The sad and sorry onslaught of false teeth, withering skin and narrowing career options, followed by death as the ultimate full stop. Ageing is bleak.
Even road signs for the elderly show a couple hunched over, one with a walking stick, vulnerable as they can be.
Well, those are the stereotypes anyway. Blatantly ageist or sadly truthful? As the milestone of 40 fast approached for us both, and a few more grey hairs began to appear, we decided to find out.
Four years and 50 interviews later, we can say with some authority that old age is rarely defined by any of those grim myths.
In fact, during the course of our research — first for our website, Bolder, and then for a book — we discovered that ageing can be inspiring and inventive and even, gasp, fun.
Muffie Grieve, 87, from Ontario, Canada, has been playing tennis for more than 70 years and says she ‘doesn’t consider her age a factor at all’
Our interviewees were all over 70. One of them fell in love and married aged 82. Another swims a mile in the Mediterranean every morning aged 85. Nearly all of them are still working or creating in some way. So many of them cite the happiest age of their lives as now, not then.
We both have more than a decade of experience working in glossy magazines and, for us, the process of meeting our subjects was refreshing. Our interviewees were often far more comfortable in themselves than many of the models we had worked with who were a fraction of their age. We embarked on this project because old age looked like an unhappy place to us, and we wanted to understand the reality. Now we’ve seen it.
And though our fears haven’t been dispelled entirely — ageing inevitably has its hindrances and its hiccups — there has been a shift, because we’ve seen the other side of those stereotypes.
It’s a good job, too: this year there will be a million new septuagenarians alone — more than ever before.
Living until 90 and beyond is soon to become the norm, rather than the exception.
The best part of it all? Now that we’ve stopped to listen, there’s so much to learn.
What follows are some of our favourite lessons, in the words of the people who learned them.
Enjoy a martini . . . And never give in
Muffie Grieve, 87, from Ontario, Canada, has been playing tennis for more than 70 years. She says:
I don’t consider my age a factor at all. It was never traumatic to me to be 30 or 40 or 50 — it just doesn’t worry me. As you get older and become a success at something, you gain tremendous confidence.
You know yourself and what you want, and you have the ability to say no to things.
The only negative is that your body does sometimes let you down, but you just have to pick yourself up and charge on. Of course, there have been trying times. When I was 62, I had a brain tumour.
I found out quite fortuitously on a business trip, when I got out of a car and couldn’t walk in a straight line. I had major surgery and spent seven hours on the operating table.
But no one goes through life without problems, you just learn to deal with them.
I have a very positive attitude about everything — I only do positives.
Bertrand Russell, whom I’ve always admired, wrote about worrying as a useless negative. Instead, he advised looking at the problem and deciding what you can do about it.
If you can do nothing, forget about it. It’s probably my mathematical, logical outlook, but I’ve always been like that.
A lot of how you age is to do with genetics. Having said that, I am careful with what I eat — I don’t like sweet things, which is fortunate. Tennis and golf keep me active, plus I walk a lot and go to Pilates classes.
I also enjoy the odd martini and a nice glass of wine. My next goal is to break a score of 90 in golf.
Yes, we do live in an ageist society, but it is changing. More people are staying active: you see older people out skiing, golfing, swimming and travelling. They aren’t lying around letting the world go by.
Attitudes are shifting, but there is a definite cult of youth.
My life motto? Be positive — and never give in.
However old you are, dive into every thrill life has to offer
I want to swim in Antarctica
Ellery McGowan, 73, has won multiple world championships in open-water, marathon and winter swimming. She is also head of swimming and water polo at Charterhouse school in Surrey. Ellery says:
At the Winter Swimming World Championships in Russia, I cut my arms from swimming through ice, but I didn’t even notice the blood until the race was over.
Ellery McGowan, 73, has won multiple world championships in open-water, marathon and winter swimming
It’s hard to explain how good the water makes me feel — I come out and glow because all the heat has gone to my core.
