Trouble with happiness is the more you seek it out the less successful you often are. Which is why with a week on a paradise island recently in the Seychelles I realised that by day 5 I was ready to come home. Don’t get me wrong it was fabulous – as in pink sandy beaches, coconut trees and turquoise sea. You’re hating me now aren’t you…. BUT with nothing to do except enjoy oneself, it did get a bit… well, if I’m honest…. boring. The highlight of the holiday was when the Brits staying at the 5 star hotel on an isolated island with no shops or bars clubbed together to hire a boat to take us to the mainland in order to get supplies of tonic water, gin and pineapples. Our aim – to avoid buying overpriced drinks in the bar and mini bar. …… and so with adversity came happiness in the form of cheers and whoops of joy.
The term ‘scrubbing up well’ seems to have crept into people’s vocabulary when they describe women of my age. Someone recently called me a ‘force of nature’ which I think is the modern term for ‘old bag’.
Unfortunately, at 60 looking good, or trying to, is becoming hard work. Highlights, lowlights, waxing, electrolysis, pedicures, manicures, Pilates, skin peels; all of them clog up my diary and cost far too much money, with the effects barely visible to the naked eye. Basically, I am fighting the ultimate losing battle to hold back the visible effects of ageing.
I wondered whether we are having a rougher ride on this score than previous generations, but a quick delve back into history revealed that the history of the older woman is a truly a horrible one.
Menopause and madness have been linked for centuries, and menopausal women have been portrayed as witches throughout time. In fact, it’s the dominant stereotype. I am such a busybody and know-all these days, I can sort of see how this happened. Women over 50 know stuff. We know what we want and mostly we know how to get it. Which means we’re scary. But burning us at the stake was a bit over the top.
“Sometimes invisible is good. I can nip into the shops with my slippers on and no one notices. No one even sees. If I was tempted to shoplift a frozen chicken, I’d be well placed to do so.”
The horrible history of the menopause goes some way to explaining why getting older is such a challenge for women’s self-esteem and body image and why for thousands of years we have found the process of ageing profoundly difficult to come to terms with. It’s nothing new.
What has changed is the way we dress. My own grandmothers always seemed old. Granted, I was young and they were old, but they seemed to dress as old ladies from their 50s onwards. I certainly didn’t remember either my mother or my grandmothers wearing anything remotely stand-out, or even fashionable once they reached ‘a certain age’.
Today, many of us are wearing high-viz red hair and attention-seeking clothes which mean we are refusing to be invisible, making sure we stand out, or simply dressing fashionably well into our older age. Perhaps before my generation of Baby Boomers there was a distinct uniform of old age and it’s one we as a generation are refusing to adopt, on the basis that if you dress old you must actually be old.
For that reason, clothes aren’t a side issue in ageing. The grey revolution is nowhere more evident than in the way older people are dressing. Women over 50 now spend nearly £3 billion a year on clothes – which is nearly half of all fashion purchases in the UK. It’s as if they are wearing signs saying Made You Look.
The Classic range at M&S (which is, I guess, code for the old lady section) looks deserted in every sense. Older women are refusing to be invisible in the way previous generations were. We are coming out. Literally. It feels as though women of over 50 are expressing their liberation from the stigma of old age through their choice of clothes.
But wait – it’s more complicated than that. This continuing struggle with the ageing process isn’t making us any happier. There is now a great deal of evidence that, despite all the liberation and changes for middle aged and elderly women, we are very unhappy with our body image.
Until recently all the body image and eating disorder research has focused almost exclusively on younger, adolescent or college-aged populations, but there has been persuasive and depressing research on older women and their body image. They found there was a positive relationship between fear of ageing and disordered eating.
Older women have been found to have higher scores of body dissatisfaction than even adolescent girls and are developing as many, if not more, eating disorders. It seems we badly need to find a way of expressing our femininity and personalities without beating ourselves up about our thickening waists, because for us in particular, life is too short.
So let’s not abandon invisibility entirely. Being liberated from looking good is also good. Perhaps we should bring back the battle-axe ‘look’ with serviceable baggy clothes, support stockings and practical hairdos.
After all, sometimes invisible is good. I can nip into the shops with my slippers on and no one notices. No one even sees. If I was tempted to shoplift a frozen chicken, I’d be well placed to do so.
If they saw me at all, people would assume I was harmless, even beyond reproach. Think what good spies we’d make. Private detective work might be a marvellous career opportunity for some of us. We’d just be wafted through security, no problem at all. Give us a tabard and a cleaning trolley and we’d challenge James Bond any time.
