called the Light Makers Manifesto, which is all about that, all about tapping into our inner activist to make light.
I think that that gives us purpose to be here, and that's why it becomes very, very fulfilling to get older because you're all constantly thinking about ways that you can serve and ways that you can help and bring meaning to your own life and potentially to others. And I think there's something very, very, even more than the legumes or whether or not you drink red wine or how much sweet potatoes you eat, I think way more than that is that idea of really sort of continuing to search for things that give you meaning and give meaning to your communities. I think that honestly might be the elixir of life. I really think it might be.
Aviva: It’s really profound when we connect the dots between that and this, whether it's a sort of forced retirement age or a culturally common retirement age that then leads people to be marginalized. And especially we talk about having grandchildren at this time in our lives, but so many of us live quite far from our grandchildren actually.
Sometimes we get to a certain age, we're not at our purpose-driven jobs anymore, or even if they weren't purpose-driven, but it was something that gave our days structure and meaning and engaged us, and then our family members are far away. I think that this finding purpose and meaning if you don't already have it, is so, so important. And when we look at some of these cultures that Dan Buettner talks about, people aren't marginalized, the goat herders are still doing their goat herding, the people who are the baker in the community or the doctor. He talks about the Seventh Day Adventist community where there's one doctor; he talks about who's still practicing in his nineties, very competently. I think those are also, I agree, such important pieces and the reverence of coming to an elder for advice or guidance that was more common years, decades ago than it is now where we may think, “Oh, they don't know. They're older. They don't even know how to use the internet.” We have these tropes, right?
Karen: Right! And we don't even think about it when you talk about DEI work, right? Diversity, equity, inclusion, often we think about them in terms of race or we think of it as gender, or we may even think about it as for religion, but we rarely think about it with age. And I think that having sort of a multi-generational communities, whether or not it's at work or it's in volunteering or it's in something like that, it only makes that community richer. And sort of understanding that the person who may not understand the latest social media app, because that's just not something that they grew up with, has something else that can help provide context – the idea of experience and tradition and being able to provide context around whatever that community is working toward, I think is something that is often dismissed and it doesn't really make sense because we're all aging no matter what. Try as I might, I am never going to be a member of the L-G-B-T-Q community or the Jewish community, but I am going to be one day a member of the older or if I'm not there already, the older or the elder community. And that to me is really, it's really shortsighted on our part to not include that as part of when we consider about inclusive communities, to be able to think of age in the same way.
Aviva: Absolutely. Speaking of communities, I want to ask you what you think about this. I read a book a few years ago by Barbara Ehrenreich, and in her book, which she wrote before she passed, and I think she might've been in her eighties when she was writing it, it was a little bit of a hard book to read for me, I think in that it was very reflective of life at her age. I think reading it now with a different lens and the lens of your book, I'll think I'll find more riches in it, but rather than it made me somehow, I felt sad when I read it. But one of the things that she talked about that I thought was incredibly important and a big takeaway for me was the actual importance of being in community with other women, but also specifically other women in our peer age group.
And she talked about for herself, and this is a little bit morbid, I guess, and sad, but it's the reality for women in marriages to men, we tend to outlive our male partners. And for so many women at a certain age, that is a very significant life change. And being in groups of women who are our relative age peers, she talks about how, for one, it normalizes what you're going through. You have other women to share it with and discuss. I remember when I started first having skipped periods in, I was around 51, actually I was 50 because it was my best friend from middle school since we've been 12, she's three months older, and it was her birthday and I said, I've been having irregular periods for three months. And she said, oh, I started having that six months ago, and then, oh, I'm having this. And she's like, oh, I'm having that too. It was like, oh, this is just where we're at. This is what's happening. And it made it shared and beautiful.
And then she also talks about the importance of these communities as we do move into those years where we may need companionship because our partners aren't there anymore, our parents aren't there anymore, our children are launched into the world. What are your thoughts on that? Or did you come across anything about that in your work?
Karen: Yeah, so I talk a lot about how important community is, right? And our need for community tends to change when we're in our twenties, we think of a fulfilling community as one. We can go out constantly, and it's not necessarily that we have deep conversations with these people, but we're going to the club or we're going to, we're playing a sport or something like that. It's sort of not based on any sort of depth of conversation necessarily. As we get older, that depth of conversation becomes even more important, being able to have maybe a few confidants. It's not so much about having all the people that you can have with all the parties. It's much more about having those few people that you can really sort of have those deep conversations with. And then there's apparently another stage afterwards where it's sort of a hybrid. You don't need that sort of deep conversation, but it's nice to have a few companionable people around you just to have their company is enough. That was research that I came across that I hadn't really considered very much. But the truth is that loneliness can be such a killer. Dr. Vivek Murphy, the Surgeon General, wrote a great book about it, called Together, and as we get older, it's important for us to cultivate friendships and community. It just becomes more and more important.
