04/04/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What is "Young" and is it Better?

I read the other day that 60 is the new 40. So does that mean that the 40-year-olds are the new 20-year-olds? Hmm, maybe not. What I have discovered, however, is that you can be 60 years "old" or 60 years "young".

I started my independent study about what is "young" back in my 30s. I was out running with my then husband. We took a break to catch our breaths and this elderly lady was resting nearby. I saw her gaze admiringly at the muscular legs and rear end of my husband. Catching my surprised stare she winked and stated: "I may be 83 on the outside, but inside I am a 20 year old raring to go." Wow! Who knew?! I could hear my crystallizations about growing old shattering in little pieces.

"And what did you think I'd be feeling?" she asked. I sputtered some kind of response but, truthfully, I didn't know what to think. A slideshow of images of grandmotherly types from fairy tale storybooks and movies glided through my head. Poofy white hair, hunched back, crinkly skin, paunchy stomachs, shuffling feet, rocking chairs, goodie-basket-carrying "old" ladies...the pictures continued. But never did I entertain what actually might be going on inside an "older" person. That their human spirit might just be ageless, or at the very least 20 something!

My next two decades were filled with child-raising and new career adventures. Then, a funny thing happened on the way to today - I became a grandmother.

As I behold my 26-year-old son kiss his baby girl, I experience sweet tears and a quandary. Am I old enough for my child to have a child? I feel just as young as he is, if not younger.

Confounded, I check in with other new grandmothers. Many share my perplexity as to how we continue to experience ourselves as young even as the years add up. With their encouragement I decide to look more closely at what is this "young" that we feel. As a reference point I begin with a critical self-image assessment, comparing my body now to my memory and photographs of me in my 20's, 30's or even 40's. I gauge my overall muscle tone for looseness (aging) or definition (young): breasts for the sag or perk quotient, tummy for pooching or tautness, thighs for the infamous cellulite, then the face and neck for wrinkles, age spots, and crows feet. The results? Yes, I have some definite signs of aging.

I brave another look at myself, but this time from a different perspective. Now I look for signs of that youthfulness that feels so real inside of me. I observe that along with the straightness to my back and the bounce in my step there is also a warm invitation in my smile and an adventurous twinkle in my eyes. I glimpse a happy young spirit laughing inside me.

So then is the secret of "young" that which endures past physical changes to the body? Let's face it. In our world there are some pretty stressed out, uptight, weary and wasted 20, 30 and 40-year-olds, and some magical, beautiful, vital, and yes, sexy persons in their 80s and 90s. So there has to be something else to being "young" besides the quality of skin, prettiness of face and body, and number of years! What if we look at a "joie de vivre", an openness to love, fun, a willingness and eagerness to try new things and see the possibilities...all of that... as what is the "young" that we truly yearn to capture and hold onto so deeply! What of the familiar phrases "to be young at heart" or "young is a state of mind"?

Is this "young" better? It's infinitely more enjoyable. There is also a point where I find that young and old merge and there are no differences. Beautifully portrayed in the movie The Curious Life of Benjamin Button, we witness the boundaries of "old" and "young" disappear -- at the juncture of loving and love -- with a love that endures, is ageless, and goes where the human part of us is afraid to go.

I hear again the voice from 20 years ago of that beautifully expressive octogenarian asking me what did I think that she "should" be feeling. And I understand. Take away the shoulds, the beliefs, the have-tos, want-tos, ought-tos, and what is left is love - vital and free. That's the real key to what is young. And is it better? It's the best!

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