Vanity Is Not a Deadly Sin. It’s One of Life’s Last Vital Signs.

By Ruth La Ferla

Ms. Freitag had stopped last week at the offices of Inspir, an upscale Upper East Side senior residence she hopes to move into once construction is finished later this year. Trim in a bottle green St. John jacket, skinny pants and sparkly black sneakers, she lowered herself elastically into a leather banquette, and got candid.

Keeping up one’s image takes work, Ms. Freitag said. Still, “I don’t even walk my dog without putting my lipstick on.”

You might expect that Ms. Freitag, a retired real estate agent in her 80s, would be over all that. You would be wrong.

“I’m going to my dermatologist right after this visit,” she said, adding tartly, “What? You think I’m going to be sitting around waiting for my liver spots to come in?”

Like scores of her contemporaries, a style-conscious cohort whose numbers will only increase as baby boomers age, she is not inclined to shuffle, unkempt and uncared for, into her sunset years. Ms. Freitag represents the most senior of seniors in an aging population: a closely watched minority willing to make a substantial investment into their personal upkeep.

Armed with robust confidence and, often, a bank account to match, they work out, practice warrior yoga poses, paint balayage streaks into their hair, shop and dress with an undiminished purpose and pride.

Why not? “If you had style when you were younger, it never goes away,” said Eve Greenfield, who lives at the Renaissance Palace in Coral Gables, Fla., one of the more established upscale senior residences popping up around the country.

A sometime swimmer and inveterate shopper, Ms. Greenfield, who celebrated her 100th birthday last fall, announced with some fervor: “We look in a mirror, we care, we don’t think old.”

She is part of an aging population whose sense of vanity remains intact: if not the last vital sign, as may be supposed, a reliable index of energy and self-regard.

“‘Vanity,’ it’s a loaded word, but it has depth,” said Marc E. Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist at the Miami Jewish Health Systems. “It gets to the core of one’s identity, of how people feel about themselves, how they see themselves changing or not changing over time.”

Making an effort to work out, draw on a perfect cat eye, or dress with some zip can provide continuity, said Dr. Agronin, the author of “The End of Old Age: Living a Longer More Purposeful Life.”

“It contributes to a feeling that you are still who you were, who you always have been, who you will continue to be.”

If they have always worn makeup and jewelry, even some patients with dementia will keep up those rituals, said Andrea Abbott, an executive at Symphony, a senior living company with multiple locations in the United States and Canada.

“When you lose certain abilities or independence,” Ms. Abbott said, “often the last piece of control or semblance of control people have relates to how they look and dress.”

A colorful life: Zelda Fassler maintains an extensive makeup collection in her apartment at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, New York.CreditDolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

A colorful life: Zelda Fassler maintains an extensive makeup collection in her apartment at the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, New York.CreditDolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

It’s a concept not lost on Zelda Fassler, 86, a strikingly animated resident at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. Not long ago, Ms. Fassler ushered a visitor to her makeup table, its surface covered in salves and potions. “Even when I go to the dining room, I take my hairbrush, my lipstick, my mirror and my wallet,” she said. “That’s my security.”

Nor is the notion lost on Ms. Greenfield, who holds classes from time to time at the Palace, providing fashion and beauty tips to eager fellow residents. She would likely be unsurprised to learn that a profusion of state-of-the-art gyms, dental practices, plastic surgery clinics and high-priced living complexes (accommodating independent seniors as well as those needing specialized care) is catering to, indeed trading on, the unabated desire of many older people to remain relevant and hip.

Many such businesses are entering the marketplace in anticipation of a so-called silver tsunami, expected to occur during the mid-to-late-2020s, when seniors will make up a far higher percentage of the population than they have in the past. By 2030, according to the United States Census Bureau, people 65 and older are expected to make up 19 percent of the population.

Older seniors even now are consulting doctors and other medical professionals who once turned away most patients over 55, citing health concerns, but have softened their stance, taking on clients in their 80s and beyond.

“I just saw an 85-year-old patient on her third husband and fifth face-lift,” said Alan Matarasso, the president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and a clinical professor of surgery at Hofstra University Northwell School of Medicine. 

“There was a time when we didn’t expect people in later life to be dating, going to the gym, or traveling as much,” Dr. Matarasso said. “But now they are. And we’re seeing them come in to the plastic surgeon’s office.”

Sylvia Sutton, 79, getting her hair and nails done at the Hebrew Home’s on-site salon.CreditDolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

Sylvia Sutton, 79, getting her hair and nails done at the Hebrew Home’s on-site salon.CreditDolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

While people in their 90s have been known to request face-lifts, the majority of older patients he sees, he said, are somewhat younger and tend to opt for more conservative measures, including Botox fillers and laser treatments.

For the most senior of seniors, such cosmetic and dental procedures can have a significant bearing on self-esteem. “Older people come to me for reasons other than just chewing efficiency,” said Nolen Levine, a periodontist in Chicago. “For some of them, keeping up an attractive smile is a matter of dignity.”

Dr. Levine remembered treating a patient, one of his oldest, who had come to him with a faintly perceptible break in her tooth. He suggested a partial denture. “‘That’s for old people,’” he recalled her saying. “Well, what about a bridge?” he asked. Nothing doing, she told him. “‘I want an implant.’”

“But Jean,” he reminded her, “you are 98.” Pounding a fist on the arm of her chair, she retorted, “‘That’s not my fault, now, doctor, is it?’”

‘It’s My Time Now’

Some affluent seniors are seeking the perks available in luxury supportive housing that is cropping up across the country; the entrance fees can be $300,000 or more, and monthly rents range from $6,500 to nearly $20,000. They include Fountaingrove Lodge, a retirement community in Sonoma County, Calif., complete with a spa, a bank, a fitness center and a generously scaled outdoor pool.

