Learning from the (even) older

It was the tea trolley that did it. We’re talking reproduction brass wheels and marble effect Formica; in other words the full Hyacinth Bucket model. Taking it out of my car and dumping it in the charity shop, its demise marked the end of an era.

My dear Aunty Dorothy just passed away and, as she never married, my cousin and I find ourselves clearing her house. Cupboard after cupboard, layer after layer, of old lady paraphernalia. Padded coat hangers, unopened boxes of personalised hankies, tea towels from Prestatyn, 4711 Cologne and packets of ginger nut biscuits by the dozen.

Evidence of thrift is everywhere: drawers and cupboards full of used string, rinsed out margarine pots, recycled gift wrapping and thousands of plastic bags – all badges of her longstanding need to recycle, make do, mend and save unnecessary expense.

She’d experienced real need. She lived through WWII; she saw two brothers including my father go off to war and not return for six years; she saw neighbours’ houses blown away and reduced to rubble overnight, and did her homework by candlelight in the shelter at the bottom of the garden. In short, she’d experienced much more hardship than my generation, and here in her home it was evident everywhere.

She was the youngest daughter of six and so, as was expected of her, she remained at home until her parents died in her careful and loving care. This was her role in life. She was active in the church, her funeral was full to bursting, and she was loved and treasured by many. Far from being surplus to requirements, she will be hugely missed by many. Suddenly her generation are going fast, disappearing for ever and I, for one, lament that hugely.

Dorothy still managed to get joy out of the simplest of things in life – even a stroll up the road to Sainsbury’s with her walking aid would be enough for her to have had what she would describe as a good day.

Of course, it leaves me that much nearer the ultimate cliff edge, no longer second in line but first in line to peg it myself, but it is her generation’s wisdom and love which I will miss the most.

She was so positive about life – again perhaps born of the suffering during the war that she had to endure. Her love of the outdoors, her sheer happiness at some sweet peas or a new outfit I showed her; a meal I had prepared for her would give her visible delight. In later life we would walk heathery moors and deserted beaches and talk.

I realised Dorothy took more pleasure in life than anyone else I had ever met. A run out into the country, a walk in the park, a chat on the phone – all of them evidently gave her joy. And it is this joy in life and sense that she was, as she always put it, so lucky which I admired so much.  What a marvellous lesson to learn; what a fantastically useful attitude to pick up from someone that is.

As we all get older, and indeed as she got older and her horizons and mobility shrank, she still managed to get joy out of the simplest of things in life – even a stroll up the road to Sainsbury’s with her walking aid would be enough for her to have had what she would describe as a good day. She didn’t need outside stimulus: she had inner peace, inner contentment and integrity which shone out to all of us lucky enough to be around her.

As I grow old myself I try to remember how this optimism, this gratitude stood her in so much stead when the going got really rough, as indeed it did during her final illness. I looked to her as my moral compass, but above all else she was a lesson in contentment. An underestimated and underrated quality today and one that she’d love to think she has passed on to us, the people she loved.

As I edge forward myself to proper old-lady-land I hope I can retain my joy in the ordinary things in life. Perhaps it’s called looking on the bright side. Whatever it is, it saw her through the trials of life very well.

Image by Hannah Carmichael.

This article first appeared on Standard Issue.

The empty nest

The nest is empty. My parents died, and aged aunts and uncles are falling like flies. Even the family pets have pegged it. All of a sudden the family has shrunk and there is no longer a trail of rancid cereal bowls and mascara-stained towels on the floor. The freezer door is always closed properly and no one leaves the immersion heater on.

Life with just the two of us has become easy to the point of slovenly. We have parallel sofas in front of the TV and blob out; we get up later; we don’t have anyone to set an example to and, if we want to, we can shag on the landing. As if.


Perhaps I should get a gerbil, or a gorgeous cocker spaniel puppy. I won’t put it in a pram or anything, but, subconsciously, I’ll want to. I’ve become one of those old ladies on the bus who tell young mums to “Enjoy it while you can, before you know it they will be grown up and gone.”

I distinctly remember older women doing that to me and feeling like I might smack them to remind them how knackering being a mother of two small children actually is as clearly they had forgotten. They had, and I have, but it doesn’t make the gap left behind any easier.

Everything’s changing. The girls have left home. I mean properly left home as in don’t come home at the end of term to tip out their washing or demand new shoes.

On top of that, we’ve downsized, and down-migrated south to be nearer them. Having lived so far north we might as well have been in the Arctic Circle, it’s been a shock to the system, particularly in terms of the cost of everything. In Northumberland houses are so much cheaper they are effectively buy one get one free, and it was easier to live well.

Here, in Oxfordshire – OMG, it feels like it’s Middle Class Mission Control. I go into charity shops and it’s so upmarket I have to ask whether it is a charity shop or not. There is an entire Farrow and Ball shop since this is the middle-class label of choice.

All this adds up to a lot of changes, huge seismic ones. Life as a late middle-ager is anything but static. All the familiar daily routines have gone – the school run, teatime in front of Neighbours, parents’ evenings, bedtime stories – and they’ve left in their wake a lot of daily decisions.

“Public policy surely needs to wake up to the new generation of older women who are neither in their youthful childrearing years, nor frail and elderly, but need more support than they are currently getting.”

I need to make it all up again as I go along; it feels like there’s no template. Not even the equivalent of a National Childbirth Trust to join to compare notes with fellow travellers. I might start one of those: people round here would be mad enough and wealthy enough to pay through the nose for a course of classes in midlife crisis. Everything has to be reconsidered and reordered and rebooted.