Not being looked at can sometimes be good too, so let’s not beat ourselves up if we choose the neutral invisibility route – it might well be a positive step for some women who decide that it sets them free from a lot of nonsense and bother and that is holding them up and wearing them out. Fine. Just fine, and some days I do just that.
Nothing about ageing is simple, but the point is we have the choice. Perhaps for the first time in history, women of a certain age can (if they want to) use fashion to express their vibrancy, their zest for life and their newfound confidence in who they are. They don’t have to apologise for being older; instead they can flaunt it.
Dressing to be noticed is an important part of our ‘coming out’ and a not unimportant part of the grey pride movement, whatever that becomes, but the point is it’s about us, the new us. If we want to buy for invisibility and comfort that’s fine, too. It’s about being confident in our own skin and confident in the way we present ourselves to the world. And that marks something of a revolution.
Illustrations by Hannah Carmichael
It’s official, old people are taking over the world.
We’re everywhere like a rash of adolescents with liver spots and more time on our hands. The over 60s are now the fastest growing section of society and the BBC have just announced that their average viewer is aged 61. But wait – where are all the over 60s presenters and news readers? Where are the oldies in dramas on TV dating, still holding down the day job and dancing in the kitchen to Ed Sheeran? And don’t even get me started on the lack of older women in those roles. OK so Mary Berry is the new pin up – hurrah and double hurrah, but on the whole age discrimination is alive and well. A survey this week revealed that almost half of the over 50s feel that they are overlooked for promotion, ignored in shops, and by other drivers or bartenders on a regular basis. The world is simply not keeping up with the fast changes amongst the older generation. The stereotypes are seriously out of date. We are no longer knitting nanas but more likely to be shopping in Zara and still at work well into our 60s, than at home watching Countdown, going to a whist drive or making tray bakes for the W.I. Get with the programme please everyone.
It’s weird isn’t it – getting old is the one thing that all of us will do (with luck) and yet it’s the one club no one actively wants to belong to. All of us are surely trainee old people – and yet even in our 50s and 60s many of us are in denial rather than in preparation for our last life phase when we will be less mobile and less independent than at any other time of our lives. Now that we are all potentially living so much longer (our life expectancy on average rises by 5 hours a day in the UK) we might all usefully think about how to make the last phase of our lives the best – when our hip replacements kick in and little by little most of the things we love doing are either exhausting, impractical or impossible and our friends start to fall of the perch one by one. Because being properly old is still no party for most of us. We – the Baby Boomers – are now entering that stage of our lives and for the generation that invented sex and drugs and rock and roll the transition is going to possibly be the cruelest.
There are genuinely things we can do to prepare for this last tricky phase of old age and I’m not talking about pensions, which since I am caught in the pensions gap, is a sore point, and in any case it’s all a bit late for that now I’d have to be stashing away tens of thousands every year to make up for the state pension being put back as far as it has been for me and my contemporaries. There were protests but honestly I can’t believe how long some of us are having to wait for the pensions that we assumed we were going to get at 60.
According to the very brilliant Sir Muir Gray who is a leading and distinguished physician on the effects of old age (amongst other things) and has written some fabulous books on ageing– ‘Sod 60’, ‘Sod 70’ and now ‘Sod Sitting get Moving’ – exercise is by far the best training we can do. When he says exercise he means serious stuff in serious amounts. Men, he says, should be doing at least the number of press-ups per day as their age, women should ideally do weightlifting and he recommends upping your exercise every year. The older you get the more activity you need to do in order to hold back the effects of ageing, or even reverse them.
The biggest danger for older people health wise is not tripping over in the snow, or catching the flu but sitting down. And we all know how much the old like a nice sit down and a cup of tea. The worst thing you can do for an older person therefore is to offer them a seat on the tube or treat them to a nice run out to a Toby carvery. Exercise he says is the wonder drug to combat the effects of ageing. This is the training we need to be doing. It’s not easy, and I for one now look like I am raising the alarm rather than jogging if I run round the block, and my cycling trousers with undercarriage nappy mean that I very much hope that my new found invisibility as an older woman does actually kick in. Alas I invariably meet everyone I know in Waitrose on such occasions. Such is life.
Exercise then is what we need to do, and maybe we trainee oldies in our 60s and 70s need to make this happen for the people who are housebound and in care homes. If there was one health campaign worth doing it might be for us all to take over church halls and run exercise classes for the old. It’s happening in Denmark already wouldn’t you know. ‘The Move it or Lose it’ movement with classes for seated exercise is a brilliant initiative too. And maybe for us the 60 somethings it’s win win as we will be getting fitter at the same time.
I’m now getting to the age where my bucket list is my to-do list, so when the chance to go to Finnish Lapland came along it was too good to miss.