Even at the lido, you might look at the grey sky and find it uninspiring, but after a few kilometres, you always feel better.
Teaching is rewarding, too, and I have quite good self-motivation.
I take Pilates and spin classes every week, as well as a core strength class every Thursday, followed by Gyrotonic. That’s my indulgence because it keeps my joints mobile.
I eat quite healthily and I keep saying I am not going to drink every day of the week, but I always end up having a glass of red wine.
I’ve been separated for about ten years. So far, mostly I’ve left relationships to serendipity, but I think soon I might have to try online dating.
I think about death a lot more since my son James died unexpectedly last year, aged 34. Some days I think: ‘I wouldn’t like to die just yet.’ But if my number’s up, my number’s up.
I have no regrets. James packed so much into his life — and I do, too. His death has made me even more aware that it’s important not to put things off.
I still have a lot of living to do. Antarctica is on my list for a swim, and I’ve already signed up to swim from Robben Island to Cape Town, next year.
I refuse to be a doddery old fool!
Rita Gilmore, 87, owns a restaurant on Alderney in the Channel Islands. She says:
Rita Gilmore, 87, owns a restaurant on Alderney in the Channel Islands
My husband-to-be, Morris, had a heart attack and died aged 74, even though he was as fit as a fiddle.
After he died, I chose to carry on the restaurant — it has been good for me to be around people all the time, and the stairs keep me fit and trim, too. There are 16, and I’m up and down them every five minutes.
I do generally look after myself: I am not a drinker and I don’t smoke. I also add up all the bills longhand because I want to keep my brain active.
I actively choose to enjoy being 87, as I realise how lucky I am to be fit. I belong to a choir on the island and have friends who are in their 30s and 40s — it’s good to mix with younger people. I’m not going to become a doddery old fool!
I often look at people who are younger than me and think how much better I could make them look! I have my hair done every week, wear make-up every day and I even model for the local dress shop.
You’ve got to make the most of life, no matter what it throws at you.
Things were getting boring so I became a triathlete at 70
Ken Pardey, 74, is a triathlete from the Isle of Wight who retired aged 55 after successful careers in both printing and property development. Ken says:
Ken Pardey, 74, is a triathlete from the Isle of Wight
My daughter encouraged me to do the triathlon when I was 70, and I do plenty more besides. I go off-road biking at least once a week, and I’ve got canoes on the beach.
I remember when my parents retired, they didn’t really do anything any more. They seemed like proper old people.
I think we’re lucky that today it’s more acceptable for people of my age to do silly things. I learned to ride a horse when I was 70 years old; two friends and I decided that things were a bit boring, so we learned something new.
Having children changed me a lot and continues to change me even today, as I now have grandchildren who keep me active. I still don’t feel like a grown-up myself, though. And, more to the point, I don’t want to.
In my low moments, I think I might not have long left. I can’t imagine not being here because I am having such a good time.
But in general, I am hugely positive. Life is there to be lived, and you meet so many interesting people along the way.
Zandra: I’m too busy to think about death
Zandra Rhodes, 79, is a British fashion designer whose eponymous brand turns 50 this year. She is also founded London’s Fashion and Textile Museum in 2003. Zandra says:
I am very lucky that I have always been pretty thick-skinned.
Zandra Rhodes, 79, is a British fashion designer whose eponymous brand turns 50 this year
At school, I once got a letter from a girl who apologised for always laughing at me on the school bus. I hadn’t even noticed! I seem to be immune to all that.
If you care too much about other people’s opinions, it can stop you from experimenting or trying new things.
I was in my late 40s when I met my boyfriend; I was lucky to find a fellow workaholic by chance at a dinner party.
He was very conservative, he couldn’t believe my hair, but we were a good match regardless.
He’s 97 now, and we’ve been together for 30 years. The 18-year age difference sounds like a lot, but it’s not that significant when you’re past 40.
Having good friends is enormously important and I like cooking, so often I will have ten or 15 people over for dinner at my flat.
