Aging comes with stigma. Let’s admire the defiant

Rita Moreno arrives on the red carpet at the 96th Annual Academy Awards in Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, California, Sunday, March 10, 2024. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Who do you want to be when you grow old?

Increasingly, senior citizens decide to keep working, including the two front-runners for the 2024 presidential election. Because many Americans consider the candidates too old for the job, age has become part of the national conversation.


Both Joe Biden, 81, and Donald Trump, 77, would be the oldest presidents at the end of their terms. Each has addressed his age quite differently this month.

In a new presidential campaign ad, Biden states, “Look, I’m not a young guy. That’s no secret. But here’s the deal. I understand how to get things done for the American people.”

In his Super Tuesday speech, Trump nodded to young people in the Palm Beach, Florida, audience who had “big futures” ahead. “I’d love to be your age,” he said. “I’d pay you a lot of money to be your age.”

Other octogenarians have long been leaders in Congress. Mitch McConnell, 82, will step down as Senate GOP leader in November; former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 83, plans to seek reelection.

Bernie Sanders, 82, is serving his third term in the Senate after 16 years in the House; Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, 90, is the oldest sitting senator; and Illinois’ long-serving Sen. Dick Durbin turns 80 in November.

Beyond Washington, senior citizen role models keep distinguished vocations. Warren Buffet, 93, is considered one of the greatest investors ever. He continues to serve as chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

Martha Stewart, who heads a media conglomerate, improbably became the oldest model to pose on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Stewart, 82, said, “I want other women to feel like they could also be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”

Not an objective you’d seek? What about accomplishing a goal you failed earlier? Consider Diana Nyad, the subject of the Netflix film “Nyad.” At age 64, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida, accomplishing the feat she first attempted at age 28.

Or do you want to take your art and point of view to a different generation? Activist-artist Faith Ringgold, 93, whose retrospective just ended at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, wrote more than 15 illustrated children’s books, including the bestselling “Tar Beach,” which was published in 1991 when she was 61. It won more than 30 awards, including the Caldecott Honor.

In the entertainment industry, examples abound of long careers.

At the Oscars, Rita Moreno, 92, wowed on the red carpet and nailed her address to best-supporting-actress nominee America Ferrera. Moreno’s 2023 film, “80 for Brady,” also starred two legends in their 80s, Jane Fonda, 86, and Lily Tomlin, 84.

At the Feb. 4 Grammy Awards, Joni Mitchell’s rendition of “Both Sides Now,” was greeted with tears and rapturous applause. Her performance of the song is markedly different at 80 than when she first recorded it in 1969 in her mid-20s. Back then, she sang it as if she frolicked in grassy fields; now, her voice scorches the earth.

Across the country, the Rolling Stones’ upcoming stadium tour this summer is selling out — they come to Chicago in June. Both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, 80, still have the moves.

For those who do retire, many find it’s not enough to play pickleball, travel and spend time with the grandchildren. Because eventually, the sands of time feel like hail drops, and at some point, we’re all awaiting the final diagnosis. If you believe the final act is the last chance to leave a legacy, look to former President Jimmy Carter for a master class in aging with purpose, dignity and humility.

Indeed, his post-presidential life was more successful than his presidency. After facing international challenges such as the Iran hostage crisis and domestic difficulties including inflation, he and Rosalynn left Washington in 1981 to return to their home in Plains, Georgia.

Instead of accepting lucrative speaking gigs to enrich himself, he quietly championed the causes he cared about.

He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, built homes with Habitat for Humanity and established the Carter Center to advance human rights. He wrote at least 30 books and taught Sunday school until 2020 at the Maranatha Baptist Church.

Now 99, he is in hospice, having ended medical intervention for cancer.

“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something. … My faith requires that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference,” Carter said. And that is exactly how he lived his life.

In these troubled times, and certainly in the campaign days ahead, it may help to meditate on his quote.

Faith, service, making a difference. A mantra to grow old by.

Christine Ledbetter is a former senior arts editor at The Washington Post who lives in Illinois, where she writes about culture and politics.