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PHOTOS: What it's like to be 72 — the faces (and wisdom) behind the age

(Clockwise from upper left): Light Oriye for NPR; Chiara Negrello for NPR; Rajaâ Khenoussi for NPR; Jjumba Martin for NPR; Debsuddha Banerjee for NPR; Debsuddha Banerjee for NPR; Maíra Erlich for NPR

The world's population is facing a historic shift: By 2030, one in six people will be age 60 or over.

So every nation will face the rising social, economic and health-care challenges that accompany an aging population. Low- and middle-income countries – the world's fastest growing — will drive the most change: By 2050, these countries will be home totwo-thirds of the world's population over age 60.

Despite these challenges, the prospect of an aging world has a positive arc. Septuagenarians bring with them a wealth of experience, wisdom and grit. And that is what photojournalists Ed Kashi, Sara Terry and Ilvy Njiokiktjien want to capture in their project "1 in 6 by 2030," which invites photographers around the world to record the daily lives of 72-year-olds in their communities. (They settled on 72 because it's the global median lifespan although it varies notably from country to country.)

As the photos and life stories of the subjects show, 72-year-olds lead lives of joy and hope — with worries, of course. And they have life lessons to share.

"It's not just like we want to do a statistic, but we look for the statistic that we know has a story within it," says Terry, a photographer with the nonprofitVII Photo, who joined Kashi and Njiokiktjien to create theseven-year-long project last fall, which plans to produce many stories on our aging world in the years ahead. "That is our goal – that this be a living body of work. The images that we'll have made about what it means to be a human being at this historic point in time, these are images that are going to live forever."

Afqir Itto: 'I still feel hopeful'

Ait Hamza, Morocco

Afqir Itto first discovered the art of carpet-making at age 9. Since then, she has become a renowned craftswoman.

Itto now leadsa cooperative of women who weave high-quality rugs in the valley of Ait Hamza, which is known for its sheep and wool. Beyond that, she looks after her 2-year-old granddaughter.

Itto has no intention of slowing down, despite some balance problems and trouble with her back.

"In spite of a few minor health issues, I still feel hopeful and capable of doing more as a 72-year-old lady. I am a craftswoman with no retirement; I have to keep working till the last possible moment of my life to make a living," she says. "My life has always been focused on the growth of my work, the well-being of my family and helping to improve the community I live in."

/ Rajaâ Khenoussi for NPR
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Rajaâ Khenoussi for NPR

She still looks forward to owning property, which she hopes to purchase with income from selling her cooperative's intricately handwoven rugs. She aspires to have their craftsmanship recognized on a global scale.

"I am now giving up one room, which is about half of my home, in order to create a place where the women can weave," she says. "My dream is that this will be a success, but of course I also worry that it won't." -Photos and interview by Rajaâ Khenoussi


Beatriz Amado: 'It's a great feeling of freedom'

Sao Paulo, Brazil

For more than two decades, Beatriz Amado has worked to support adoptive families through a nonprofit group she founded. Her fascination with the human psyche propelled her into the field of psychoanalysis, where she now offers sessions for couples and families.

She enjoys how independent and liberated she feels at age 72.

Beatriz Amado celebrates turning 72 with her family in Sao Paulo. "I want to live much longer," she says.
/ Maíra Erlich for NPR
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Maíra Erlich for NPR
Beatriz Amado celebrates turning 72 with her family in Sao Paulo. "I want to live much longer," she says.

"You no longer owe satisfaction to anyone – it's a great feeling of freedom. I really enjoy my life. I think I did everything I wanted," she says, though she admits she feels some sadness that she might not be able to see her granddaughters, who are 1 and 3, grow up.

She confronts this by focusing on living moment to moment. "There are things I can't do anymore, but I don't waste time thinking I'm going to die tomorrow. It took me a long time to understand how old I was. I feel so young, so full of life, not like 72 years old at all. I want to live much longer."

Amado stays in shape by taking pilates classes. She says she wants to be healthy, "especially mentally healthy."
/ Maíra Erlich for NPR
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Maíra Erlich for NPR
Amado stays in shape by taking pilates classes. She says she wants to be healthy, "especially mentally healthy."