I have another home on the beach in Del Mar, California, where all the surfers are. I exercise more when I’m over there.
I’ll do a stretch class one morning and Pilates on another, and I do a lot of walking. I ought to do more in London, but there’s never enough time.
I don’t think about death, I’m too busy. If you keep working at the rate I do, you don’t even notice yourself getting old. It’s funny, you just get there. And I am certainly not going to try to turn back the clock.
I see lots of women who looked fabulous at 40 suddenly deciding that they need fish lips and fillers. They don’t look younger, they turn into something else.
I wouldn’t touch plastic surgery. I don’t even wash my make-up off at night.
One of the most important life lessons I’ve learned is that there’s no point having regrets. If you have regrets, you live in the past and don’t move forward in other ways.
My life motto? Never give up. Live to the best of your ability.
Michel Roux: the odd cigar… and lots of daily stretching
Michel Roux, 78, is a French-born chef who travels between his homes in the UK, St Tropez and Switzerland. He opened two restaurants with his brother, Albert, which hold five Michelin stars between them. Michel says:
I had colon cancer 13 years ago, and it definitely changed me — life is tough when you go through that. You just think about getting to the next day.
Michel Roux, 78, is a French-born chef who travels between his homes in the UK, St Tropez and Switzerland
But after my last session of chemotherapy, I thought: ‘I must move on and leave this behind.’ Of course, it is there at the back of my mind, but I came out stronger.
Perfect happiness is simply doing what you want to do in life and being able to speak your mind.
My eldest daughter is a gymnastics teacher, and recently she suggested I do a bit of exercise to make up for everything I eat and drink. So I do some stretching every morning and I walk my dog when I can. I also play golf once or twice a month, but I started playing very late in life.
Diet-wise, I’ll usually have a salad or soup for lunch and something more indulgent for dinner. I’ve cut down on bread recently, and I try to avoid alcohol one or two days a week, which is very difficult. I don’t smoke, except the odd cigar if I am in total open air and I’ve had a big lunch.
I don’t think I am 78 — in my mind, I am about 30 or 40. My body is as active as when I was 40. Playing 18 holes of golf, I might start puffing on the 14th hole — but puffing is not such a bad thing!
As I grow older, I still commit to far too much. Sometimes I wake up and think: ‘Maybe you could have done without that!’ So I am trying hard to restrain myself a bit.
I suppose strangers may treat me differently because of my age, but when they get to know me, they realise I am just one of them.
My motto is to be yourself. Never try to be anybody else.
Aged 79, I consider myself a work of art
Sue Kreitzman, 79, was a successful food writer before making an unexpected transition into the arts world. She featured in the film Fabulous Fashionistas. Sue says:
Sue Kreitzman, 79, was a successful food writer before making an unexpected transition into the arts world
Ageing is a blessing, of course it is. What’s the alternative? We’re so lucky to be alive — it’s time travel! There is an old lady revolution going on right now and we’re becoming much more visible.
I feel I’m a pioneer as I’m very vocal and do a lot of public speaking on ageism. I’m also very active on social media.
I didn’t register that I was an old lady until I was in Fabulous Fashionistas and realised it was a film about old people.
I met my husband when I was 15 and he was 16. He works in Cambridge and I work in London, so we have separate lives during the week, then spend weekends together and go to New York a few times a year. That’s the secret to our happy marriage.
He’s a scientist, but he is very supportive of my art, as is my son.
I’m in demand as an artist but I also consider myself a work of art. Every morning, I don’t get dressed, I curate myself. I can’t take my art with me when I leave the house, so I wrap myself in it. I’m a walking collage.
I’ve become famous for being a weird old lady — it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
I believe we are all ageless, but not immortal. You have to make every day count.
I try my best to take care of myself, but it’s also a matter of genes. I don’t believe in Botox or plastic surgery. Just be who you are for God’s sake — accept that this is what time does to us.
My life motto is: don’t wear beige — it might kill you!
