Life in the sixties

“This is a new year. A new beginning. And things will change.” — Taylor Swift

unnamed-2August is my birthday month — always a time of deep reflection for me. Looking back on the past year, I am amazed at the incredible changes that occurred a few weeks after my 60th birthday. Thats the topic of my new column in the August issue of Michigan Prime, delivered this weekend in your Sunday Detroit Free Press. You can read the column online here (please flip to page 5).

Who wins the wrinkle wars?

BEAUTYThe old proverb, “Beauty is as beauty does,” assumes a whole new meaning for women of a certain age. 

Apparently, weve got a lot of work to do. Pick up any womens magazine and youll notice the terms “anti-aging” and “age-defying” are used to market products to girls who’ve barely graduated from high school. In television ads, surgically altered actresses tout the wonders of lifting serums and other “miracle” creams.

We get the message: Aging is shameful and must be fought at any cost.  She who looks youngest wins.

The anti-aging movement has spawned a new crop of books addressing the “surgery vs. product” faceoff.

“Both the subliminal and obvious messages of the beauty trap are designed to make you dissatisfied with your looks — and to make you go to great lengths and expense to change them,” notes celebrity dermatologist Dr. Harold Lancer in Younger: The Breakthrough Anti-Aging Method for Radiant Skin (Grand Central; $27).  “That being said, there is nothing wrong with wanting to improve your appearance.”

Lancer advises women to focus first on skincare and nutrition, reserving dermal fillers or cosmetic surgery as a last resort.

French mystique

Years ago, I swore Id never waste a minute worrying about under-eye bags or any other flesh that was starting to head south.  I promised to age gracefully; to make peace with the inevitable march of time and the pull of gravity.

I was kidding myself. Today, my medicine cabinet proves Ive become another foot soldier in the war on wrinkles. Armed with an arsenal of products, Im constantly battling the encroaching lines on my face.

Of course, expensive creams are easier to justify than cosmetic surgery. While fillers and facelifts have gone mainstream, theres still a feminist stigma attached to “getting work done” — especially if you end up looking like an homage to Joan Rivers.

“Cosmetic surgery all over the world is becoming almost a religion, and many people worship at the doctors office till they are stretched like a too-tight blouse and bear frozen smiles,” writes Mireille Guiliano in her new book, French Women Dont Get Facelifts (Grand Central; $25).

Guiliano reminds us that mature women are still considered sexy in France – and that cosmetic surgery isnt as popular there as it is in America. French women might “partake in a little Botox or another filler,” Giuliano reports. But for the most part, she says, they rely on good skincare and cleverly tied scarves to enhance their seasoned beauty.

A second look

Sadly, miracle creams really dont work miracles. This morning I caught a glimpse of my tired reflection in the bathroom mirror, and for a moment I considered booking my first Botox treatment. Then I felt guilty for being so hard on myself.

Yes, theres more work to be done.

For starters, we all need to stop judging the cosmetic choices of other women. At the same time, I believe each of us should choose carefully, whether we opt for a facelift or fillers, or simply settle for an attitude adjustment.  And short of moving to France, we must keep challenging our own cultures ambivalent views on aging.

As Dr. Lancer notes in Younger, “True beauty is being the best you can be in all aspects of your life.” Beauty is as beauty does.

 Original artwork by Cindy La Ferle; collage with borrowed detail from Botticelli’s Primavera.

Who wins the wrinkle wars?

Becomemyself1We’ve come a long way, baby, yet our culture still honors youth and beauty over wisdom and experience. For most women, learning how to accept our changing faces and bodies is one of the toughest challenges of maturing. My column in the March issue of Michigan Prime (delivered with your Sunday Detroit Free Press) focuses on the debate over cosmetic surgery (and “anti-aging” products) and spotlights two new books on the topic. Please click here to read the online edition, and flip to page 15 in the Detroit/Wayne County edition.

Artwork by Cindy La Ferle. To view more, please click here

On turning 60

You are only young once, but you can stay immature indefinitely.” — Ogden Nash

DSCN4978Holy smoke: 2014 is the year I turn 60! But I’ve still got a few months to start collecting candles for my birthday cake (make it a cheesecake, please). Meanwhile, I’m reflecting on what it means to mature — and watching my 60-year-old pals navigate their newly acquired seniority.

Is sixty the new old? Or are we just getting started? You can read my thoughts on this topic in the January issue of Michigan Prime, delivered with your Sunday Detroit Free Press this morning. Or, look for “Not Your Grandmother’s Sixties” on page three of the online edition.

Broken-heart signals

At midlife, our hearts and bodies often become increasingly sensitive to things that no longer serve us.” — Christiane Northrup, M.D.

venusLong before the weird heart palpitations started, my first warning was a never-ending series of medical appointments on my day planner.

Not one of those appointments was for me.