With so many of us heading for old age and living longer, the nature of families in general is changing too. There will be more generations alive at once and fewer siblings, so most families will be more of a beanpole shape. There will be a burden of care at both ends – the kids won’t leave home till later, and the elder generations won’t kick the bucket for ages.

Inevitably the late middle-agers and, in particular, women, are going to cop for most of this. Both our parents and our children are likely to be dependent on us for longer than ever before. Factor in the astronomical cost of childcare and you get some very busy women in their 50s and 60s and beyond. Perhaps this explains why the number of women being treated for alcoholism over 60 has risen by 65 per cent in the last five years. Older women are hitting the bottle.

These demographic changes are already happening. There seem to be almost as many grandparents pushing buggies these days as young mums and dads. In fact, grandparents in middle to late middle age now provide care to an astonishing 40 per cent of families… but interestingly have no rights to take leave to look after grandchildren, and no rights to request flexible work.

Public policy surely needs to wake up to the new generation of older women who are neither in their youthful childrearing years, nor frail and elderly, but need more support than they are currently getting – particularly as most of them now need to still earn a living well into their 60s.

The cushion of the family is also already falling away for many old people, and is exacerbated by the divorce rate. One in three of all marriages are now remarriages. And stepfamilies are the fastest growing family form in Britain, accounting for one in 10 of all families.

Evidently still being married to the father of your children after 27 years like I am makes me something of a novelty. The trend for living alone rather than sticking it out with a long-term relationship is set to continue since the number of single-parent families is also growing, and is expected to rise by 31 per cent from 2013 to 2033 to just over 412,000. Old age then looks set to involve more and more one person households.

It’s another example of the Baby Boomers – and I include myself in that category – having brought about social changes that will have a negative knock-on effect on older age. But then the Baby Boomers don’t do old. They are refusing to get old. For now at least. But when it does catch up with them they are going to have a terrible shock.

It’ll take more than afternoons in front of Poirot repeats to keep us happy.

Images by Hannah Carmichael.

Getting in touch with my inner Heidi

As I’ve grown older, my need for the great outdoors has increased. I’d now rather unblock a drain than sit at my computer all day. I mean I don’t mind online shopping, I’m not weird or anything, but all the everyday faffing involved in finding new house insurance, re-taxing the car and dealing with email traffic is not what I want to be doing. As a result, I now seize every opportunity for outdoor fun.

I’ve just had the ultimate outdoor experience in the Alps and released my inner Heidi in the enchanting Val Gardena area of the Dolomites.

I’ve always wanted to go to the Alps when all the skiers have bogged off home and the snow has melted to reveal wild flowers, hiking trails and pine scented forests. It didn’t disappoint.

For a start, the hikes in these mountains have one huge bonus – you can get the cable car up and start your walk at an altitude of 2,500 metres. All the exhilaration of clearhiking-square mountain air, marmots and muesli packet scenery in full view within 20 minutes and pretty much all flat and downhill for the rest of the day. What is not to adore?

Here’s me wearing an attention-seeking yellow top which was no fashion statement but, let’s face it, in a disaster the helicopter would spot me first.

The Dolomites are a pinky-coloured mountain range in the Southern Tyrol, and until 1919 were part of Austria but were gifted to the Italians after WWI. As a result the region feels more like Austria than Italy and the locals speak a language called Ladin – similar to a mash-up of French, German and Italian – and consider themselves Tyrolean first and Italian second.

It also turns out this was the area where the Von Trapps escaped from the Nazis in The Sound of Music. Consequently the meadows between the peaks were begging to be twirled on à la Julie Andrews. I mean it would be rude not to.

I wish I had the waist for a dirndl. All the staff wear them in this area, and very flattering they are too, pushing you up and over the bodice. But here’s the best thing about them: you tie the apron according to your dating status. Tie on the left and you are available, on the right you’re married, and in the middle you are a bit of both. How clever is that? Never mind about all those searching questions and sizing someone up only to lead to disappointment. How much easier than online dating that is.

The hikes are beautifully signposted for those of us who are rubbish at maps, and in the sunshine the peaks go an unusual pinky colour, owing to the fact they were originally a coral sea bed and were pushed vertically out of the earth 20,000 years ago.

The other joyous part of hiking in the Alps is the mountain huts. Normally they are full of skiers but in summer they’re bedecked with sun loungers, blankets and views to make your jaw drop.tinder

They all have their own signature strudels, schnapps or homemade gin, but I loved the one run by Oscar and his family. Oscar is looking for a wife. Surely she needs to be called Heidi. Here he is using the Alpine equivalent of Tinder but he’s not having much luck so far.

For the rainy days there are cookery courses, yoga, and herbal hikes ending, in my case, with the Paratoni farmhouse where Gemma Insam makes her own amazing food with foraged herbs – homemade butter with rose petals, nasturtiums, nettle crisps and bread infused with wild spinach.

I badly coveted her gingham pinny. Pinny envy is something I am increasingly prone to, along with an involuntary love of anything made of gingham. I have no control over my love of it, in fact. Perhaps I will start the world’s first 12-step programme for gingham addicts.

Apart from the hiking, you can also take electric bikes up the mountain, and if there was ever a good reason to use one, the Alps would surely be it. The truth is ski resorts without the skiing are a fast growing part of the ski resort business.food

In winter too, the non-skier is increasingly well catered for. Many people want to come and experience the snow without throwing themselves down the mountain on a pair of skis. It’s called sanity.

Instead they can take one of the daily guided snowshoe walks, sledge down after supper by moonlight, cross country ski, or just hike out with a stout pair of boots and come back to saunas, yoga and a nice hot bath and an apple strudel. Most hotels offer daily free non-ski activities; make sure your hotel or Garni (B&B) is hooked up to Val Gardena Active Programme.

This article first appeared on Standard Issue in October 2016.