By Nancy O’Reilly, Ph.D.
This self-help book is written for the woman 25 to 60 years
old who is struggling with her own aging process. It will also be of interest to psychologists, coaches and counselors who
have clients who are struggling.
This book helps women give voice to, and deal with, their
anxieties and fears about aging. We also hear from women who are not afraid of aging, and who share suggestions for overcoming
Introduction (See below)
In the candid and entertaining introduction, author Dr. Nancy
tells of her journey to becoming a 50-something Baby Boomer.
Chapter 1 (See below)
Chapter 1 sets the stage with a quick review of society’s
negative pressures and views of older women.
Chapters 2 – 8: Women’s Stories by Age Group
We hear women’s own words, describing their issues and
concerns about getting older. Through acutely realistic detail, we gain images of women in each age group who are afraid of
aging, and learn how that picture contrasts with those who are not fearful. By shining a light into the fears, we begin a
dialogue. Hearing others put their feelings into words helps normalize the situation for fearful women, inform them of their
choices, and recognize their own fears of aging.. It’s helpful to know you’re not alone, and that others have
similar experiences & emotions. In these pages women also share helpful techniques for conquering those fears.
Chapter 9: Speaking About Our Health
Dr. Nancy talks about one of the worst aspects of the fear
of aging: our denial of our health risks and the way we focus on others to our own detriment. She offers simple, down-to-earth
advice for getting the focus back on oneself, recognizing health risks and why you are denying them, and for steps to change
your mindset and create another approach to aging.
Chapter 10: Women Helping Women
Women are happier and more successful when they have the support
of other women. This chapter offers creative and easy-to-accomplish ways of finding compatible women who can provide and receive
that support. This chapter discusses approaches to getting a mentor and for mentoring other women, and reviews way to locate
helpful resources in your community and through the Internet.
Explanation of research on which the book is based
WomenSpeak About Life: Overcoming Fears of Aging
By Nancy O’Reilly, Ph.D.
This book is dedicated to the women who were willing to speak
about their experience of aging process and about their concerns and fears. Together, we can help each other better enjoy
our present and future.
I am a lucky woman. I can hide from winter in a home by the
ocean and set time aside for me, to write, to paint and to think about my life and my purpose. Each of us must find her own
purpose, and my challenge is to slow down and not keep hurrying to find the next chapter of my life.
Such interesting chapters have unfolded already. I never thought
would have three beautiful daughters, that they would produce two cute, smart granddaughters, or that I would become an advocate
for women. I have learned never to use the word never. I now use the written word and even dabble in politics to work for
women’s rights and improve our quality of life. I believe in women and each one of us deserves to be happy, healthy
and have bundles of self-esteem. I am staking my confidence, conviction, energy, education, and career on sharing with the
world the importance and uniqueness of women.
Seven years ago, I started down a path to assist women with
an issue that still personally affects me. I was about to turn 50. In my youth, I never let age affect me much and was sure
I could handle any developmental shock of aging. Was I ever wrong! Ill prepared to lose my youthful bloom, I became nervous
and my ego deflated. I discovered this aging thing is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Until we get there ourselves, most
of us can’t understand it. As my mother has told me for some 55 years: “All things are relative to where you are
I arrived in this world as a hairless, scrawny, less-than-cute
3-pound baby. There were no pictures of me until I was 6 months old. That no doubt proved how non-photogenic I must have been.
My mother said they did not fear my demise because I had rather large mouth, a healthy set of lungs and well developed vocal
cords. I have been kicking and using those attributes for a long time. As a much younger woman in the ‘60s and ‘70s,
I enjoyed carrying a big stick and raising eyebrows with my spoken words. I refused to wear a bra (which I am now paying for
and regret.) Now, I have changed my tactics for getting my point across.
I was a tomboy, which means I did not behave in ways that
were gender appropriate. Normal girls wanted to play with dolls, stay clean and learn to do homemaker things like cooking
and sewing. I found other things more exciting: building forts, digging into caves, playing sports. I didn’t know I
was different until I was 10, and my friend Jimmy asked if I could spend the night at his house. When I asked my mother she
shrank in fear and looked shocked. What was wrong? Since I knew my mother was perfect, there must be something wrong with
me. It was the beginning of a series of eye-opening events in my life. I was a girl getting older, soon to be a woman, and
I wanted to learn what that meant.