Lapland isn’t a country, but describes the bits of Scandinavia and Russia that lie within the Arctic Circle. All I knew for sure was it was going to be cold, as in very. Armed with a suitcase of clothing that made me look like a lagged boiler, I made off for five days.
This region of Finland (Inari) has three times more reindeer than people and only half a person per square km. Hour after hour of ice-packed roads intersecting snow forests, with infrequent truck stops and road signs to places that look like bad Scrabble hands: it was all adding up to properly remote.
We arrived in the tiny ski resort of Saariselkä, easily the most northerly international ski resort in Finland and only 30km from the Russian border.
The town is covered in snow and compacted ice. Toboggans are, therefore, the easiest way to transport stuff around, and there’s a vending machine selling them for two euros at the supermarket, which makes a nice change from the bags for life routine.
Lapland is big on cross-country skiing – all those forest trails and wide open spaces mean the Finns have got it down to a fine art. The skis are longer and thinner than downhill ones and using them doesn’t involve hurling yourself down mountains at 80 miles an hour.
There were quite a few other Brits in their dotage at ski school on the first morning, including Sandra who came back from a downhill skiing holiday in Austria last year in a neck brace and was determined to master cross country instead. She and I inched our way round the baby circuit like giraffes with poles strapped on our feet and were beginning to feel quite confident until we were marched over the road to the beginning of the trail proper.
Needless to say, even cross country involves slopes and given that neither of us had mastered stopping, our first launch off ended in (harmless) carnage. We went back to the baby circuit and consolidated but I realised that, as a control freak, skiing full stop is not for me. I have now officially ticked it off my to-do list.
Snowmobiles are the best way to get around this part of the world and so we spent a lot of time whizzing about in forests at speeds of up to 35km/h in our thermal suits and helmets, like Deliveroo riders in convoy. I noticed the trees looked weirdly small and oddly proportioned, until I realised that the snow was so high up their trunks that we were just seeing the top third of them. That’s a lot of snow.
In late January, the daylight hours were still challenging – the light started to go at 4.30pm and dark lasted till 9.30 the next morning. Our hotel Holiday Club Spa hotel had a pool, spa and sauna, but the evenings could feel long, particularly with no English TV in the rooms. I did have a photo of two men fishing which lit up, but that was the total sum of in-room entertainment. Which is where searching for the northern lights comes in.
“I put so many layers of clothes on that bending any limbs was virtually impossible. Have you ever tried to open your phone wearing an oven glove on each hand? Not a good look.”
From the resort you can take the Aurora Walk, which is well signposted and often candle-lit, to the top of the hill where there’s a platform looking due north and a log burning stove and shelter for when you are hanging around waiting for the clouds to clear. The cabin was full of people looking frankly forlorn and about to give up, but the magic of the aurora is that it can take you by surprise.
We watched, we scrutinised, we imagined we saw turquoise bits, we thought we might see the odd shaft of light coming out of the horizon. Others told us they were just car headlights, but we weren’t put off.
More stars came out. The cloud seemed to move away. People started to set up their cameras on tripods as this is the best way to see it taking shape… Yes, there were definitely some shafts of light; yes, there were shades of pale blue.
People came out of the cabin and started to get excited. We turned back towards the town feeling pleased we had seen something but secretly disappointed it hadn’t amounted to all that much. Then on the walk back to town in a clearing with little light pollution, it all started to happen in a big way. Great swirls of white and then blue light chasing over the sky in all directions, shafts of light turning into swirls, and bright turquoise curtains. It is magical; there is no other word for it. Like the best ever firework display but silent, more beautiful and humbling.
The cross country dunces were given the option of snow shoeing the next day. All we needed was a 10-minute demonstration of how to trail-blaze into virgin snow, and hey presto, off we went, and to add to our fun the sun came out. I loved it, and have discovered the winter sport for me.
The ‘shoes’ strap on to your own boots and are hinged at the toe so that you can lift your heel. They have a crampon spike on the bottom of the hinge, so if you feel you are going to slip then you can stick the crampon blade into the snow and march up or down any incline. Fantastic. We met snow shoers who were off for the day, a picnic in their rucksack, a map and some wood to make fire – how marvellous is that?
In the afternoon we took a husky ride. The dogs were all harnessed up and ready to go. When I say ready to go, I mean they were all tied up to one another and then to a tree like marathon runners on their starting positions, pulling at the rope like coiled springs.
Apparently in December, when the females are on heat, they have to put them all on the front sleighs because the males are desperate to get to them – so if you go at that time of year you may actually become airborne. Just saying. They don’t hang about – and I wondered how many husky power my Volvo at home is. Not as many as you’d think, I reckon.