Three years ago, I’d purchased a new day planner to keep track of my widowed mothers care management. While transferring dates and phone numbers from my previous planner, I noticed Id driven Mom to nearly 50 medical appointments in less than a year — yet I’d neglected to schedule an annual physical for myself.

Unable to drive due to her progressing vascular dementia, Mom lived alone in her condo then, relying solely on me to help maintain her “independence.” Between regular trips to Moms cardiologist, urologist, audiologist, primary care physician, pacemaker clinic, and various surgeons, I was lucky if I could book a free morning to get my teeth cleaned.

Friends told me I was looking tired, but I ignored them (and thought they were being cruel). Months of worry and caregiving were starting to take their toll — yet I was too frantic to notice.

The beat goes on and on

Since March of this year, Mom has fallen twice, first fracturing her back and later shattering her ankle. (By this time, we’d finally made the difficult decision to move her, totally against her wishes, to a skilled nursing care facility.) These episodes required three extended hospital stays and two surgeries — plus weeks of physical therapy.

Meanwhile, I endured two minor surgeries of my own, but ended up spending my recovery time overseeing my mother’s care at the hospital. I would try to care for myself later, I promised.

Visiting Mom at the hospital, I could feel my blood pressure rising every time she insisted she was “perfectly capable” of caring for herself at home. Deluded by the insidious fog of dementia, she refused to believe she’d broken her ankle and was unable to walk — even when we pointed to the cast on her leg.

Over and over, she’d ask: Why are you keeping me here, there is nothing wrong with me … Why can’t I go home now?… When are you taking me home?

museBy August, I’d developed some alarming new symptoms of my very own — including heart palpitations — and a wretched case of insomnia. My heart would pound for no reason — even while I was relaxing in front of the TV.

It scared the hell out of me, unpredictably, several times a day.

I was terrified enough to finally schedule an appointment with Dr. Paul Ehrmann, my family doctor, who ordered several tests. As Dr. Paul explained it, I’d been living on adrenaline fumes after functioning on “high alert” for the past couple of years.

Taking versus giving

More than one-third of caregivers who provide continuing care for a spouse or another family member are doing so “while suffering poor health themselves,” notes a study cited by the Family Caregiver Alliance ( Not surprisingly, middle-aged and older female caregivers are more susceptible to heart disease, hypertension, and depression than those with no caregiving duties. The stats are sobering, so I won’t go on here.

“In many midlife women, heart palpitations are primarily caused by increasing heart energy trying to get in and be embodied in a woman’s life,” explains Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of The Wisdom of Menopause. “My experience has been that our bodies speak to us only when we can’t seem to ‘hear’ them any other way. When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.”

Dr. Northrup challenges women to ask what could be weighing heavily on our hearts — including our key relationships. Are friends and loved ones “investing” as much in our emotional bank as we’re investing in theirs? If not, why do we hang on to unbalanced alliances?

Of course, some relationships — family, especially — are not dispensable. I have no choice but to show up for my mother and to manage all aspects of her life, from finances to healthcare. But when others make silly or unfair demands on my time — or ignore my emotional needs — I have every right to question those relationships. My heart depends on it.

“When issues of love, issues of the soul, or issues of a woman’s unmet passions cry out for attention, they often take the form of heart palpitations.” — Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Reading Dr. Northrup’s advice, I also realized I’d been putting everyone else’s needs ahead my own for the past two decades. Starting in early motherhood, I’d completely redesigned my career goals around the schedules of my husband and son. As soon as my son left for college, my widowed mother’s health began failing, throwing me unexpectedly into the role of full-time caregiver again.

Hearing the heart sounds

Once we “listen” to what our hearts are telling us, Dr. Northrup says, our symptoms begin to fade — though it’s always best to have them checked by a physician, as I did.

Even though Mom has been in a nursing home for several months, I have to remind myself that I needn’t worry about her 24/7.  Professional caregivers are being paid to tend to her needs.

I’ve also learned that it’s best to avoid visiting her when I’m feeling especially depressed or exhausted.  Mom still begs me to take her “home” — which inevitably leads to more heartbreak and frustration for both of us. The social worker at the nursing home has suggested “redirecting” our conversations to focus on happier memories — which rarely works for anxious dementia patients like my mother, but I keep trying.

Though it might seem otherwise, this post isn’t a pity party. I fully accept the privilege of being part of a family — which often includes caring for a chronically ill (or incredibly difficult) elderly parent. I hope it serves as a warning for anyone fulfilling the role of caregiver while navigating her own middle years — years that inevitably present health challenges and other turning points she might ignore at her peril.

It’s time to listen up. Listen to your heart.

The artwork in this essay — “Cycles of the Muse,” by Cindy La Ferle —  is featured in The Rust Belt Almanac, a new anthology of art, fiction, and poetry about growth, change and loss in America’s Rust Belt. Copies available for purchase on