Get Yourself an Aging Mentor
I speak a lot in the aging and menopause space and have been for awhile. I’ve known it was such an important topic that was not getting enough coverage, understanding, research or education. I found that so frustrating. I was talking about it to whoever would listen. Some met it with interest but a lot didn’t. I couldn’t understand why. It felt like young me when I was so interested in puberty before I was in it and while it was starting but it seemed no one else was around me. Years later, menopause is having a moment and I’m proud to be early into the conversation. And now, what I’ve been talking about is definitely happening in my own life-my body and my friend’s lives and conversations. It’s a fascinating time.
There are many topics with menopause that are important–hormonal treatment, body changes, symptoms, who are the good medical practitioners, what studies can you trust, what products should you do, what does this symptom mean and should I worry about it? The list is long. In this article, I want to talk about something I haven’t heard mentioned much but really impacted me. Aging mentors.
I was interviewed last year by Katie Fogarty for her amazing podcast A Certain Age (side note: I highly recommend her podcast. Go follow her. ). We talked about sexuality and aging which was a lot of fun. At a point in the conversation, she asked me some advice points and one of my answers was this ‘Get an aging mentor.’ She reacted with surprise and curiosity. “I’ve never heard of this. What IS an aging mentor and how do I get one?”. I didn’t realize that my answer would be such a novel concept. I’ve since talked about it in other interviews and within the media and each time it is the same…they haven’t heard of it but it sounds like a great idea.
What IS an Aging Mentor?
An aging mentor is someone who is willing to:…
- …Share about their aging process and experience
- …To answer questions you have about aging
- …To offer information without being asked about their aging process
- …Has some similar life details than you
- …Has some different life details than you
- …To ask about your life with the intent of providing unattached guidance and perspective
- …Looks at aging holistically and with an inclusive lens
Some tips I recommend as you consider yours and to think about when I give you some examples of mine.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do pick someone who owns this is just THEIR way of aging and not THE way of aging.
- Do pick someone who celebrates and grieves aging allowing you to see multiple sides of aging.
- Do pick someone who wants to share about their life and give you an inside look through a lens of honesty.
- Do consider the same gender experience as yours as well as another one who does not.
- Do consider seeking mentorship from those of different races, cultures, religions, geographic locations, SES status, body abilities.
- Don pick someone who will keep it real, who will answer questions frankly or who has a healthy and realistic view of aging.
- Don’t pick someone who is a close family member. Family members often do serve as aging mentors but the kind I mean today refers intentionally to people outside of your family circle.
- Don’t see this as a business mentorship.
- Don’t see this person as the one to tell you how to live your life or get you through a rough patch, this is a relationship that is more hands off and reflective rather than active.
How did I come up with the idea?
I’ve had the good fortune of having 2 women and one man who I would consider official aging mentors and multiple people who have been unofficial. Their objective place in my life, their hands off but hearts on verve and their desire to let me into their aging process has impacted and shaped my life immeasurably. I am profoundly different because I have aging mentors in my journey.
My bonus’ grandmother of sorts….Ruth…. lived a few houses down from me in elementary school. She was in her 70’s, a successful business owner, in a happy marriage and had lots of opinions. I adored her and would run to her home after school and on weekends. Her husband was a dear, tender man who gave us toothbrushes in our visits as he was a retired dentist. Ruth’s influence of mine was more through observing her subtly mentor my mother rather than directly giving me advice. Watching her dole out aging and life wisdom was fascinating and powerful. I have kept lessons and information from her long after anything I learned in school. Ruth told my mother and me two powerful pieces of advice repeatedly. I’ve written about the first already (live your life so you can hold your head up as you walk into any room.) The second was to have friends of all ages. Younger than you and older than you. After she passed, my mother reminded me of this advice and lived it herself. In some ways, I was too young (under 12) to REALLY see the wisdom of Ruth’s advice and to witness it beyond her friendship with my mother. But I have had a front row witness to my mother’s effort to put into action what Ruth charged us with. My mom certainly had her same-ish age friend groups, but I saw her make concerted efforts to befriend those up to 20-ish years older than her and younger than her. We’ve never really talked about what she has gleaned from each friendship nor the missive in general, but bits have come out in our conversations. And more importantly, I SAW her do it. I saw the joy these friendships brought her. The younger friendships seemed to bring her a bit closer to understanding me. And, in reverse, her relationship with me allowed her to hold conversations with them; to experience a dynamic she couldn’t always have with me. I also saw some of those relationships bring a more youthful approach to things in her life and make her filled with joy. She was able to give and receive differently. She would come back from lunches and meet ups and bubble with information to share and joy recounting what she could share with them. For the friendships that were older I could see that she would feel a nurturing rejuvenation from either holding space for their life or from receiving a mother-like nurturing and looking after/wisdom giving rapport. She would recount stories of women’s amazing journeys, wisdom they imparted upon her and want to share with me. She shared bits of health advice, thoughts about aging and menopause happenings. She showed me the health benefits of friends of all ages. I loved seeing her value these types of friendships. I am grateful I was able to witness how to do it and that I should.
