My Great-Grandma Woolner lived her entire life in a fishing village on Prince Edward Island. She walked three miles to the wharf and back everyday to buy fresh fish, take a good, long look at the ocean, and stretch her aging legs on those dusty-red island roads. Until the day she died, she had long, thick, dark hair that extended well past her waist, sparsely speckled by a few glamorous strands of silver.
She would comb her hair each night before bed, and fix it into a determined, rapunzel-like braid down her back every morning. She had no interest in celebrities, fashion or television, but could rhyme off shakespeare quotes, island politics and the ‘who’s-who’ of our entire family tree. She was quick as a whip, sharp as a tack, and… 106 years old.
My Great-Grandma Woolner did not believe in ‘cutting carbs’. She did not surrender paycheques to expensive anti-aging, age-defying, crows-feet-eliminating face creams. She did not know what botox was and thought plastic surgery was a devilish display of vanity. Legend has it that she survived on fresh fish with a zest of lemon, and a zest for life alone.
Had it not been for a broken-hip that forced her demoralizing transition into nursing-home life in her 106th year, who knows how long my great grandmother would have kept on. She was remarkable, and beautiful, and the most graceful ager I have ever known.
We have become a society obsessed with aging, or perhaps more accurately, a society obsessed with not aging. We deny our bodies the natural transitions of growing old, and are hugely susceptible to the onslaught of media-promoted alternatives to counter our absurd fears of old age. I too find myself looking a bit too closely in the mirror now and then, only to determine that the rumours are true: youth really is a fickle and fleeting friend. Soft, barely-there lines have just started to etch my 20-something forehead, and crease my cheeks where smile-lines linger. My sister and I joke about buying each other botox treatments for our next birthdays. But laughs and jokes aside, deep down in some twisted pocket of our 21st century egos, we’re actually very serious.
We are living through the heydays of anti-aging. As baby-boomers commence their slow and dreaded walks toward thinning bones, sagging chins, and the inevitable return to diapers, they have officially started to panic. They are all-too willing to invest in pills and potions that might stall the gloomy doom of that nursing-home check-in.
A recent Globe and Mail article by Carolyn Abraham, “The quest for the test tube of youth” highlights research looking closely at how to extend the lifespan of human cells. The star of this genetics show is the telomere; the tiny cap that adorns the tips of every chromosome contained in our DNA. Telomeres are the unsung protective heros of our ‘genetic 411’, and get worn down as our cells divide–as we age. Scientists are trying to determine how to eliminate the wearing down of telomeres, in the hopes of extending the life of our cells, and potentially slowing the aging process itself. If it works, could this be the elixir of youth scientists have been searching for?
But why do we want this? Isn’t every stage of life supposed to be about embracing the right frame of mind to endure the natural highlights and burdens of every age? Shouldn’t we be welcoming every natural aging progression as part of life’s journey?
We are terrified of growing old, but are also by and large too lazy to preemptively nurture our bodies and minds to better our chances of a happy and healthy old-age.
Grandma Woolner would be rolling in her grave if she knew what today’s scientists were up to.
The baby boomers will likely go kicking and screaming, pumped full of potions and lotions into their old age.
But personally, I’d rather opt for fresh fish, and long walks on dusty-red island roads.
Way to go Grandma Woolner. Here’s to 106 years!