Jenee Darden and her grandmother at a family dinner, the day after their fun limo ride. (Jenee Darden )
y family packed into the black stretch limousine leaving CSU East Bay. We were heading to a restaurant after attending my mother’s college graduation. We turned on the music and popped the cheap bottle of complimentary champagne. My grandmother took two sips, then pumped her hands in the air like she was “raising the roof.”
“Someone is trying to get my grandma drunk!” I joked. “Give her the sparkling cider.”
In her sassy Southern drawl, my grandmother responded, “Now look, I’m a grown woman.” She resumed enjoying the music, then diluted her champagne with cider. We all laughed. My grandmother, Angie Kesee, was near 80 and could still party in a limo.
That moment from five years ago was one of my favorite memories of my grandmother. She died last summer from complications related to dementia. I just went through my first holiday season without her. I miss her deeply. However, I carry in my heart the many gifts she left me, including her positive outlook on aging.
AARP published two studies in the research journal, The Gerontologist, regarding race, culture and aging. One study in Los Angeles and another in Baltimore evaluated participants' aging expectations.
The African-American participants in both studies were mostly women over the age of 60. Both African-American groups ranked high in optimism about aging. Other studies have similar findings. According to the L.A. study, “African-American participants had the highest overall age-expectations followed in descending order by Latinos, Koreans and Chinese-Americans.”
What My Grandmother Taught Me About Aging
After reading these studies, I reflected on what I learned about aging from my grandmother. She was a Mississippi farm girl who moved to Oakland in the 1950s for better opportunities. A retired beautician and Avon representative, my grandmother went to the hair and nail salons regularly. She loved to laugh and could talk on the phone for hours. Sure she complained about occasional aches and stiffness. But for the most part, my grandmother was in good spirits about aging.
I never got this feeling from her that growing old meant life was over. If anything, she celebrated herself more as she aged. Some of us nicknamed her “The Princess” behind her back. The AARP studies left me with one question. Why are African Americans more optimistic about aging?
“As we age, we’re dealing less and less with racism in the world,” says Dr. Cheryl Johnson, a psychologist who has counseled and studied African-American seniors in the Bay Area. “When we retire we’re able to be more in our community and with our families, and less in the dominant culture’s work world. It’s emotionally and mentally taxing to navigate the white work environment.”
Young black men and women deal with racist stereotypes that label us as deviant or violent. Dr. Johnson says that African-Americans are perceived as less physically intimidating in their senior years.
“On each end of our life span is when we’re not a threat,” she adds. "We’re a cute little baby and when we’re old, we’re the sweet grandma that’s loving and caretaking.”
Another perk to aging for African Americans is our dark skin. As we say in the black community, “Black don’t crack.”
We visibly age more slowly because melanin acts like a sunscreen and protects us from UV rays. Dr. Johnson told me when her father passed away at 84, attendees at his funeral were shocked to learn his age. “They thought he was in his 70s,” she said.
Not Always Golden Years
The golden years aren’t always golden. And not all African-Americans enjoy aging. Black seniors still face social hardships, including ageism, racism, health problems, poverty and hunger. The National Council on Aging reports that African-American seniors are more likely to be food insecure or lacking financial access to healthy, adequate food. About 17 percent of African-American seniors fall into this category. This correlates with a 2011 AARP study that found 17 percent of African-Americans 65 years and over live in poverty compared to 6.8 percent of whites in the same age group.
Writer and artist Brenda Usher-Carpino, 71, says there are highs and lows to aging. Growing up, she wanted gray hair because she found it “striking.” She remembers how black people in her family looked at aging favorably.
“You become an elder and elevated in the community,” she says.
And she hopes she inherited her family’s longevity genes. She has a maternal aunt who is 105 and a paternal aunt still going at 94.
Usher-Carpino says she has accepted not having the muscular and athletic body from her youth. She is happy to be in good health. But in the queer journal Foglifter, she wrote that a downside to aging is difficulty in finding love.
“The thing that makes me sad is that the older I get, the more I feel like I’m never going to be in a relationship with somebody else again,” she says. "When you get old, you don’t stop needing to be loved. You don’t stop needing to have sex. That’s the lonely aspect to aging. “
My grandmother decided not to seek another relationship after losing my grandfather. Dementia robbed her of remembering days of the week, but she never forgot she had it going on.
“You know, I can still get a boyfriend,” my grandmother occasionally reminded me.
The passing of my grandmother and other loved ones last year taught me that loss is a downside to aging. Yet, the elders in my family and community exemplify how resiliency is ageless. So I’ll go on, hopeful. As my grandmother would say, “Keep living baby. Keep living.”
This post was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Commonwealth Fund.