I remain a changed woman having known Betty Dodson. What a character she was. Talk about a person who was incredibly comfortable in her own skin by the time I met her. Her opinions and behaviors weren’t always palatable or easy to be around but they were genuine and real and steady. I met her after she turned 80 and devoured her memoir to understand what a woman in her 80’s went through in order to land in the space of comfort and fuck it ness she did. She wasn’t always comfortable, she had some regrets and she went through a lot of trials and tribulations. Her journey itself as a woman served as an aging mentor, her pathway within sexuality work is personally pivotal for my career but how she had the most influence over me in my day to day relationship with her was more personal.
She offered up information. Things she didn’t know and wished she had.
I will never forget when she asked a group of us in her apartment getting our BodySex facilitation “ How many of you have seen a 85 year old vulva?” None of us was the answer. So she showed us. That may seem odd or weird or wild to some of you but we were all in the sexuality workspace so that alone was quite normal for us but that wasn’t why it was profound, it was why she asked us. Because she didn’t know a vulva aged like it did and she wanted us to not have vulva shame as we aged. So we looked. And it was interesting. And helpful. It was information that was so much more valuable than an article or being too embarrassed to ask. She offered it up to us and then talked us through the changes in her body, what she had seen in other aging vulvas and let us ask questions and speak to our fears and wonderings. So it was about the vulva part but it was more about the offering. How do you know what to ask about or educate yourself on if you don’t know? Betty was incredible about offering up all sorts of ideas and topics within aging.
Another beautiful addition she added to my mentoring experience was sharing her sexual adventures, dreams and desires. She was 89 and talking about sexting with guys in their 30’s. She said the most outrageous things and then would look at you with this twinkle in her eye and you half believed her stories and half loved she made up things for shock value and to make a point that sexuality ages with you and doesn’t have to die. I can’t tell you how many times I walked away from my visits with her thinking to myself or if in a group heard others’ say “I better have a vibrant sexual life in my 90’s like Betty!”. It was such a gift to have a woman in her late 80’s speaking so effortlessly about her sexual life. One of her last media endeavors was being interviewed by Gweneth Paltrow and making her blush when Betty, clearly out of patience with her coyness, said to her “Run the fuck!” infamously making Gweneth blush when trying to explain that you need to be in charge of your pleasure.
Betty ran the fuck like she ran her life. Her way. And that piece of her mentorship left an indelible mark.
Finally, Betty’s aging mentorship included legacy. She was leading BodySex workshops and giving her body of work to the masses to leave her legacy through others’ across the globe as Covid hit the world and she died. She gave selflessly. She included all. She didn’t hoard her work. She didn’t have an ego trip about her IP. She was an incredible artist and barely paid attention to how her protege was storing them or what she would do with them after her death. Betty didn’t have children. She had her BodySex community. She had her dream of her hard fought work being brought to all corners of the globe. Hearing her dreams. Seeing her perseverance through really difficult cultural times inspired me greatly. I listened. I asked questions. I observed. And I am better for it.
Don, Susie and The Van Clan
When I graduated from William and Mary with my doctorate I was a single mom of a little guy and went off the usual path by making the decision to stay in the area for consistency for my son’s education, life and to be near his father who was in the military instead of applying for academic position in the country like my classmates. What this meant is all my friends graduated and left and I didn’t know many people in that tiny town. Hadn’t thought about that. My mom encouraged me to attend an alum event. My introverted self hated the idea but I knew it was smart. I’ll write another article about that fateful night and the subsequent relationship with the people I met that night for 20+ years. The end result was that I was befriended by a group of retirees in their 70’s who took me under their wings for many years. I was invited to dinners, tailgates, football trips in the northeast, walks and hikes, pub crawls, funerals, celebrations….you name it, I did it with them. I did the same thing with them…I listened. I asked questions. I found out about their lives, their marriages, their trials, their joys, their kids and grandkids, their careers, their financial plans, their regrets. I drank alongside them and was their DD other times. I said yes to as many things as possible to be around them. They always marveled that someone 30 years their junior would want to spend so much time with them. I couldn’t imagine who wouldn’t and felt so lucky they let me tag along. I was mentored in each car ride, each tailgate story, each dinner conversation by both the men and women. I got to see how to age well, the options of aging and how not to age well.
