The age of age obsession

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When Bill Clinton turns 60 this weekend, the gala festivities to honor him will mark the beginning of a two-month birthday fest, ending in October with a concert by the Rolling Stones in New York.

What other baby boomer reaching the Big 6-0 can top that for a celebration? And what will Mr. Clinton do for an encore when he reaches 70 or 80 or 100?

Yet the more immediate question is: Will this milestone be easier for him than it appeared to be for George W. Bush? When the president turned 60 last month, the event seemed to give him pause. He called himself the "old president, getting older by the minute." He referred to himself as one of "the gray-haired folks," as "getting older" and as "old."

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All of this comes from an energetic man whose doctors rank him in the top 1 percent of men his age in terms of fitness. A man whose father, the first President Bush, exuberantly celebrated his 80th birthday by skydiving.

Even if the comments about aging simply represent self-deprecating humor on the president's part, they reflect widespread public attitudes and a broad irony. At a time when many Americans have never looked or felt younger and have never had more options available at all stages of life, they've never been more preoccupied with the number of candles on their cake.

Call it the Age of Age Obsession. The more age doesn't really matter, the more negative attention we insist on giving it.

Just check the nearest birthday-card rack for sarcastic messages about a recipient's age. One card company even markets a category labeled "Over the Hill."

The barbed comments start young: "Turning 30?" one card begins. "Your face and body still look twenty-five. But there's something in your eyes that says 'thirty.' Tears, I think they're called."

"It's your 60th birthday," another message reads. "Let me be the first to congratulate you. You opened this card without spraining, pulling, or hurting anything."

Even humorist Nora Ephron, in her new book "I Feel Bad About My Neck," claims that "it's sad to be over 60."

Then there are the "age" books stacking up on the shelf. Many are geared to women, complete with cheerleader titles: "Fabulous After 50 and Sexy at 60." "Younger Next Year for Women: Live Like You're 50 – Strong, Fit, Sexy – Until You're 80 and Beyond."

Even so, encouraging news on the beauty front does exist. In what is being called a backlash against surgery, face-lifts no longer rank among the top five cosmetics treatments in the United States, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Instead of scalpels and invasive procedures that can give women an artificial look, with drum-tight skin and gopher cheeks, women are reportedly opting for less dramatic procedures, such as Botox and line-fillers.

The wind-tunnel look is out. A more natural beauty is in.

Other cheering news comes from AARP. To coincide with President Bush's birthday last month, the group released a survey asking more than 800 60-year-olds about the significance of 60. Among the findings:

•Only 1 percent see age as a barrier to achieving their goals.

•Virtually all want to make a significant life change.

•Nearly 80 percent are satisfied with their lives overall.

At a time when frequent headlines proclaim that baby boomers are reinventing retirement – when 60-somethings are working longer, becoming entrepreneurs, and creating a growing market for adventure travel, the Age of Age Obsession looms as an anachronism.

Somewhere after 80 or 85, a funny thing happens for some celebrants. The years they were once so reluctant to divulge suddenly become a badge of honor, a measure of accomplishment. Recently a friend noted that her father is 97-1/2. Don't forget that half!

One of the most encouraging perspectives comes from centenarians themselves. A survey released last week by Evercare finds that those over 100 have very few regrets. More than 60 percent of participants said there was nothing they would have done more of in their lives, and more than three-quarters indicated that there was nothing they would have done less of.

Many of the respondents viewed raising a family as their most satisfying achievement. And they most frequently attributed their longevity to their faith and spiritual care.

Perhaps the best advice comes from another birthday card. It bears a reassuring message for celebrating presidents – and all the rest of us as well:

"Don't worry about turning another year older," the card says. "I heard that birthdays are good for you. People who have the most birthdays live the longest."

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