One of the most inspiring features I’ve read recently was an interview with Ali McGraw in the Telegraph. Actually, if I’m really honest, what was really compelling was how brightly the very brilliant whites of her eyes shone. Here was the visibly lined face of an 80-year-old but by God did she look as if she was having fun.
This is how I want to be, I said to myself tearing it out to stick somewhere. I wrote a year ago about hoping to find the grace to embrace ageing with acceptance and dollops of humour. The big 5-0 is no longer a gazillion miles off. It’s an age when many ‘getting old’ statistics begin and yet for a good many of us, who are more aware of exercise and eating well, we might –who knows- only be half-way through our lives. I know everyone feels 27 on the inside but many of us feel younger on the outside too.
It’s certainly how the Dutch man, 69-year-old Emile Ratelband felt. In 2018, Ratelband told a court in Arnhem in the Netherlands that he did not feel ‘comfortable’ with his official chronological age, which did not reflect his emotional state – and was preventing him from finding work, or love online. Doctors had told him that his body was that of a 45-year-old and he wanted to change his date of birth accordingly. Ratelband compared his quest to be identified as younger with that of people who wish to be identified as transgender – implying that age should be fluid.
It’s an anecdote that the journalist, former head of the Downing Street policy unit who sits in the House of Lords, Camilla Cavendish recounts in the opening chapter of her (must-read book), Extra Time which she wrote to challenge our notions of ageing. Its title, Extra Time will of course be familiar to football fans, a point in a match when there is “everything still to play for”. It is also a period when many ‘elderly’ are just getting their second wind.
In 2017, Cavendish reported that entrepreneurs are more likely to employ people over 50 in UK start ups than the under 50s. In the US, 55-65 year olds are 65 per cent more likely to start a business than 20-34 year olds. “It’s not old age that gets longer, it’s middle age, “Cavendish insists…”we need to stop lumping everyone from 60 to 100 together and accept it’s normal to be vibrant and capable in your 70s.”
There is, as Professor Marting Green, CEO of Care England says in her book, “ a casualness of ageism, people say things they would never say if the word “old” was replaced by gay or black.” Language clearly matters.
Her book is also a thoughtful exploration of what different countries are doing to build a world of extra time. She meets many “rebels against fate” who are refusing to dress demurely, stop work or be carted off to care homes. By 2020, for the first time in history, there will be more people on the planet who are over 65 than who are under 5: that’s more grandparents than grandchildren.
Japan, she reports is the one of the few countries that has begun to effectively address the ageing population. But even more than that, it has identified that some of us are what the Japanese call “Young-old at 80” while others are “old-old at 65”. But what sort of mindset does it take to be a young old?
For anyone interested in outlier communities in the world, where people live far longer than average they may want to watch Dan Buettner’s TED talk on how to live to 100 plus. Buettner is an explorer, author and founder of the company, Blue Zones which specialises in understanding longevity and what makes for a meaningful life. Okinawa at the Southern end of Japan is one of the world’s blue zones which has the highest rates of centenarians. Central to Okinawans’s way of living is Ikigai, a Japanese word which translates as “reason for being”. It is quite literally your purpose, the reason you get out of bed every morning, the thing that puts a spring in your step. It is a fusion of the practical and spiritual which connects work, family, duty and passion.
When half of all 75-year-olds acknowledge that TV is their main form of company in Britain, something has gone disastrously wrong says Cavendish. So how to put this right?
Finding this sense of purpose will naturally differ for all of us: learning new skills, taking up a language or an instrument, a foot out of our comfort zone, caring for grandchildren or elderly parents, giving back to our communities or blossoming in a new career.
Many retired people have a sense of falling off a cliff floundering to find themselves, even if they initially welcomed more leisure time. People who have climbed every ladder in life presented, bravely meeting challenges along the way, suddenly find themselves with no more rungs to climb and no compass. Their biggest fear is not being relevant.
What else helps you be more young-old? Regular exercise, enough sleep and (ideally) a plant based diet are recognised as a boon for cognitive health but so too is nurturing social contacts – our community is key – and challenging your brain.
One of the most interesting sets ups that Cavendish comes across is the age diverse, cross-class village in the Netherlands where older people are not socially isolated. At the Humanitas Deventer retirement home, six students live with 160 elderly people aged between 79 and 100. They receive rent free accommodation in return for spending 30 hours a month with the residents: helping with chores, giving computer lessons or just making conversation.
The elderly residents come to life hearing about the students’ exams and relationships; they especially love dissecting the events the morning after. This is a place where real relationships are forged, not a token activity such as when school children come to visit to sing a song, but where deeper friendships which develop over time. The more time that Cavendish spends here, the more she reflects that if you aren’t treated as old- as somehow apart from everyone else – you probably won’t feel as old.
It’s a choice to be young-old. A choice which hopefully comes with many pleasing consequences. Ali McGraw chose that path with a later life filled with Pilates, yoga, rescue animals and community work. What else do we need to remember? That age does not define us but it is our very personal set of passions, dislikes, interests and network of complex human relationships which do.