I am particularly close to one of the Van Clan leaders, Don and we’ve had some serious laughs and some serious talks. He has told me many times things he likes about me, things I need to do better and things that I need to consider for my future. I’ve seen him cry, I’ve seen him stagger out of a bar, I’ve seen him have the most compassionate heart and generous wallet ever and I’ve learned to respectfully disagree with his political opinions. I got to see how a man aged-how he reviewed his life, how he processed or didn’t process Vietnam, how he handled the death of his best friend and the tragic loss of his beloved lifelong love and wife Susie.
I can barely write this paragraph through the tears of gratitude I have for the window seat Don and his beloved Susie and their Van Clan have given me.
How can you get one/who are good Aging Mentors?
- Look for the people who make you want to listen.
- Look for people whose lives you admire in their joyful and ease filled parts of their lives.
- Look for people who haven’t had it easy, who have had dirt in their knees and aren’t bitter.
- Look for people who meet the above Do’s and Don’ts list.
- Consider people who are much older (30 some years) as well as people who are closer to 10 years older. (Think of this like for those who have kids and how helpful it is to have friends who have kids the same age AND friends who have kids older than you to help you see what’s ahead and can give you advice.
I am a big proponent for asking. Directly. State the intention, give the purpose and impart the compliment. But I get it, some people might get weird about it or turn it into a business type mentorship feel rather than a life and aging one so a more subtle approach may work better. I was too young to really understand and ask directly for Ruth to be my aging mentor and Don and the Van Clanners would have reacted to the ask so instead I kept the role they had in my life private and subtle. I spoke directly to Betty about it. She made fun of it for a bit but obliged. It works both ways.
Once you have one
- Stay in their life in person and through text/email/letters
- Ask questions. All kinds of questions. Not just their life story although ask about that for sure. Ask details like how did your body respond later to years of running? Ask about health-do you think it was worth cutting out (this) from your diet? How do you think you and (spouse) made it? Or why do you think you didn’t? Find ways to ask for life lessons.
- Listen. Listen. Listen.
- Ask about specific aging systems and processes like menopause, erectile dysfunction, eye health, teeth care, etc….
- Ask about their life but also ask about the lives of their peers. They are adjacent mentors and have valuable things to share and your aging mentor can cull through the info and give you the most important things for you.
- Share about your life. Share the sorrows and successes. Share your observations. Share your concerns and worries. Share your joys and ease.
- Don’t just find out the WHAT of their lives, learn about the WHYS.
- Look out for perspective of things. Of resilience, of cultural patterns, of how to heal heartbreak, how to improve relationships, how to live better, how to age differently.
- Listen for tips of how to age-how to age ‘better’ and how not to age. Listen for health and heart ideas. Listen out to what to expect in general. Look for ways to be proactive. Look for ways to accept aging.
- Co-create the relationship.
- Give back to your mentor as well. See them. Give to them. Appreciate their life. Help them know that their life matters and their life journey mattered.
How can you BE one?
Give back. Be someone else’s aging mentor. Someone close ish in age to you or quite a bit younger than you. Name it. Ask if they would want you to be an aging mentor to them. Offer up the idea and explain how it could look together. If you receive a no, that’s okay. The seed is planted and the idea has been given to them. Maybe later or maybe with someone else.
If someone says yes…. Co-create together. Your aging mentoree may have fresh ideas. You may want to give something different. My aging mentors were all different in what and how they gave to me. And I showed up differently for each of them as well. Don’t hold tight to what this should be, let it grow and let it end or transition when that is needed.
And finally, enjoy! Aging has gotten a bad wrap. I have found in my 5 decades that each decade has things that are amazing and don’t last and things that are annoying or awful that also don’t last. Some of it is perspective and some of it is fact. For some reason, we’ve made aging about 40 this bad thing. STILL. I find THAT annoying. I deeply mean this when I say that I feel so lucky to age. I know too many who didn’t get to. You do too. I have fears about aging, I fight some of it still but there is a lot I like and am looking forward to.
I am aging, not AGED. I am growing and expanding and releasing and learning and fucking up and getting better and looking better and looking worse. I am both an Aging Mentor and an Aging Mentee. Currently, I have found a small group of women in their mid 50’s to mid 60’s who I consider my unoffical mentors right now and that age proximity to me right now is really helpful for my health and career. Ruth and Betty have died and too many of my beloved Van Clanners are gone too now. Death is a big teacher and I’ve learned a lot from my mentors through their deaths too.
If you want to learn more, contact me. If you are interested in creating an Aging Mentor group, I would love to host a short term group to get people started in the process and to support the relationship building. Send a message to @drjulianahauser on Instagram or FB or email me at email@example.com.