Some of the most sumptuous communities are still in development. Atria Senior Living, in a joint venture with the luxury real estate firm Related Companies, plans to own and operate more than $3 billion worth of senior living communities in major urban markets, each offering upscale amenities like salons, gyms and pools.

Canyon Ranch, which two years ago announced its entry into the industry, expects to open multiple facilities around the country that offer a similar menu.

Nearing completion, Inspir, where a one-bedroom apartment rents for $17,000 a month, prides itself on providing the kinds of niceties more commonly found on cruise ships and at luxury resorts.


Along with the requisite pool and fancy salon, it will offer concierge services enabling residents to order, via the Alexa installed in every unit, massages, acupuncture treatment or reiki therapy as readily as they can call up a Long Island iced tea.

Other incentives will include a fitness center with customized workout technology: machines conceived to measure individuals’ biometrics, frequency of use and general fitness level.

“We are taking a hospitality approach to attract the person who has enjoyed the services of a five-star hotel their whole life and wants to continue that,” said Shane Herlet, the chief operating officer of Inspir.

Sure, it all comes at a price, but soaring costs are no hurdle to prospective clients like Ms. Freitag. “We’re not going to be around forever,” she said, adding unabashedly, “I’ve worked all my life and it’s my time now. If I’m going to go, I want to go in luxury.”

Symphony, with a high concentration of locations in Florida cities, offers a less showy brand of luxury. The company is eying boomers. “They are our primary customer,” Ms. Abbot said. “They are the ones making the decision to move their parents in.”

For those parents, most in their 80s, swimming pools, smartly appointed common rooms, pools, salons and shopping expeditions to local malls can be part of the draw, she said. “These people expect to be part of an elite club or group with like interests.”

Symphony at Stuart, situated in a conservative-leaning community north of West Palm Beach, Fla., plays up that aura of exclusivity. Not long ago it staged a fashion show in which residents modeled clothes by Tesora Fashions, a low-key label. The event was a first for the company. 

“We usually show at country clubs or high-end motor coach clubs,” said Brenda Beckelman, the owner.

Model citizen: Nell Bassett-Harris goes down the runway with her walker during a fashion show at Symphony, an assisted living center in Stuart, Fla., as fellow residents applaud.CreditAlicia Vera for The New York Times

Model citizen: Nell Bassett-Harris goes down the runway with her walker during a fashion show at Symphony, an assisted living center in Stuart, Fla., as fellow residents applaud.CreditAlicia Vera for The New York Times

Marilyn Cary, 91, had abandoned her wheelchair to claim a front-row seat along the glitter-spattered crimson runway. She would keep an open mind, she said, in the hope that the models would jettison hoary clichés about age: “You know what I’m talking about,” she said, with a perceptible eye roll, “those women you see in sneakers and tight elastic stockings.”

Across the catwalk, Nell Bassett Harris was immaculate in a red quilted vest and striped shirt, her steel-colored hair chicly drawn back in a ponytail. A former radio and television personality, Ms. Harris, 85, keeps up with trends, she said, by leafing through the magazines cached in her room, French and Italian Vogue and Essence among them.

She is especially partial to Madeleine, a British catalog featuring the kinds of streamlined suits and easy-fitting dresses she covets. Eyeing this reporter appraisingly, she urged, “Check it out, why don’t you.”

Seated alongside her more sedulously understated companions, Ms. Harris had an edge. But she had nothing on her splashier counterparts in other cities, a highly visible minority flaunting silver hair and an idiosyncratic fashion sense on blogs and Instagram feeds, eager to shed the inhibitions that many found cumbersome in an earlier life.

They belong to a demographic that is in better shape, with more opportunities than previous generations, Dr. Agronin noted. “Some people adopt a whole new personality from a conviction,” he said, that “all that we failed to explore in youth, we can explore in later in life.”

Women who have never exercised are exercising now, he said. And some of them are focusing for the first time on fashion. Reminiscing about a favorite aunt, Adele, he recalled that in her 80s she “started wearing tighter, more revealing clothing and flamboyant hats.

“She became very glamorous,” he said. “Probably she told herself, ‘Time is running out, so if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it now.’”

Perched on a settee in the Palace’s fancy old-world common area — all gilded mirrors, ponderous chandeliers, figured carpets and furnishings meant to recall the George V hotel in Paris — Ms. Greenfield, a former decorator, said, “As I get older, I’m absolutely more interested in maintaining a certain appearance.

“We dress for dinner every night,” she went on, glancing conspiratorially at her friend Lea Swetloff, a painter and also a former interior designer. 

Ms. Greenfield said, “We put on a lot of makeup, we change our clothes. We come down looking glamorous, because, as we see it, this is our night out.”

Ms. Swetloff, 85, had brightened her discreetly tawny sweater and pants with festoons of chains and clusters of rings, some of which she had unearthed at a local junk shop. “I like stuff,” she said firmly.

If her daughter hadn’t cautioned her against looking over-the-top on the day of her interview, she would have put on something more festive, she said, something more in tune with her tastes. “I was thinking of a colorful peasant shirt,” she said, “with narrow jeans and a fringed vest.” 

Ms. Freitag was feeling just as bold. “When I was younger, I always tried to look right, very appropriate,” she said. “I was more concerned about image. But now that I’ve started to age, I march to my own drummer. I wear my sneakers, I wear my tights. I don’t want to look absurd, but I do want to try different identities.

“I feel liberated,” she said. “I have no one to please but myself.”

Article Source: NY Times

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