Amado enjoys spending time with her friends and family, particularly her granddaughters, with whom she draws and paints or just watches TV.

When she looks back on her life, she is grateful. "I'm in such a good moment that I can't think of anything that concerns me. I have a healthy family, a nice marriage. If my husband is gone before me, I'd miss him terribly, but I don't grieve in advance."

Beatriz with her husband, Eduardo.
/ Maíra Erlich for NPR
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Maíra Erlich for NPR
Beatriz with her husband, Eduardo.

Her age has also not dampened her dreams, though she acknowledges she won't have time to accomplish them all. "I wish for impossible things. I'm very eager to be clear-headed, to continue having the joy for life that I have." -Photos and interview by Maira Erlich


Gayatri Goswami: 'Life is an act of letting go'

Kolkata, India

Gayatri Goswami, who has albinism, lives in the 165-year-old building where she was born and raised. She has faced discrimination in her personal and professional life because of the condition but found a way forward by working as a tutor and, with her sister, founding a theater school.
/ Debsuddha Banerjee for NPR
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Debsuddha Banerjee for NPR
Gayatri Goswami, who has albinism, lives in the 165-year-old building where she was born and raised. She has faced discrimination in her personal and professional life because of the condition but found a way forward by working as a tutor and, with her sister, founding a theater school.

Born with albinism in Kolkata, one of India's largest cities, Gayatri Goswami has faced both personal and professional exclusion caused by her appearance, affecting her own and even some of her sisters' prospects for marriage because of fears about the genetic condition. She shares her life with her younger sister, Swati, who also has albinism. "She just is like me," says Goswami. "An unmarried single lady."

Though Goswami earned a Ph.D. in Sanskrit, schools would not hire her as a teacher because of her skin color. So she became a private tutor. Along with her sister, she formed a theater school in their shared home, where they conducted dance dramas, a form of storytelling through dance and song. Goswami translated Othello, Macbeth, King Lear and Hamlet into Bengali. Her nephew, who was also her photographer for the 72 project, describes her as "obsessed with William Shakespeare."

She feels a mix of contentment and melancholy about being 72. "Physically I feel the burden of my age at this phase of my life, and at the same time I feel I have learnt the universal truth that life is an act of letting go," she says. "We were a family of seven, including my beloved dad and mom. Now only my younger sister and I live together out of the entire family."

Her biggest concern is her sister, whom she does not want to leave alone in the two-story, 165-year-old building where they were born and raised.

Nevertheless, she feels this is a simpler time in her life. "Apart from physical issues, I feel life is less complicated than before, and I can manage more for myself." -Photo and interview by Debsuddha Banerjee

Editor's note: Gayatri Goswami died in October 2023.


Nguyen Thi Lan: 'Live in the present and plan for the future'

Tram Chim, Vietnam

For an hour each evening, Nguyen brings her small radio to the river and performs a dance similar to the tango.
/ Chiara Negrello for NPR
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Chiara Negrello for NPR
For an hour each evening, Nguyen brings her small radio to the river and performs a dance similar to the tango.

Each day, Nguyen Thi Lan rises at 4 a.m. to dedicate an hour to Chen Taijiquan, a Chinese discipline that blends meditation and gymnastics — an enduring habit cultivated since her youth in Saigon, where she witnessed the city transform into Ho Chi Minh City after the Vietnam War. Later in the day, she devotes another hour to dancing solo by the river along with music from her small radio. Sometimes, passersby greet her or even join in to enjoy the exercise.

After getting married, Nguyen moved to the rural town of Tram Chim, nestled in the Mekong Delta near a national park known for several rare birds, and helped her husband farm. Now, she devotes her life to caring for her family, which includes grandchildren.

Nguyen says she believes "it's essential to live in the present and plan for the future." In doing that, she says her life is filled with some familiar routines: household chores, relaxing with her smartphone and frequent visits to her daughter in a neighboring town. She adds a touch of sparkle to her day with personal flourishes like colorful clothing and matching jewelry.