A glass of sherry? I turned 80 with 80 skydives… in a day
Pat and Alicia Moorehead, 87 and 72, live in Los Angeles and hold multiple skydiving world records. Between them, they have made almost 10,000 jumps.
Pat and Alicia Moorehead, 87 and 72, live in Los Angeles and hold multiple skydiving world records
I decided to give skydiving a go when I was 37 years old. I made two jumps on my first day and I’ve been doing it ever since.
When I turned 80, I decided to try to make 80 jumps in one day. I was able to do it in six hours and broke a world record — I did one jump every four minutes and 30 seconds.
It’s not all about the actual skydive, though, it’s about what you can do with the sport: planning, then making the jump and then talking about it are all major draws.
Had somebody told me at 37 that I’d still be jumping aged 87, I’d have said they were joking. For a start, I wouldn’t have thought anyone could live to be that old! Now, 60 is the new 30.
Ageing well is all about attitude. When we bought our house, I remember looking at the stairs and thinking: ‘Will I want to be walking up and down those stairs in my 80s?’ The answer turned out to be yes. I don’t even use the banister, because then you aren’t using your balance.
I also have an exercise bench and free weights and do sit-ups and stretches and whatever it takes to develop the stamina and strength to keep jumping.
I’m a great believer in the idea that if you put out good, for the most part, it will come back to you.
You have to be kind to everyone you meet — but also kind to yourself.
My life motto is that there is no past, there is no future, so the best time is now.
I started skydiving at the ripe old age of 30. I was a gymnast all through school, and flying through the air sounded wonderful.
I took my first class and, in a week, I’d done seven jumps. I just loved it.
I’m also a skier, and I’ve taken some big tumbles in the snow. After I had jumped a few times, I realised I could tumble in the air and not get hurt.
Jumping in different places around the world is fun — I explore new countries the same way most people explore new shops. I don’t need a base. My house is just where I pack, a holding pen.
I met Pat through skydiving, but I was totally happy being single. Pat and I don’t argue — to be honest, there’s nothing to argue about. We’re both fit and healthy, and I’ve got tonnes of my own interests.
For my 70th birthday, we went to jump in Utah for three days. I love deserts. Wide, open spaces like that are just alluring to me. Cactus bloom in the spring is unlike any other — the brightest pinks and purples and yellows that you could ever want to see.
My life motto is: stay involved, stay curious. There is so much to see in the world.
The doctor who knows that health is wealth
Known as Jimmy Wickers to his patients, 78-year-old Dr Wickremesinghe qualified in medicine in Sri Lanka, before continuing his training in the UK. He’s a GP in Stockwell, South London, having previously worked as a breast cancer surgeon and an endoscopist. Jimmy says:
Dr Wickremesinghe, 79, known as Jimmy Wickers to his patients is a GP in Stockwell, South London
It sounds strange for a doctor, but I’m a bit lazy when it comes to exercise and find it hard to stick to a regimen. I like swimming, but I don’t like the pools in England, as the water is too cold, so instead I walk and sometimes play tennis.
I am blessed that every day I come back to a home-cooked meal from my wife, Kath. However, I probably drink a bit too much — a couple of glasses of wine every evening, and the occasional gin and tonic.
We don’t go by chronological age in my profession: biological age is more important. There are 60-year-olds who are quite ill, and 90-year-olds who are very fit, playing golf and living the life of Riley.
One thing I do notice is loneliness. Many patients in their 80s or 90s live isolated lives, lots of them with no family or with children who can’t be bothered to visit. There seems to be no community cohesion.
In the Asian culture, older people are more respected and are integrated into everyday family life. I think we can learn from this.
Family is key. My wife and I are lucky to be able to see our two children, Nick and Katy, a lot — now we’re just waiting for some grandchildren!
My life motto? Health is wealth.
Adapted by TOM RAWSTORNE from Bolder: Life Lessons From People Older And Wiser Than You by Dominique Afacan and Helen Cathcart, published by Hardie Grant at £12.99. © Dominique Afacan and Helen Cathcart 2018.
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