Getting older is an exciting privilege, now more than ever
I feel more confident as I get older. I know more and worry less
These days we often don’t welcome ageing with gratitude or open arms, but I wonder if all that will change after our Covid-19 experiences? Photograph: Rob Wilson jnr
Is there ever a good time to get old? If there is, this probably isn’t it.
Coronavirus hits indiscriminately – they say – but it hits the elderly harder – we know. You know you’re in trouble when doctors are being advised to prioritise those who have a “greater likelihood of survival” (read young and healthy) and “who have more potential years of life” (just read young), as happened in the early stages of the pandemic in Italy.
Last year I turned 50, along with Sesame St, The Brady Bunch, Jennifer Aniston, the human eye transplant and Scooby Doo. Ireland is ageing alongside me. Our population has been steadily getting older since the 1980s. In the last census, over a third of us were over 45, 10 per cent more than in 1986. By 2040 almost a quarter of us will be pensioners.
These days we often don’t welcome ageing with gratitude or open arms, but I wonder if all that will change after our Covid-19 experiences?
I don’t mind getting older. People say you never feel the same thrill of excitement about anything at 50 as you did at 20 but that’s a load of rubbish. Last year Robert Smith headlined Glastonbury with The Cure and by God, was he delighted about it, standing there on the stage, grinning like a child in a sweet shop as the crowd roared their delight. He’s just turned 61. He’s still excited.
I wasn’t born into big riches, but I was born into great opportunities
I remember the year we arranged a surprise birthday party for my granny. The week before, my mother decided to tell her about it, worried it would be too much of a shock for her on the night. (Plus, relations were about to start arriving from England and the US – she definitely would have noticed them rocking up to her spare room.)
Granny was gobsmacked with delight. But later that night my mother could hear her agitatedly moving around in the bedroom. “Are you all right?” she called out. “I can’t sleep,” said granny. “I’m too excited. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Granny was 90. So you could live for nine decades and the best thing to happen might still be ahead of you.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t achieve what society deems big goals – marriage and children – that I feel excited about everything in life that’s still in front of me, yes, even at 50. I’m lucky. I wasn’t born into big riches, but I was born into great opportunities, the sort that weren’t available to my mother or granny. I can travel the world on a whim, change jobs when I feel like it, go back to college if I want. I can volunteer, mentor, learn First Aid or the tuba, become an overnight Instagram sensation. Okay, that last one might be a bit tricky but basically, I don’t feel my best years are over, I feel they’re still to come.
I’ll concede failing health as we age – bits that don’t work as well as they used to. Or bits that have totally given up the ghost. I reached 50 with one less hip than I started with, no gall bladder and a pituitary gland that only works with medication. But I feel more confident as I get older. I know more and worry less.
I have no bother getting hugely excited about all sorts of things these days, in a way that I never did when I was in my 20s. Back then I was too busy appearing nonchalant, trying to cultivate a sort of “seen it all before” cool, holding myself back, worried about what other people would think. Now I don’t care what they think because I’m too busy thinking myself.
Things wear out – hips, friendships, bathroom floorboards over a leaking pipe. It’s all very painful at the time, but I’ve discovered that most things can be replaced
Grey hair is in now. Wearing reading glasses on a chain is a style statement. Flat “old lady” sandals are on the catwalks, thanks to Birkenstock, and nobody need ever dress in elasticated polyester slacks again. Gardening is the latest hot activity and “grow your own” has become a lifestyle choice for millennials, (the market for planting fruit and vegetables grew from €16 milllion in 2011 to €19 million last year).
Bingo is back, fuelled by the internet, new drive-in venues and – during coronavirus – pottering around on balconies.
But for all that, 50 is not – as I read somewhere recently – the new 30. It’s not even the new 40. And while staying in is definitely the new going out, you can’t swap ages around like that. Because, despite what the birthday cards might say, age is not just a number. It’s also a set of ailments. Eyesight fades, joints get creakier, limbs get less limber.
So yes, there are downsides. I’m wearing high heels less, eating Bran Flakes more. Hangovers can start while I’m still out and last year I knew more people who died than were born. Men – to borrow WB Yeats’s quote to Maud Gonne – no longer catch their breath when I am passing. Unless they’re choking on something (Dysphagia, difficulty swallowing, also gets more common with age.)
Things wear out – hips, friendships, bathroom floorboards over a leaking pipe. It’s all very painful at the time, but I’ve discovered that most things can be replaced. Through my life I’ve had chronic illnesses, great friendships, heartbreak, major surgery and wet rot. And they’ve all taught me valuable lessons.
We all get sick. Some of us get very sick and, like many other things in life, it might not seem fair and it might not seem right, and it might not be much of a laugh. But nobody said it would be fair, things often aren’t right, and I’ve found that with the right people around me, I’m still able to laugh.
I’m looking forward to the next 50 years. I might not be in great shape by the end of it but, in fairness, I’m hardly in great shape now, so no matter
I’ve had a lot of surgery and spent half of the last decade on crutches. So I put stuff off and delayed making decisions, about big things like changing jobs and moving house, as I waited for my life to go “back to normal”. Eventually I realised this was my normal and just got on with it. As we all teeter on the edge of “the new normal”, whatever that may turn out to be, it’s important to realise that you can’t always wait for two good legs to walk on. Sometimes you just have to be able to get around on one.
I’ve applied the same attitude to heartbreak as I have to chronic illness. And fantastic friendships have helped me get through both of them. But wet rot is a killer and every so often you just have to face up to the fact that it’s time to call in the professionals.
I think my friend Maureen has the best attitude to life. She’s mapped it out in stages and has travelled, worked, married, had a family and next – when her son has grown up and she retires – she plans to work for charities abroad, helping people. I like this approach. Life shouldn’t be seen as one chunk of time that we watch in a rear-view mirror, grieving the milestones as they pass. Instead we could see life in phases, each one with something new to offer so we’re always looking forward to the next possibility, rather than back to the last memory.
I’m looking forward to the next 50 years. I might not be in great shape by the end of it but, in fairness, I’m hardly in great shape now, so no matter. And I might not see another 50 years of course, many of us won’t, some of us won’t even be around for the end of this one, but I’ll happily take whatever I’m given.
Last year I turned 50. I remember being 25 and I remember being five and I remember the excitement of being 9, going on 10. All of these ages live inside me. One day, I hope, I’ll be 90 and still getting excited about parties, like my granny.
If 40 is the old age of youth, then 50 is the youth of old age. So I’m back in my youth, only now, with everything I’ve learned, the second time around is much better.