To stay healthy, Nguyen Thi Lan dances by the river every evening in the town of Tram Chim. Sometimes, passersby will join her.
/ Chiara Negrello for NPR
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Chiara Negrello for NPR
To stay healthy, Nguyen Thi Lan dances by the river every evening in the town of Tram Chim. Sometimes, passersby will join her.

Though she does worry about the future sometimes, particularly in regard to her health, she says, "My hope is that the next generations, including my children and grandchildren, can enjoy a happier, more successful and longer life than mine."

Nguyen has always had a passion for travel, though she does not take long trips anymore. She still enjoys jaunts to the nearby town of Cao Lahn to visit relatives, sometimes accompanied by her granddaughter.

And though her life has been marked by sacrifices and responsibilities, she has learned to take pleasure in daily joys and not mull over the things she can't control. "At times, I naturally face fears and negative thoughts that may be linked to my personal life or my family's," she says. "This pertains to health, employment and struggles that may arise at any moment. But each time I try to conquer and overcome them. I remind myself that suffering over something uncertain serves no purpose." -Photos and interview by Chiara Negrello


Esther Habila: 'I do not worry so much about my age'

Kuje, Nigeria

Esther Habila is part of the Gbaygi tribe in central Nigeria. She wants her descendants to value education as a path to a life with fewer struggles.
/ Light Oriye for NPR
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Light Oriye for NPR
Esther Habila is part of the Gbaygi tribe in central Nigeria. She wants her descendants to value education as a path to a life with fewer struggles.

Esther Habila is mother to nine, grandmother to 30 and wife to a retired pastor from the ECWA Church (Evangelical Church Winning All). She is part of the Gbagyi tribe in central Nigeria.

Though the average life expectancy in Nigeria hovers around 55 years old, being 72 does not concern her. "I do not worry so much about my age," she says. "I am focused on what I have in the present: my children, grandchildren and husband."

Habila emphasizes the importance of listening to parents, practicing obedience and respecting the guidance of elders as essential to living a long and fulfilling life.

She has witnessed significant shifts in her lifetime. Notably, she observes that younger generations are more willing to pursue a formal education, a contrast to her own youth when attending school often required persuasion. She believes that school is the path to an easier life. "I want my children to have a better education than I had so they do not struggle to survive in today's world," she says. And that is how she would like to be remembered – as someone who gave her children valuable advice and the opportunity to learn. -Photo and interview by Light Oriye


Makanga Kamulegeya: 'My lifelong commitment to staying active likely accounts for my enduring sense of strength'

Masaka, Uganda

Makanga Kamulegeya likes to sit by his window with his radio and watch passersby. "The wheels of time have changed most things. The one thing time has not touched is my capacity for life and living," he says.
/ Jjumba Martin for NPR
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Jjumba Martin for NPR
Makanga Kamulegeya likes to sit by his window with his radio and watch passersby. "The wheels of time have changed most things. The one thing time has not touched is my capacity for life and living," he says.

Makanga Kamulegeya, who's naturally camera-shy, took some convincing to be photographed for this project. But his nephew (and photographer) prevailed.

At 72, he still feels healthy, often taking the 3-kilometer trip to visit his mother, who is 96. "I continue to sense vitality in every bone of my body," he says. "My lifelong commitment to staying active likely accounts for my enduring sense of strength."

Kamulegeya wants to keep living and watching life unfold. As part of a commitment to his health, he has given up alcohol, saying, "I hope to avoid the bottle for the rest of my days. I hope I can find the fortitude to resist."

During the day, he finds companionship in his radio, though it sometimes brings bad news. "I relish sitting by the window, tuning into political talk shows, all while observing passersby," says Kamulegeya. "Regrettably, from time to time, the radio broadcasts funeral announcements for individuals I know well."

His biggest concern about aging is the fact that he is drifting apart from his siblings and their families. There are no longer frequent visits during which their children can bond. Like many other 72-year-olds, he is thinking about the next generations. "Now, everyone is living distant, disjointed lives," he says. "My only hope is that our children get to grow more familiar and more fond of each other than we have been. That is my hope." -Photo and interview by Jjumba Martin

Laurel Dalrymple is a freelance writer and editor who frequently contributes to NPR.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.