Since high school, I had been a workout queen. I religiously
went to the gym each day knowing and praying that from each 2-hour workout of aerobics, running, and weight training I would
emerge fit and beautiful, a shining example of a woman who was and would always be engaging and attractive for eternity. I
really thought that was my path and my destiny. I assumed the planning and hard work that I invested in staying young and
beautiful meant those traits would always be mine. Around age 47, I began to realize the clock was working against me as it
did for everyone else.
Even worse, I started to feel invisible. Once, people turned
to look at me; now, they not only did not look, they seemed not to see me. Had my years studying professional psychology caused
me to lose my mind? Was I the only one who experienced this? I had to learn more for my own sake and for the sake of other
women, including my daughters and granddaughters, who needed to prepare for what their lives had in store. I felt one of my
jobs as a woman and a professional was to grow personally, and then to share what I learned to help other women make their
journey into maturity a graceful and enlightening process.
I decided to examine the feelings and thoughts of women of
all ages to find out how they were handling aging. I felt surely my education and clinical experience would lead me to the
resources I needed. My quest for knowledge led me to bookstores and surfing the web. I was looking for a guidebook that would
tell me how other women had successfully passed into maturity. Sadly, I found little that spoke to me. Most of the books I
found insulted my intelligence and left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Some books said women were supposed to stay young
and beautiful if they wanted to be loved, and that losing their youth and beauty rendered them invisible. Many books talked
about ways to beat the clock, to hide the years or––if all else failed––to lie. I found books that
were either cute, flip, na´ve or too off-the-wall for me. I read about women’s cults, becoming a goddess, and that crones
had lost their once-great mystical powers and were now defined by men as witches.
I was really getting confused. Still feeling sad and worried
about my own future, I started to feel a sense of urgency. Where were the good books telling us how we could negotiate the
changes of the years in grace and style? What did women really feel about their own aging process at 50, or 70 or 90? Surely,
I was not the only one who had concerns! I discovered that little research has been conducted on women’s views of their
aging process, so I decided to find out what women really thought. I wanted to know the truth about how we can add quality
years to our lives.
I began by asking women about their feelings, perception and
concerns. More than 1,000 surveys later, I was surprised and upset by what they said. One surprising result is that nearly
half of these women said they are afraid of getting older. That’s half of all women we surveyed, including the cute
young ones, the sophisticated, educated ones, and the women who had long lives full of wisdom and experience. The fear of
aging cuts across all lines of age, education, marital state and even health status. I also learned that mothers have tended
not to talk openly with their daughters about this issue, and that many women do not even voice their fears to friends. Women
also seemed to be more concerned about the health of their loved ones than their own well-being.
If you have ever wondered if you are the only woman struggling
with getting older, this book is for you. If you plan on living past the age of 30 and are concerned about the emotional,
psychological and physical impacts of aging, read on. If you want to know what women honestly think about aging, they tell
the truth in these pages. Most of all, read this book if you want the best for a daughter or granddaughter. Let’s not
become invisible and let’s keep roaring about the power and wonder of women.
We can create a new heritage for women today and for the generations
to come. I truly believe with knowledge there is power. American women make most of the decisions about consumer products,
we care for our families and make most of the major health care choices for our loved ones, we control over 80% of the economy
growth due to the things we buy, service providers we employ and what we eat, where we sleep and how we dress. Let’s
use this power to make sure woman are informed, cared for, and continue to thrive into long, healthy futures.
This book seeks to fill that need. It provides a platform
for women 17–80+ years old who spoke openly about their concerns and fears about their aging process. I hope their stories
help to give you a voice of your own if you have found this topic difficult. Please share your views with us through the ongoing
research at Womenspeak.com. Help yourself by using and sharing the resources online and at the back of the book.
Let us begin.
“You’ve come a long way baby … or what?”
Yes, we have and yes, we haven’t.
Women of my generation continued the struggles of Susan B.
