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Empowering Older Women to Take Active Roles

Activist and advocate Barbara Morris inspires women with her actions and attitude


She’s 88, but every day, Barbara Morris laces up her sneakers and works out like a 20-something. Her efforts are having the desired effect: Morris, an author and activist based in Escondido, Calif., doesn’t look like your typical octogenarian. She stands tall, with a wiry frame. She does everything she can to avoid becoming feeble, pudgy and hunched over and with her latest book, The New Put Old On Hold, she challenges women in their 50s and beyond do the same.

Morris, a former pharmacist, didn’t retire at 65, the way that legions of Americans do; she worked until she was 76, when she had to retire to care for her husband. She believes that her choice has helped her remain physically able and mentally sharp. Morris shuns living a leisure lifestyle because she thinks that it makes women feel invisible and irrelevant and more likely to decline physically and mentally. And she believes that all women can benefit from her use-it-or-lose-it example.

Whether you’re a woman who’s still in your 50s or have been retired for a decade, you may benefit from some of Morris’s advice. Here’s what she recommends for women aged 50 and older, so they remain vital for as long as possible and ageless in a society that looks down on older people:

Next Avenue: Why do you think people shouldn’t automatically retire at 65?

Barbara Morris: The mind and body are not designed to retire. This whole retirement thing is a human construct. Back in the 1930s, they passed the Social Security Act, which provided for retirement at 65, and that was fine because most people didn’t live much beyond 65. In the last century, the lifespan has increased by 30 years, and the number of individuals living to 100 and beyond has increased by 43 percent. But nothing has changed in the culture. People who are 65 think they are old.

Women in particular are doomed to decline and infirmity in their old age, and it shouldn’t be that way.

How do you encourage women to be empowered and actively shape how they age?

The greatest kind of empowerment that they can have is to plan for how they want to live in their older years. People are constantly reminded that they need to plan financially for their future, but I don’t see many getting help for planning the type of life they want after they retire.

The first years of retirement are fine. Everybody looks forward to it after working so many years. It’s kind of like a honeymoon phase. You golf. You take cruises. But you get to a point where: ‘I can’t golf and I can’t cruise; the money is running out.’

Planning is essential, and there has to be balance.

You’ve said that doing work which exposes you to mentally challenging experiences can help fight what you call ‘retirement decline’ — mental and physical deterioration. Can this be volunteer work or must it be a paying job?

Volunteer work is fabulous. It’s fabulous because it opens doors to other opportunities. It helps you to grow and learn. The only problem I have with volunteering is that it seems older people are expected to volunteer just by virtue of their age.

If you don’t have an adequate income, you should have a paying job. If you have a lot of time on your hands, if you have the wherewithal, it makes you a better person. It helps other people. But you have to be smart about it.

How can women fight mental decline as they get older?

I would like to see mental growth until the day you die. Anything that keeps the brain challenged. There’s a difference between staying busy and actually having your brain challenged. I like it when you hurt your brain. I do The New York Times crossword puzzle. Sometimes my brain hurts because it tries so hard to figure out the answers. That’s good. It keeps the brain growing.

How important is it for women to stay active to fight physical decline as they get older?

I think diet and exercise play a tremendous role in how well we fare in our older years. The human condition prefers leisure over effort, unfortunately. If you want to retain your youthful qualities, it takes effort — a constant effort.

My goal is to help women to avoid premature mental and physical decline. It’s ridiculous that women get to my age and they’re gone. It can be prevented. Every day, I do something. I have a treadmill. I have a rebounder. I have a Gazelle. I use something every day, and I’m constantly buying exercise equipment.

You’ve said that you chose not to live in a retirement community. Why?

As you get older, you have to choose your friends carefully. I’m not a fan of retirement communities. I get depressed when I see people my age just associating with people my age. It bothers me. You have to associate with people of all ages. We learn from each other. We adopt the values of others we interact with most frequently.

There needs to be better integration of older people with younger people. That’s why you need to stay in the larger world, so you have access to people of all ages and circumstances. That’s what makes life fun — knowing different people.

How do you help older women maintain their standing in a society that tends to write them off?

They have to fight against becoming a stereotype. Older people have a tendency to behave in odd ways. They think it’s cute to comment upon their infirmities or say ‘I’m just an old fart.’ That has to stop. You have to stand up and defend who you are. You have to tell yourself every day that you’re fabulous.

You are what you say you are. If every day you say that you don’t feel good, you’re not going to.

I encourage women to celebrate who they are. When they call and ask how you are, say you’re fabulous, and you’ll believe it and motivate others to say they’re fabulous. All women are fabulous! We need to encourage each other.

By Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest.

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