What Joan Rivers taught us about aging well

Joan Rivers main shot - What Joan Rivers taught us about aging well

As is well-known by now, Joan Rivers passed way on September 4, exactly a week after going into cardiac arrest during a procedure on her vocal cords. And while she’s famous as a comedian, businesswoman and chief of fashion police, I also argue she was a master of aging gracefully. How could this poster “girl” for cosmetic surgery be a role model for healthy aging, you ask? Can we talk! Read on to see what Joan Rivers taught us about aging well:

  1. She adapted herself to changing times.

We’ve probably all known someone who was unable to move on from her perceived glory years. Joan was the opposite. (She was such a familiar figure in our popular culture, it seems right to call her by her first name.) Tamron Hall from the Today show paraphrased a quote about Joan that she could talk about Jackie O or J. Lo.

I found it sometimes surreal to see the comic that I had watched as a kid slagging “stewardesses” and making Liz Taylor fat jokes now critiquing Rihanna and Miley Cyrus on Fashion Police. But Joan seemed so youthful it was as natural for her to riff on Kim Kardashian as it was for her to target Cher and Barbra Streisand back in the day.

In addition to keeping her comedy current, Joan also pioneered new ways of doing business. She hit professional and personal hard times in the late 1980s after her late-night Fox TV show was cancelled, and her husband and manager, Edgar Rosenberg, subsequently committed suicide. But when the work began to dry up, rather than give up, she reinvented herself. For example, Joan has been selling her jewelry, clothing and beauty lines on QVC for 24 years and on The Shopping Channel in Canada for more than 18 years. And, of course, she seemingly invented red-carpet coverage back in 1994. Joan was key in making the red carpets such a focus that they now seem like the main event and the award shows that follow almost an afterthought.

Joan also embraced reality TV, appearing on (and winning) The Celebrity Apprentice in 2009, and then starring in Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? with her daughter, as well as the online interview show In Bed With Joan.

2. She understood the power of laughter.

Joan’s humour wasn’t for everyone. To say she was brazen and her zingers often insensitive doesn’t begin to describe the acidity of her tongue. But her comedy philosophy was perhaps best summarized by the line she liked to quote: “If you make someone laugh, you give them a little vacation.” (Joan attributed it to Winston Churchill, but some say it’s a twist on a Milton Berle quote.)

Joan acknowledged life could be very tough, and thus the sarcasm was just a vehicle to get to people’s funny bones. I mean how bad could you feel about life when you heard Joan’s made-in-Brooklyn rasp pronounce: “That dress was so short you could see Mila’s Kunis!”

3. She was good to people.

Experts on aging tell us how important social connections are as we get older. While Joan’s material alienated some of her targets, she seemed to have a knack for forging connections with people of all ages. As New York Post columnist Cindy Adams said at Joan’s funeral on September 7: “Joan was brassy in public, classy in private.”

After Joan died, it seemed every person who had worked with her talked about one of her kindnesses. Comic Kathy Griffin, who considered Joan a mentor, shared a story on Today about one of her dinners with Rivers. Griffin realized her assistant had left with her keys and called to tell him he needed to return them to her at the restaurant. According to Griffin, Joan said she would give him a piece of her mind when he arrived. The 24-year-old assistant’s punishment? Joan ordered him to join them for dinner, which she paid for.

I witnessed Joan’s off-stage personality about five years ago at LaGuardia Airport in New York. I was at an Air Canada gate waiting for a flight to Toronto when Joan arrived walking arm-in-arm with an airline employee, who escorted her to the gangway. Unlike many celebrities, Joan was travelling alone. But she hardly seemed lonely as she hugged a couple of the Air Canada gate agents who she appeared to treat like dear friends. (I gathered that she was flying for one of her stints on The Shopping Channel, and hence why she was so well acquainted with the crew.)

She also gave back. Joan supported many causes, but was devoted for 25 years to God’s Love We Deliver, a charity that delivers nutritious meals to people with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses, who are unable to cook for themselves. Joan was on their board and also donated her more than $500,000 Celebrity Apprentice winnings to the charity.

4. She continued to pursue her passion.

Although her schedule would likely have exhausted someone 40 years younger, the pace didn’t seem too much for Joan. On top of commuting between New York and L.A. to tape her shows, travelling to appearances on QVC and The Shopping Channel; Joan continued to do regular standup gigs in the U.S. and abroad.

Should she have cut back? Probably. But it’s hard to imagine her lying on a chaise in Miami. Joan said more than once she was put on Earth to make people laugh, and that sense of purpose seems to have been what carried her through life, good times and bad.

As for the controversial nip and tucks, I think they were also about Joan living life on her terms. In addition to comedy, she clearly loved glamour, and wanted to look the way she wanted to look.

What Joan Rivers taught us about aging well doesn’t involve good nutrition or exercise, or any of the usual strategies for healthy living. I think her biggest lesson is to live the life you want to live, even if (to paraphrase her old joke) “You’re so old that when you buy a sheer sexy nightgown you don’t know anyone who can see through it.” Rest in peace, Joan.

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