Anthony’s generation, who fought to be heard and to help women gain recognition and power. Women of the 1960s and 1970s
were determined to tear down any barrier that suggested we could survive only if some man cared for us and for our children.
Women who had traditionally left their fathers’ homes only to marry were now seeking true independence and self-reliance.
Abortion, birth control, sexual freedom, career choices, pay equity, identifying and breaking the glass ceiling were all part
of the struggle.
I had decided early on I would be one of those women who did
not settle on an easy, friction-free, expected way. This decision has been apart of my mantra and has served as a measure
of “being in the moment” and feeling like a fully functioning human being. Sounds all pretty high and mighty doesn’t
it? “I am woman, hear me roar.” Each time I roared I found that someone or something roared back at me. I said
ok, I will carry a large stick to beat off my enemies. You know back than a lot of them were men and a lot of them were women.
The women are the ones that did and still do surprise me when I talk about the rights and power of women and their ability
to be and do anything they put their minds to. Women are cool. We can do it all. We can take care of our families, earn a
doctorate, be an astronaut, have a military career, decorate a room, and surf the net faster and better than anyone.
By the way, I still think woman are cool. I have reared my
own: three beautiful, intelligent, talented, and worldly women, each unique in her own right. Two of them have daughters of
their own. Having girls challenges a mother’s thinking about the female world and what kind of life they will have.
I started my family early at age 20, and I earned a university degree for each daughter. When I was working on my doctorate,
someone asked “Why do you work so hard?” Others asked, “How can you justify taking so much time and energy
away from your children, husband, cats, dogs and community service?”
I have no regrets and would do it all again for one simple
and important reason. I really think women need role models and mentors. I wanted my girls to know that they could accomplish
any dream if they so desired. I think that way today and want my girls, granddaughters and all women to know that.
I have worked with women of all ages for more than 25 years.
Women worry a lot. Women have the market on worry. If you get tired of worrying ask another women to worry for you: She is
the expert. What do woman worry about? Your health, your happiness, your success, your well-being … not enough about
themselves. What do they fear? While they’re worrying about all of the above and not themselves they are afraid of being
alone and not being able to care for themselves, can they pay the bills, what happens when they are over 30 and alone. They
may even fear aging more than dying itself.
I am a member of the Baby Boom; and every 2 seconds one of
us turns 50. We were born after the end of World War II, in the late 1940s and 1950s and comprise some of the largest age
cohorts in the world. This is important. We are major consumers of goods and services in 2004 and we drive their development.
We are also going to live longer than any other generation of women, many of us to 100 years and beyond. We are going to live
our lives fuller than ever and will expect to get what we want when we want it. Boomers do not know the word “wait.”
So, what do we have to worry about?
Half of us are afraid of the process itself. We don’t
talk about it, though. We run from it, ignore it and lie about it. In order to deal with it, we need to talk about it and
learn what to do.
Historically, it is easy to understand women’s fear
of aging because in our culture, led by advertising media, emphasize getting and staying beautiful and being and having a
youthful appearance. Naomi Wolf talks about the PBQ in her book The Beauty Myth. The PBQ is the professional beauty qualification.
This measure, a combination of her looks, her age, and her youth, determines a woman’s viability in the job market.
It is the unwritten double standard placed upon women to not only continue to be paid less on the job but to fear loss of
job however poorly paid if she fails the beauty measures.
A woman in her early 50s was told by her career counselor
to lie about going through menopause. She was told that menopause is the “kiss of death” in the work place and
that if anyone found out about it she would surely lose her job or at least be passed over for any job advancement. This well-respected
business person was told: “Just put a box of tampons in a discrete location in your desk and that will take care of
it.” Well, is that what is taking care of women these days as well?
Other important feminist writers such as Tavris (1992), French
(1992), Friedan (1994) and Maine (2000) discussed women’s fears of aging along with their fears of losing beauty and
value. They found women’s fear of aging connected to women’s pursuit of youthful fashions and the latest fad diets.
