Shirley Freitag has her eye on a coat for next fall: a Norma Kamali sleeping bag model in a searing shade of red. “It’s the one that that fashion guy Talley is always wearing,” she said, referring to André Leon Talley, the high-visibility style world fixture.
Freitag had stopped last week at the offices of Inspir, an upscale senior residence on the Upper East Side of New York City, 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, Freitag said. Still, “I don’t even walk my dog without putting my lipstick on.”
You might expect that 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. 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, Florida, one of the more established upscale senior residences popping up around the country.
A sometime swimmer and inveterate shopper, 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 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,” Abbott said, “often the last piece of control or semblance of control people have relates to how they look and dress.”
It’s a concept not lost on Zelda Fassler, 86, a strikingly animated resident at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York. Not long ago, 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 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 U.S. Census Bureau, people 65 and older are expected to make up 19% 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,” Matarasso said. “But now they are. And we’re seeing them come in to the plastic surgeon’s office.”
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 — 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”