Is Aging Really So Bad?

May 22, 2015
Originally published on May 11, 2018 9:52 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Fountain Of Youth

About Isabel Allende's TED Talk

Author Isabel Allende is in her 70's. She's got a few wrinkles—but she has incredible perspective, too. She says she plans to keep on living passionately as long as she can.

About Isabel Allende

As a novelist and memoirist, Isabel Allende writes of passionate lives, including her own. Born into a Chilean family with political ties, she went into exile in the United States in the 1970s. Her novels include The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna and The Stories of Eva Luna, Maya's Notebook and Ripper.

She is also the founder of the The Isabel Allende Foundation, which works with nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chile to empower and protect women and girls.

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So far on the show, we've heard pretty amazing ideas about how we might postpone aging, how in the future, we might all live to be 150. But all of this does raise the question...

ISABEL ALLENDE: What's wrong with aging?

RAZ: Well, that's the question. I mean, everyone we sort of kind of heard from is - they want to fight it. They're fighting it.

ALLENDE: Well, I think what they're trying to fight is the symptoms. But aging is going to happen anyhow.

RAZ: Is this something that we just need to get better about accepting?

ALLENDE: Absolutely - well, do we have an alternative?

RAZ: (Laughter). Oh, before I forget, could you introduce yourself, please?

ALLENDE: Yes. My name is Isabel Allende, and I'm a writer - well, a sort-of writer.

RAZ: Yeah, well, more than a sort-of writer.

ALLENDE: (Laughter).

RAZ: You're a writer.

ALLENDE: Well, a storyteller.

RAZ: Isabel's a celebrated storyteller, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, author of more than 20 books and novels, and now in her early 70s, Isabel Allende has been thinking and writing a lot about getting older.

When you see other people your age, do you think, I'm the same age as them, or do you think, oh, they're older than me?

ALLENDE: No, I think we are the same age and I look so much better.


ALLENDE: But of course, it takes discipline and money. But also, you know what it takes? - an attitude - an attitude of conquering the world, of being passionate about things.

RAZ: And that attitude, that is Isabel Allende's fountain of youth. Here she is on the TED stage.


ALLENDE: When do we start aging? Society decides when we are old - usually around 65 when we get Medicare. But we really start aging at birth. We're aging right now, and we all experience it differently. We all feel younger than our real age because the spirit never ages. I am still 17.


ALLENDE: Mary Oliver says, in one of her poems, tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? Me, I intend to live passionately.


ALLENDE: So how can I stay passionate? I cannot will myself to be passionate at 71. I have been training for some time, and when I feel flat and bored, I fake it - attitude, attitude. How do I train? I train by saying yes to whatever comes my way - drama, comedy, tragedy, love, death, losses - yes to life. And I train by trying to stay in love. It doesn't always work, but you cannot blame me for trying.

I think that when we are young, we feel that we own the world, and as life starts to push us to the margins, we lose that feeling. If we could keep it, older age would be much more fun.

RAZ: Well, why do we lose that feeling?

ALLENDE: Because you're pushed out. Suddenly, you become invisible, especially women. If you look for a job, your age is a problem. If you look for a partner, your age is a problem too. If I had to put an ad in, what would I say? Short Latino grandmother looks for a lover. Give me a break. I wouldn't get a match like that.

RAZ: You could say, like, looking for magical, realist relationship...

ALLENDE: (Laughter). That'd be nice.

RAZ: Yeah, right?


RAZ: But I mean, when you spoke about this, it was really refreshing because you're sort of saying, well, we're all going to age, and we should just kind of accept it and make the best of it and understand that it can still be wonderful. Is that how you feel?

ALLENDE: Yes. I feel that way now. I don't know how I will feel in 20 years because my mother is 95. And my mother has the brain of a 30-year-old person, but the body doesn't comply. It doesn't accompany her in what she wants to do. My stepfather is 99.

RAZ: Wow.

ALLENDE: And he's healthy, but his brain is gone. So you have to wonder, what will my future be? But right now, I feel full of ideas. I want to write. I want to do things. I feel curious and passionate about chocolate and wine and cheese and my dogs and my wonderful bed and my garden and the bay when I look at the bay from my window. So I am engaged in life right now. Also, be open to suffering, to pain, to discomfort. As we age, I think that we are afraid of suffering. And how can you live? If you avoid suffering, then you are avoiding joy also.


ALLENDE: What have I lost in the last decades? - people, of course, places and the boundless energy of my youth. And I'm beginning to lose independence, and that scares me. What have I gained? Freedom - I don't have to prove anything anymore. I'm not stuck in the idea of who I was, who I want to be or what other people expect me to be. I don't have to please men anymore, only animals.


ALLENDE: I feel lighter. I don't carry grudges. Ambition, vanity, it's great to let go. I should've started sooner. And I also feel softer because I'm not scared of being vulnerable. I don't see it as weakness anymore. And I've gained spirituality. I'm aware that before, death was in the neighborhood. Now it's next-door or in my house.


RAZ: What do you wish that the younger you knew about getting older?

ALLENDE: I wish that the younger me would've known that it is an inexorable, unavoidable process, that nothing can stop it and that I have to enjoy the body I have at that moment. I've always wanted to be different. I wanted to be a tall blonde with long legs.

RAZ: (Laughter).

ALLENDE: Now, how do you achieve that (laughter)? You're a Latina woman. It's impossible. And I know that in 10 years, I will look at pictures of me now, and I will say, wow she looked pretty good for her age. I'm never going to look better than now...

RAZ: Exactly.

ALLENDE: ...This very moment.

RAZ: Yeah.


RAZ: It just seems like state of mind is so important.

ALLENDE: Well, I think it's very important. I try to appear in front of everybody else as a very healthy and strong person, and that helps me believe that I am that. For example, my mother is a whiner. She's all the time in pain, so we always had the idea that my mother was this very frail, ill person that would not live long. She's strong as a bull.

RAZ: (Laughter).

ALLENDE: But the - what she projects and what she thinks of herself is frailty. Well, I don't want to be like that. I want to be strong and tough.


ALLENDE: On a final note, retirement in Spanish is jubilacion - jubilation, celebration. We have paid our dues. We have contributed to society. Now, it's our time, and it's a great time. Unless you are ill or very poor, you have choices. I have chosen to stay passionate, engaged with an open heart. I'm working on it every day. Want to join me?


ALLENDE: Thank you.

RAZ: Writer Isabel Allende - she's coming out with a new book about elderly people and romance. It's called "The Japanese Lover."


HOODIE ALLEN: (Singing) The moon has a few new wrinkles. He shines a bit more silver now than gold. I'm staying young. I'm staying young, but everyone around me's growing old.

RAZ: Thanks for listening to our show about the fountain of youth this week. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Bachman, Megan Cain, Neva Grant and Jinae West, with help from Barton Girdwood, Daniel Shuchman and Eric Newsome. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, June Cohen, Deron Triff and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading on the Ted Radio Hour from NPR.


ALLEN: (Singing) Everyone around me's growing old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.