Today, we see cosmetic surgery on the rise, heavily advertised
on national television and featured in shows such “Extreme Makeover” and “Nip and Tuck.” These programs
receive large market shares, and we watch closely as men and women go under the knife to gain acceptance, get a mate, get
a better job and to feel like a whole person. Pre-teen and teenage girls are asking parents to sign their permission forms
for breast enlargements and other cosmetic procedures (Wolf, 1991). How far have we come when women still choose beauty and
boobs as a priority over intelligence and accomplishment? We should all be concerned about the young women coming up through
the ranks of our society.
Women historically have been dismissed for being female. They
criticize our hormones and say we have erratic emotions. Perhaps the most enraging question a man has ever asked a woman who
is voicing a deeply felt concern: “Are you on your period, dear?” Hippocrates (born 460 BC) opined that women
became unhinged due to a wandering uterus that has been prevented from making babies.
Do you suppose that’s what really happens when we reach
menopause? I have talked to many women who were sure they had lost their minds when they were going through menopause. They––and
no doubt their families––would have agreed they had an out-of-control uterus. While studying to become a psychologist,
I learned about Freud’s view that having been born without a penis makes women insecure and less than man. A psychology
professor once told me I had “penis envy,” to which I retorted, “Why would I have penis envy when I can
have all the penises I want?” Unfortunately, his displeasure with my remark showed up in my final grade in that Abnormal
A term that comes to mind when we hear about women’s
evolutionary processes what was known as “swooning.” Women back in the early 1900’s would “swoon”
when they were overcome with strong emotions and fall over or faint. Society had defined our feminine nature and behavior,
and corseted women, starved for oxygen, obliged by fainting.
Gail Sheehy (New Passages), a remarkable researcher and writer,
interviewed women who saw aging occurring at a much later age than ever before. She found that a woman in her 40s was more
like the 30-something women of an earlier generation. Feminist author Betty Friedan wrote that aging was not a condition in
itself, but a matter of “re-inventing” oneself over time. What worked during one’s thirties and forties
would and should be replaced by the “New You.” This all sounds wonderful and suggests we women have so much to
look forward to.
However, not all women are confident of inventing a “New
You.” Even younger women are still very concerned about their futures. Peggy Orenstein, author of FLUX, interviewed
women in what she called early adulthood, between the ages of 25 and 45. Women in this age group came after the “Baby,
you’ve come a long way” generation. These women were young, vital and busy molding themselves into the “total
woman-total person.” Yet, even as these women aged to 40 and beyond, they were very concerned about losing––not
gaining––themselves, even after having so many life experiences. They were in fact more concerned about losing
that youthful and sexy appearance than just about anything. Once again, we ask ourselves: “Aren’t women emancipated,
free to choose, self-reliant, and self-assured as they age?” Why are some women still unsure if experience and knowledge
can make up for not having firm thighs and flawless skin.
The women Orenstein interviewed were worried about their beauty
image, worried about never really being independent, and worried about their biological clocks as well as the accumulating
years. The larger the number of candles on the cake, the greater the worry. Are women really more interested in stopping the
clock than sharing with others their years of experience and knowledge?
History, biology and cultural traditions have long determined
the fate and outcome for men and women in every society. Where did women’s fears of aging originate? The novel The Red
Tent gives us a history lesson about women and their feminine mystique. This book tells the story of the first women in the
Bible after Eve, Sara wife of Abraham, mother of David. It sheds some light on women’s evolutionary path in society.
In that time, women customarily rested and hung out with “the girls” when they were about to give birth or when
they were menstruating. When in the Red Tent, they were excused from housework and taking care of the family. This was a joyous
time free from the hard work of beating dirty clothes on the rocks or feeding the camels and the menfolk. This tradition worked
well for ovulating and pregnant women and they were glad. However, when a woman stopped ovulating she lost the right to enjoy
the safety and security of the Red Tent. Menopausal women looked forward to unceasing labor caring for the tribe once it was
known that her life as a young fruitful woman had ended.
