“There’s nothing tragic about being 50. Not unless you’re trying to be 25”- Sunset Boulevard.
A curious thought struck me the other day. I thought of all the women who genuinely excite me and I realised that the women I feel most inspired by are not those enjoying their salad days but kickass women who are a decade, perhaps two, even three or four older than me. And damn it, as funny, curious, dynamic, intelligent and rather entertaining as they all are, they also happen to be the most beautiful and stylish people I know. Yes they have wrinkles and yes some of them have grey hair, but I’m so drawn to their energy which fizzes with celebrating life.
It made me think a lot about how we approach ageing. Why we expend vast amounts of energy in fighting it off, energy that might have been better spent living a richer, more fulfilling life. Age is but a number and how ridiculous to lump 40 or 50, 60 or even 100 under a one-size-fits-all umbrella term of old. I ponder this as my mother-in-law (also a very fabulous woman) turns 80 this month. I also think back to last week when I was asked to write a letter to my 17 year old self. I recall just how little confidence I had as a teenager– so much so that I used to walk around with stooped shoulders.
That society needs to break down the taboo of ageing there is no doubt. Growing old is an inevitable part of the cycle of life – if we are lucky. How different the life cycle looks if we change the language we use along with our mindsets and talk of “growth” rather than “ageing”. The word “age” has become so loaded, inextricably linked to contempt and fear. As Anne Karpf points out in her excellent book, How to age,“to age is to live and to live is to age and being anti-ageing (as so many products proudly proclaim themselves) is tantamount to being anti-life. By embracing age, we embrace the life process itself, with all its pain, joy and difficulty.”
Karp also suggests that each time we see an older person, we need to imagine them as our future self and, rather than recoil from their wrinkles or infirmities, applaud their resilience. That we need to rehumanise older people, to attribute to them the same rich internal world, set of passions and network of complex human relationships that we assume exists in younger people and in ourselves.”
I’m 42 and yet to hit the menopause or even the peri-menopause and without sounding too Pollyanna-ish, I’m crossing everything that I have the grace –and also the humour, patience and foresight- to embrace whatever lies in store next. Yes I look at my stomach after the birth of three children and with a sigh, admit to myself that my bikini days are perhaps over but I need to remember that the loss of certain things will be replaced by other qualities.
What do I appreciate as I get older?
Something that has surprised me a lot is that getting older doesn’t mean getting rid of our individual traits but rather heightens them. We do not all just become a generic sad or lonely older person.
I love that that I am more myself that I have ever been. That I have ditched the hang ups of my twenties and thirties. That I have stopped putting limits on myself and I am willing to embrace a ‘sod it and see’ approach to most things that I’m not entirely sure about.’ I am less inclined to sweat the small stuff, have learnt to stop worrying or feeling guilty and accept that a lot of the time, life is Shakespearean and ‘sh**’ happens and there is only so much that is in your control.
I’ve also learnt to throw unrealistic expectations out of the window. I no longer want to invest 80 per cent of my energy getting the last 20 percent of everything perfect. In short, I like to think I frame things differently with the benefit of wisdom, experience and confidence. I am happier. Actually, make that a lot happier. I actually enjoy stepping out of my comfort zone and trying new things in a way that would have absolutely terrified me a decade ago. And I have also learnt to live in the moment more.
It’s also quite exciting to discover you can also utterly reinvent yourself. As one woman who was interviewed about ageing said. “If I’d known I was going to live till 100, I would have taken up the violin at 40 and been playing for 60 years.”
As I get older I’ve also come to really value the networks or friendships I have. We rally around each other and support the projects we’ve been talking about for years yet now have the chutzpah to attempt or the time to complete. Those friendships mean a lot.
And finally, I leave you with a wonderful account from Karpf’s book of how growing older can mean growing more engaged. It comes from Florida Scott-Maxwell. This American-born playwright and suffragette, who later lived in Scotland and London, began a new career at the age of 40 when she started training as an analytical psychologist under Carl Jung.
Scott-Maxwell lived until she was 96, and in the Measure of My Days, her marvellous book on ageing, published in 1968 when she was 85, she wrote: “Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were interesting and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more intense as I age. To my own surprise, I burst out with hot conviction. Only a few years ago, I enjoyed my tranquility; now I am so disturbed by the outer world and by human quality in general that I want to put things right, as though I still owed a debt to life. I must calm down. I am far too frail to indulge in moral fervour.”