“If not now, when?”
This quote, by Hillel the Elder (110 BC – AD10), has always appealed to me but never more so than right now, when each New Year seems to arrive more rapidly than the last. Having reached 70, I’m only too aware of fewer decades ahead than I’ve so far enjoyed. Although we are living longer, life is not (yet!) infinite and I have a lot of living to do in however much time I have left.
“The future depends on what you do today” (Gandhi)
Ageism and popular stereotypes fuel the perception that people enter a stage of increasing and inevitable decrepitude and dependency as they get older. But, having now joined the swelling ranks of ‘seniors’ ‘oldies’ ‘the elderly’ (or any of the other unappealing names), I’ve found this stereotype, as all others, to be just plain wrong. Sadly, many people are not benefitting from our increasing life expectancy, and have fewer years in which they enjoy reasonably good health, and we know that these disparities in health and longevity are largely down to circumstances outside people’s control. But research, evidence, and happily my own experience, show that most of us can make a positive and significant difference to our later life through our actions, behaviours, and attitudes. Lifestyles are crucial to maximising our chances of a healthier and longer life. Theodore Roosevelt said “Old age is like everything else…to make a success of it, you’ve got to start young”. Whilst it’s obviously preferable to ‘future proof’ your later life as soon as possible, I’ve discovered it is also never too late to start.
“The more you praise and celebrate life, the more there is in life to celebrate” (Oprah Winfrey)
In my 60s, I became involved in a charity for older people called Open Age ( https://www.openage.org.uk ), joining a wide range of the physical and creative activities it offers, from Pilates to Spanish and singing, which I enjoy to this day. I was so grateful for the improved health, happiness and social benefits which resulted, that I became a member trustee and now Vice Chair. Open Age’s members (some in their 90s and older) defy the stereotypes of old age; they learn new skills, keep active in body and mind, make new friends, have fun and more. The charity provides a brilliant model of how to help us age better. Happily, there are a large number of online or live classes and courses, provided by charities or other organisations. Open Age inspired me to try to counteract the negativity that still prevails around ageing, publicise its many positive aspects, and raise awareness on how to make the most of later life.
Believing social media would be the most effective medium, I got to grips with Twitter (with a little help from younger friends) and started my Age Joyfully @AgeingBetter account. I was delighted to find an appetite for celebrating later life and learning how to age well, evidenced by my growing band of around 8,400 followers.
“If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves” (Thomas Edison)
However, many of my contemporaries won’t touch Twitter and one or two suggested I should write a book as the time-honoured way of conveying information. One of the many joys of retirement is having more time to try new things and discover one’s passions. With nothing to lose, and possibly something to gain, I thought that I should see what I was capable of. So, with some trepidation, I decided to have a go at writing my first book, a small, uplifting and accessible read on what research tells us about living better for longer. I also saw a possible opportunity to raise a few pounds for Open Age – if the book ever got published and sold copies – by donating half of any royalties to them.
I soon realised I loved writing and creating what eventually became ‘How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life.’ You can probably imagine my total incredulity and joy when my pitch to my first-choice publishers was successful. This fairy story continued with Dame Judi Dench writing the Foreword and praise being received from the health and ageing worlds. And best of all, people are reading the book here and abroad in hardback and Kindle, or listening to the Audiobook, enabling me to donate funds to Open Age. I have astounded myself!
Age Joyfully appeared in 2019 when I was 68. I cannot describe how magical it is to hold your published book in your hands and see your words in print. Becoming an author was never in the retirement plan, but it has given me a new direction and an entry into a fascinating new world after a 40-year career as a barrister and civil servant dealing with the administration of justice.
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough” (Mae West)
The eight steps in my book are obviously not original, although I think its style and format, light-hearted but evidence-based with a large number of relevant quotes and practical tips, is unique in a book on ageing. In summary, the recommended actions, attitudes or behaviours are:
- physical activity – move more, sit less (MOVE);
- eating the right foods, in the right quantity; avoiding obesity (EAT RIGHT);
- having a purpose – ‘ikigai’ (PURPOSE);
- making and retaining strong social connections (CONNECT);
- lifelong learning and trying new experiences (GROW);
- being grateful for what you have and who you are (BE GRATEFUL);
- giving to others – and yourself (GIVE); and
- having a positive attitude to life and ageing (BE POSITIVE).
I’m immensely proud of ‘How to Age Joyfully’ and huge thanks are due to my publishers. I strongly believe it can help people age better, whether they are aged 19 or 91, and the pandemic has made it even more relevant. It has highlighted what is truly important in life, whatever our age, including our physical and mental health, family and friends, living a life with meaning, and enjoying the present moment, especially when the future is uncertain. These components of a good life had become clear to me when planning and researching the book, and I think it is what most older people already know and value. This probably helps to explain why research shows that happiness increases in later life (‘The U Curve of Happiness’).
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once” (Friedrich Nietzsche)
Apart from spreading the word on positive ageing, another new later life passion of mine is dancing (badly). I only started in my late 50s and it was life-changing, physically, mentally and socially. My mantra is “You don’t stop dancing because you get old. You get old because you stop dancing” and readers of my book will notice the benefits of dancing feature more than once! As my husband is not a keen dancer, it’s lucky there are many group classes and styles that don’t require a partner, from ballet to belly dancing. I even joined a performance dance company for older people. Last year I decided that dance and dancing deserved a book all of its own and during the pandemic began writing it. Who knows whether it will ever get published and raise a bit of money for a dance charity, especially as I’m not the only person to have written a book in the last two years!
“Ageing is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength” (Betty Friedan)
I greeted 2022, as every year, with a sense of excitement and hope that I’ll be able to enjoy it to the full. I may have retired from paid work but certainly not from life. Longer term, I have no idea what this decade as a septuagenarian will bring. My 60s gave me some of the happiest years of my life, and I see no reason why this decade should be any different, so long as my ‘good enough’ health lasts. So far, I’m ageing joyfully and for me that’s predominantly about enjoying close, strong relationships, having reasons to get out of bed in the morning, doing my bit to help others and remaining involved in, and grateful for, all life has to offer. I plan to continue various voluntary roles which I find deeply rewarding and want to develop my new interest in making clay sculptures. And, of course, I intend to keep dancing for as long as I’m able to move. But if something completely different comes along, then I’m up for it, as I believe that I (like so many older people) now have the experience, skills, freedom, confidence and time to do almost anything – so long as it’s not sky-diving or marathon running. After all, as Hillel said, if not now, when?
NOTE: Do check out and join This Age Thing, a place for all to share stories, be listened to, take action and make tangible, positive changes. Their goal is to build a strong and united community, become a powerful voice, a sounding board and world changer, redesigning a world to help us all live longer, healthier and happier.