Formerly, clinical studies for heart disease and other medical
conditions (including breast cancer) used only male participants. Now, we do know that men get breast cancer but in fact,
most sufferers are women, some as young as 23. Clinical trials using only male subjects would obviously provide little data
for treating women. Women had protested their exclusion for years, but not until 1993 did Congress direct the NIH to establish
guidelines for the inclusion of women and minorities in clinical research. Women just beginning to hear and understand that
heart disease is not only a male disease but is the number one killer of women.
I interviewed a woman in one of my exercise classes after
she completed one of the aging surveys. An attractive woman in her early 60s, she wanted to share some thoughts about aging.
I could see by the intensity in her eyes during workouts that she, like me, had the exercise-your-age-away syndrome. She said
“When I was younger, women were expected to give up their girlish ways when they turned 40 years of age and put away
stylish clothes in preparation of the matron years. Clothes defined the woman and at the age of 40, it was time to stop showing
skin and cover yourself and trade in those slick high-heeled shoes for boxy, sensible ones. This symbolic gesture said to
the world “I am middle-aged.” She seemed especially interested in my research and said “it is about time
someone told the truth about the “aging thing”. The fact is she said “today we are conditioned to fight
it and to run from aging, to lie about your age, never tell anyone you have reached menopause and that hot flashes are a constant
companion. She admitted it felt good to tell the truth about her fears of aging and to be able give herself permission to
tell it like it really was. I thanked her for the words that confirmed for the first time that I was on the right track. Perhaps
my research and book might help women to lose their fears of the boxy shoes and matron clothing. Perhaps we could talk ––really
talk––about our aging, our loss of youth, our changes and our fears.
I have a good friend who will not tell her age. She says “When
I tell someone my age in numbers they immediately put me in an age category: 50 = old; 60 = really old, 70 = one foot in the
grave.” No one wants to be categorized and discounted like that.
Women are cool, versatile and flexible. We are strong enough
to work 16-hour days, loving and organized enough to come home to care for children and family, and free to be whatever they
want. We are limited only by our dreams and our willingness to sacrifice for the “perfect 10” life.
Women who are aging well can continue to attain their goals
and to create new ones whatever their age. Sheehy describes women who are 50 years old today as being the new 40-year-olds.
Those who were once considered middle-aged now considered themselves vital, sexy and full of life. We are entering an era
of “ageless” women who continue to grow and re-invent themselves. Today it is possible for women to conceive children
past menopause (not that everyone would want to). Women are waiting and saying, “I want to have it all.” Women
are expecting to live longer and better lives. Many Baby Boomer women will live past 100 years, giving us time to re-invent
ourselves two or three times.
What is successful aging? Women who are aging well have freedom
from fear of aging, they are becoming the best they can be, they have radiant energy and are ready to meet life’s challenges.
They regularly reinvent themselves and challenge the myths of aging. They are confident of their ability to care for themselves,
physically, financially and emotionally. They do not need another person, place or thing to make them OK.
That doesn’t mean they don’t have doubts and concerns,
Some of the results of this research have been published and
presented to audiences of professional psychologists. Over 1,000 women took the time and energy to talk about how they thought
about this process. My work as a clinical psychologist has shaped this book, but the words and the thoughts belong to more
than 1000 women who shared their views. It is my privilege and opportunity to share with you their thoughts and concerns.
Certainly, we have come along way, baby, yet we have a long
way to go when it comes to having comfort and security as we get older. It’s an economic fact of life in our society.
The bottom line is many women are more concerned about how they look than how they feel and if they are healthy and self-sufficient.
Tragically, these women seem to focus on the package rather than the contents, worrying about how they look and appear to
others rather than real health threats like breast cancer, diabetes and most importantly the number one killer of women, heart
Now, it is time for voices of all the other women to be heard.
This book is about their truths, and some of them are telling us they have a ways to go, even though they have survived a
lot since Sara’s Red Tent. Today on television, we hear a lot about menopause from pharmaceutical companies, and even
more about how to stay young and beautiful from the makers of nutritional supplements and cosmetic products. But, there is
so much more we can share and learn from one another.
Women in different age cohorts (spans of 10 years, such as
30 to 39), have different priorities. Is it because of what was going on in history when they were that age? Or because all
women of that age have these certain priorities? We don’t know, but if we keep talking to each other, we can find out.