Aviva: The data on it for women particularly, is so staggering in terms of our risk of heart attack as a result of loneliness more than obesity, cigarettes, and diabetes, which is when you think about…
Karen: …. It’s nuts. So yes, for sure it needs to do it. What I think is really interesting, I have not heard this research about having a pure community of your age. My father definitely has that, and I talk about it in the book about his community that he has of people that he's known since he was like 10 and 11 years old, that every Friday they zoom. My family's from the Caribbean. A lot of them are still in the Caribbean. Some of them are in the United States, and they zoom every Friday for a few hours.
Aviva: That's beautiful.
Karen: Which is great.
One thing I did not touch on in the book and has actually come up as I've done book events and that kind of thing, is the importance also of multi-generational relationships and how maybe we shouldn't have only friends of our age, but also have friends of people who are much younger and much older, and how do we cultivate that, which has been really great food for thought because I don't talk about it in the book, and it's something that I, for me, feels like it's missing from the book. I wish I had explored that more, and as a confirmed introvert myself, it's difficult for me, but I'm really trying to sort of figure out how can I cultivate those relationships, not just with people my age, but people of different ages. And I think the way to do that is by pursuing interests and finding communities around interests because it's hard to just walk up to an 80-year-old or a 20-year-old and go, hi, would you be my friend?
Aviva: Yeah., I went into town recently. My daughter and I were having a little Saturday together and we had some coffee and we walked around. It was a rainy day and we walked into the knitting shop. I've knit since I was a little girl, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and my mother and my stepmother, everyone knit. And I've never really extended past a basic knit pearl, and I can do a rib, but we were like, oh, let's get a little project together. So, we went in and it was amazing. I think the woman who was clerking in the store was probably in her twenties. There was a knitting class happening in the back of the room, and it was so multi-generational, and yeah, just this simple act of hand work and a social group that's intergenerational, even in a little knitting store in a little town in western Massachusetts felt so tribal and so organic to how women have gathered. I loved it.
Karen: Yeah, I think there's something to it. I had not considered, like I said, the peers and I think that there's some real richness in that concept.
Aviva: It's really both. And I had a moment about, I don't know, a year ago, and I woke up at three in the morning as menopausal women are sometimes wont to do, and I did. I had worries on my mind and it was worries about being older and living in a somewhat rural, I live on a dirt road on seven acres and my husband is 10 years older, and I was just having some worries about that.
I got up in the middle of the night and I decided to journal out what my problem was that I was worrying about, and I just free wrote. And what came up for me was like, okay, you can worry about someone. You can just cultivate community. And it just became an intentional like, I'm going to reach out to the woman who lives two doors up the road, who is a student in my herbal course and not be shy about having a student who is also a friend – s he's a peer or just having these intergenerational relationships.
And so that brings me to intentionality. Before we wrap, I could really talk with you forever, and I don't say this lightly and I never bullshit, and I don't really take, I mean, I've had two ads ever on my podcast. I don't promote things I don't believe in. And I truly want to say to you from the bottom of my heart, I could cry right now. Actually. I feel teary that I feel that your book for me is the most profound medicine for my soul right now. And I am deeply grateful. And it's just such a powerful reframe. I mean, I'm 57, I could live 40 more years, 50 more years, and I've really been just deeply taking in – and this is the case at any age, whether we're 20, 30, 40, 50, 80: How do we want to live? Do we want to live with worry about the future or do we want to live and embrace every second of it with curiosity and intention?
Where I want to go with that is I know one of the things that you did to sort of reclaim your glow as we circle back to the top of the conversation, you made some in intentional decisions to unstress or de-stress and relight that pilot light. Are there some things that you do every day that you are really non-negotiable about or try to weave in that you feel have made a deep difference for you and relighting that pilot light and keeping it glowing?
Karen: That's such a great question for you to ask me now, because I'm literally coming off of a huge travel season because of the book and for various other reasons where I have stopped doing some of those non-negotiable things…
Aviva: It’s like, when we need it most, we stop doing it.
Karen: Absolutely. And I'm returning literally this week. I'm returning to a lot of those, but it's actually been a sort of a gift to not do them because I've realized why it's so important to me because realizing what I'm missing to it. So, a couple of things. First of all, I think I mentioned earlier is sleep is a really, really big thing for me. It's huge. And I really try to get between six and eight hours of sleep, usually around seven hours of sleep every night. And I know I operate better if I have my seven hours of sleep. I'm just a better, nicer, more productive person. So that's one thing that's sort of probably at the top of my list. Hydrating – water is everything. Water is life weirdly for me, movement. I've never been athletic, but I have learned that having a cadence of movement of some kind helps me “exorcise” size stress out of my body.