We drove an hour even further north to the huge Inari lake and the Sami museum, which tells you everything you need to know about the indigenous Sami people who you see round town in brightly coloured traditional dress with hats like jesters and shoes made of reindeer fur. What a hostile environment they have survived in against all odds.
The lake shore is littered with summer houses for town dwelling Finns who come here in the long summer and swim and sail in the lake. If you’re lucky, here you can see a double aurora, which is the northern lights reflected in the water of the lake. That must be quite something.
We decamped after three nights to the Muokta Lodge, a remote hotel with log cabins (all with individual saunas) and aurora cabins, glass ceilinged for maximum viewing at night and an alarm service to alert you if the lights come out. The whole place was Finnish design at its best, with a magical soft candle-lit reception and restaurant area, with views over the snow and trees looking out at what felt like 360-degree Ikea posters.
After dinner they run aurora safaris, and this time the temperatures had dropped to -25°C. We struggled into our thermal suits with more layers underneath than seemed possible and sat in sleighs pulled by snowmobiles.
We were even tucked in by our guides with reindeer hides. It was so cold my nostril hair froze. Oh yes: that’s a weird feeling I can tell you. Trees thick with ice sparkled in the headlights of the snowmobiles like cheap Christmas cards.
After an hour’s drive to a clearing we got out and set up camp in wait for the lights. Our guide lit a huge fire in the snow – a skill to behold – and we warmed up drinking hot berry juice. Sadly the lights didn’t co-operate and so, disappointed but windswept, we went to bed.
You can’t come to Lapland and not go in a sleigh drawn by reindeer; I mean it wouldn’t be polite… Once again the convoy of snowmobiles took us out to the reindeer farm where the creatures were waiting to give us a ride. Our guide Jani was the size of a phone box. I don’t think I have ever seen such a great solid hulk of a wonderful man; I nicknamed him Meatball. He was pulling my sleigh. In more ways than one, I can tell you.
The reindeer were a lazy if cuddly lot, speeding up only for the last 30 seconds in order to get to their reward food at the end. It was like the gentlest, prettiest Disney ride for the under-fives ever.
The last chance to see the northern lights inevitably came around and there was a great deal of cloud cover. Temperatures were lower than ever and I put so many layers of clothes on that bending any limbs was virtually impossible.
Have you ever tried to open your phone wearing an oven glove on each hand? Not a good look. I came to the conclusion that a romantic break in Finland at this time of year would involve bringing your own romance; pulling in this outfit would not be easy.
We set up what they called an Aurora Camp – and despite the lack of aurora it was possibly my favourite night out in the snow. We spent the evening in a Finnish traditional hut with an open fire in the middle, toasting marshmallows, drinking hot berry juice and feeling like explorers at the North Pole.
British winters will never feel cold again.
I’ve been interviewing a lot of celebrities recently about growing old, for a new TV series I’m writing. It’s under wraps and all that, but what immediately strikes me is how much I am loving their company.
There’s an authenticity about older people which is immediately both unusual and attractive. What’s more, they’re entirely without inhibitions and nothing is off limits. Which is another way of saying they are hilarious.
They simply don’t care what people think of them anymore. They’re utterly up for pretty much anything you throw at them, and therefore qualify for the collective noun ‘Game Old Things’ big time.
Suddenly their guards are down, pretensions are abandoned and they are simply themselves. Which is ironic since, if someone under 30 were to be placed next them at, say, a wedding, their little hearts would sink in anticipation of being bored to actual death. That’s how bad the image of old age is. It’s full of negativity, need, and loneliness infused with a distinct whiff of cabbage.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in the interviews and, among other things, talked about sex and relationships. The over-60s are the first generation to have had free access to both free love and the pill and so it won’t surprise you to know the divorce rate is growing faster in this age range than in any other, and also that they are catching more STIs than anyone else now.
Perhaps a combination of dating for the first time in 40 years and not really taking ‘safe’ sex too seriously means that the oldies are finding themselves in the STI clinic for the first time in their lives. I would love to be a fly on the waiting room wall when young people walk in and presumably find the place stacked out with people old enough to be their grandparents.
I’d love to think that the series might be a tiny showcase of older people at their most entertaining, and that this might shift young people’s attitudes to us a teeny bit. When they see us holding up the queue in the supermarket counting out our change, or trying to find our reading glasses when they are on our head, perhaps they will remember what good company we often are.
I hope too that the young might remember we still have sex drives like they do – albeit littered with practical problems, not least with the docking procedure which, as George Burns said, is like “trying to shoot pool with a rope”.
