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More octogenarians are going under the scalpel: How old is too old?

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

How old is too old for plastic surgery? Zsa Zsa Gabor notwithstanding, should there be an age limit for the purely aesthetic improvement of the declining physical body? Anyone who follows the lives of Hollywood stars (and that must surely account for the majority of us) might be inclined to say no.

It is one thing to be very and obscenely rich and apply some of that wealth to one’s physical enhancement – a common practice among the jet set – but what about ordinary octogenarians following suit? Is plastic surgery becoming democratized?

The case of Marie Kolstad is a case in point. The great-grandmother of 13 chose to have her breasts lifted at the ripe age of 83, to the tune of $8,000. She is in excellent health and comes from a long-lived family. Her mother lived to a very old age, and Marie feels she might follow a similar path. While she is at it (aging gently, that is), she wants her children to feel proud of what she looks like, she says.

It might come as a surprise to know that in 2010, 84,685 Americans age 65 or older had cosmetic surgery, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. That included such procedures as face-lifts, eye-lifts, liposuction, and the ubiquitous boob job.

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What is driving the uptick in senior plastic surgeries? Mostly demographics, according to Dr. Alan Gold, a plastic surgeon in Great Neck, N.Y. Seniors are staying healthier longer, with growing numbers not seriously affected by heart disease, lung disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes, and the other ailments that traditionally have stood between seniors and the nip/tuck visit.

There are a number of reasons why someone in his or her twilight years might choose to go under the knife. Some are looking for a late-life partner and want to be at their best. Others are still in the job market and want to appear more youthful – a very realistic scenario in a world in which people must increasingly work well past their official retirement age. And then others, like Mrs. Kolstad, want their external appearance to better mirror their health and vitality, which they expect to continue for many years in the future.

The issues can be multifaceted and complex – or simple and straightforward. One of my professors in school, a father of two toddlers at the age of 70, clearly maintained his more youthful appearance through medical means. My response to his efforts was one of sympathetic largesse – clearly he did not do this purely out of sheer vanity. His family doubtless benefitted when they ventured out into the world and encountered public scrutiny.

It is also true, however, that the trend represents another face of an endemic and ever-increasing narcissism in our culture at large. Clearly seniors who undergo the risky procedures are not going to look twenty again. Not even 40, despite what Joan Rivers may believe. Looking in the mirror and “not liking what you see,” as another senior plastic surgery consumer put it, is simply saying you do not like the fact that you are aging. In many ways, it is short-circuiting a necessary stage in life, a stage, I might add, that is emotional and spiritual, not necessarily physical. Seeing ourselves age reminds us that we are not going to be here forever. The corollary to that realization is a deep questioning about what valuable contribution we would like to pass on to the future generation.

Surely a photo of the smiling granny with the boob job is not it.



The statement that aging is emotional and spiritual but not physical is just plain ridiculous. Aging is all about the physical, especially the biological decline of our bodies and yes, our appearance. It does not define who we are and those who are determined to stay in the game rather than be cast aside as obsolete based on their wrinkles show an investment in life that is commendable. Does Ms. O. have a bias against senior citizens? Would she prefer them to "stay in their place," and be the nice old-fashioned granny or grandpa of yesteryear as pictured above? Ms. O.'s belief that older people need to be constantly reminded that they are going to die soon is a punitive approach to counseling that a huge mature population clearly rejects.