Aviva: I love that!
Karen): That. And so I jump rope, I hula hoop, I have a rowing machine.
Aviva: I hula hoop.
Karen: Do you? Excellent.
Aviva: I do.
Karen: Hula hooping is so much fun because I hate exercise so much. I only move in ways that are fun for me. And hula hoop is one of those joyful things. I try to do that at least five days a week, and I tend to eat pretty well, but I also, I have decided to give up guilt around eating. Yay. I eat well anyway, but I don't feel bad if I want potato chips. I just don't feel bad about it. Or I tell people that I'm a “weighthieist” and that I don't weigh myself. I won't get on a scale.
Aviva: Oh, I love that. That's brilliant.
Karen: I'm a total “wist.” I really tap into how I am feeling in my body to decide whether or not I'm going to skip the chips this time or not and how my clothes are fitting. But I don't use the scale because I spiral into obsession when I do that, and I know that about myself.
Aviva: I mean, that's a whole other conversation we can have. And I just want to say you address weight aging, menopause really beautifully in the book. Thank you. And the futility of fighting against some of it, which I'm so distressed by, the profound emphasis with anti-aging on somehow maintaining your…
Karen: Sixth grade weight.
Aviva: Well, even your thirties and forties weight after menopause. And that's like a whole other thing. It's sort of like saying, I'm pregnant, but I'm going to weigh when I weigh when I wasn't. But pregnant. No. Something different is happening in your physiology now. And how do we also embrace seasons?
Karen: Yeah. Well, I will say, and I want to get this on the podcast, it was something that I learned that I did not understand. There is a theory that the reason it is harder to lose weight when you get to midlife is it's evolutionary because it's apparently harder to keep on weight when you get in your later years. And so, your body is keeping the weight on so that when you get to your eighties and nineties, there's something there for your body to work with because it's harder to keep it on. And when I learned that, I was like, I'm going to stop fighting my body anymore. I want to be healthy. I want to move. I want to eat good food. I want to hydrate. I've cut down on the alcohol. I'm doing a lot of stuff that's good for me, but I'm not doing it to get into my clothes from my twenties.
Aviva: I would say though, one thing that I do really encourage women once we hit fifties or menopause is the alcohol. I think that's just the one thing. It does not serve us in any way. It makes pretty much everyone miserable. I look at the weight and estrogen because when our ovaries stop producing estradiol, our brain and our bones and our hearts and many other functions still need estrogen. And where else can we produce it? We produce some in our adrenals, but we also produce it in our fat cells. And so there's that wisdom of like, oh, I've got a little more fat on my hips and my butt and all the places, which for me, I like having a little bit of a booty. I've never had a little booty before, so I got not much of one. But yeah, that's another way we produce estrogen.
Karen: Yeah. Amazing. All
Aviva: Right. This is going to be an odd question, but you'll get it. This is the question I like to ask all my guests, but you'll get where I'm coming from. I do use the word younger, but this is a wisdom question. If you could tell your younger self one thing, what age would she be and what would you tell her?
Karen: Oh, that's a great twist on that question. What age would she be and what would I tell her? She would probably be maybe in her twenties, somewhere in her twenties, maybe 25. And I would tell her, trust your intuition. Relax. It's all going to work out in the end. That's what I would tell her.
Aviva: Karen, we will put all the contacts for you in the show notes, but for people who just never go to the show notes, where can they find you? What are the best places? And yes, everyone get this book, Radiant Rebellion. Get it for your mom, get it for your grandma. Get it for your daughter so she understands. Get it for your partner.
Karen: Get it for everybody.
Aviva: I'm serious. And I have no horse in the race. I don't get paid a penny. I'm just like: game changer.
Karen: I appreciate that. Thank you so much. You can find me. My website is chookooloonks.com, which is a really hard word to remember. So, the easiest way to remember it is Karen Walrond.com, K-A-R-E-N-W-A-L-R-O-N-D. And that will take you everywhere, to the Substack, to the Instagram, to the Facebook. It'll take you everywhere else. So karenwalrond.com.
Aviva: Amazing. And just in case anyone doesn't believe me, I'm just going to say this is what the cover says. I'm here for every page and all the hell raising. And that's Brene Brown. Yes.
Karen: God bless her. Yeah.
Aviva: All right, Karen, I hope you are in my life for a long, long, long time. I feel like I met not just another author and wise woman, but actually a friend. So, thank you for Amen. Everything you've contributed to my life already and to the lives of women. And thank you for being here. And thank you everyone for joining us.
Karen: It's such an honor to be here. Thank you so much for having me.