Perhaps they will stop writing us off as useless and without relevance. We are, after all, the same as them but with hips that set off the security alarm at airports, and hair that has migrated from all the original places and started sprouting out of our chins, ears and nostrils.
“We’re all enjoying the Indian summer of late middle age or early old age while we can, rather than planning for when it comes to an end and we’re in the Tena Lady and living aids section of Boots.”
The other thing that has struck me during these interviews is that all the celebrities I have been filming are by definition still working in some shape or form, and I do wonder whether retaining a role at work does contribute enormously to us all feeling young. It helps us still to be needed, still valued, and ideally still paid which obviously is the best way to feel valued of all.
Yet another reason for the old to be in work rather than retiring, albeit part time and doing something they really enjoy. I’m noticing more and more that supermarkets and DIY stores are employing older people and the truth is that they know stuff. Ask them a question about rawl plugs and guess what, they know the answer… marvellous.
Of course, the big problem with old age is that not only does it lead with utter certainty to the great big Departure Lounge in the sky, but for most of us the last frail years will be very challenging.
None of us, including the celebrities I’ve been interviewing, seem to have much of a plan on this front. We’re all enjoying the Indian summer of late middle age or early old age while we can, rather than planning for when it comes to an end and we’re in the Tena Lady and living aids section of Boots.
They don’t want to think about it. Neither do I really. I mean, what can I do to prepare for it apart from try to weigh up whether I will have enough money (who knows?), or think about how I am going to manage when I can no longer drive and I live in rural Oxfordshire without a bus that passes through the village any more.
The answers are a bit vague. I am sure that my two lovely daughters won’t have time to look after me; why would they? Or should they? And the old man will do his best but housework is not his strong suit and there’s only so many things you can do with sausages.
Perhaps there is an argument for retirement classes to make a comeback. In the old days when it was the norm for everyone to retire at 65, people were routinely offered classes in gardening, woodwork and the kind of leisure activities deemed suitable for people with dodgy knees.
These days it would be much more useful for us to be retrained in a new career – whether that’s manning the DIY shop, making some money by doing things we enjoy and are good at, or teaching younger people to do some of the things which are dying out.
Judging by the hilarious conversations I’ve had making this new series, the entertainment business seems like it might be an excellent platform for us oldies to relaunch ourselves on. I have a feeling that there will be a spate of new standup comedians who start in their 60s and beyond. Perhaps they will be called sitting down comedians.
I spent four days in Switzerland last month doing a digital detox and loved the effects of it.
I marvelled at my ability to live without my iPhone, looked pityingly on passers-by who were walking and texting at the same time, as well as hotel guests eating breakfast while clearing emails and cleared my head. I felt positively superior, cleansed and chilled. I vowed not to look at my inbox after 6pm ever again.
Two weeks later I’m pretty much back where I started. I know it’s hideously bad for me, but after a couple of hours yesterday of trying to renew domains which I had ignored for months but had to be done, along with the inevitable hell of lost passwords, mis-saved new passwords, and forgotten user names I find it is 6pm and I haven’t actually achieved anything I want to at all.
Technology simply eats up my time, and before I know it I have been sitting at my desk for 4 hours, and I thought it was all supposed to speed our lives up. Because everything I do is now online I’m now travel agent, accountant, secretary and banker before I start doing any actual work.
Time saving? I’m not sure.
Yet another report on ageing with another recipe for slowing down the ageing process has pinged into my inbox. This time it was one I took notice of by Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel-prize-winning biologist, who is looking at the all important telomeres which stretch at the end of the chromosomes and sort of hold them in place. There is now a lot of evidence that with time the ends of the telomeres start to fray and when they do the cells in our body start to become senescent. Once one goes, they all go and no-one really knows what triggers it but there is now some consensus that the telomeres fraying contributes to this. There is a great deal of significance associated with your cells becoming senescent because once they do, they succumb to all the illnesses associated with old age.. so in essence this is what old actually is. One minute you’re zapping around the place as you always have been, and the next your body starts to fight back and tell you that you’re old.
Elizabeth Blackburn has identified several ways in which you can delay your telomeres going ragged on you – firstly more exercise and at least 45 minutes of cardiovascular three times per week, and most importantly stress resilience. Stress has a way of hastening the ageing process like nothing else, she is discovering and so she suggests 12 minutes of yoga chanting a day (you might have known all roads lead to mindfulness), and a positive attitude. Again, bemoaning your bad luck in life will hasten ageing she says. One way of banishing negative thinking she says is to look in the mirror and think positively about yourself. Instead of finding fault with what you see, feel the positive vibes and tell yourself you love what you look like.
Has she ever tried looking in a mirror when you’re over 60?