This post had been updated from last year
I read an article in the New York Times recently, which explained how people over 50 are redefining the expectations of age. It set me thinking because by the end of this coming year I will be celebrating my 55th birthday and my partner just turned 61. Neither of us feels ‘that old’. We have our plans and our dreams to be 50 something’s who intend to live. Yet, with mortality knocking on our door and unfair generalisations and stereotypes still very present. What principles should I choose to live the second half of my life?
The Cruel definitions of Woman
I have struggled to navigate through the ageing process backwaters, particularly when I see how women are defined as they grow older. In general, society considers ageing as something to fight against. The beauty industry is geared to keeping you looking young and if that doesn’t work then Photoshop will do it for you. There is the juxtaposition of women over 50, glorified for their amazing youthful looks, versus the cruel comments directed at women, who have apparently failed in the ageing process and vile fun made of those who sought to fight the ageing process with plastic surgery. I struggle to understand what a woman is supposed to look like at a certain age and who determines the definition?
The Unfair Definitions of Age
There are many unfair definitions that go beyond appearance directed at the elderly in general. They can be considered as resistant to change or mostly unhappy and grumpy. My personal experience suggests age discrimination is subtle and starts early. Last year, I suffered a period of work-related stress. In part brought on by age-related expectation. My once beloved profession has an underlying attitude that the older you are the less effective and commercially attractive you become. I felt contained by an increasingly rigid set of criteria and I broke. A good friend of mine in her 50’s recently applied for a new administration position. On the back of written communication from the potential employer was a scribbled note that this position was not for anyone over 53. The workplace is increasingly unkind to those who reach their fifties.
The Value of Elders
Western society seems to keep silent and turn a blind eye to the discrimination faced by the aged. I wonder if we truly value the experience of a rich, generous life lived with all its complexities or is that precious life dismissed too quickly? In the last few years, I have been privileged to come to know a few people over the age of 80. Each individual has a vitality and spark that quickly dispels any stereotype. One in particular was Freda. It was her mischievous grin that caught my attention. On the outside she was a bent, wizen, old woman, who needed a walking frame. Yet her mind and soul were sharp and alive. She was quick to invite me round to ‘see her place’. As we spend an hour in each other’s company she began to tell me some of her life’s story. Even in the short time she had to tell me, it was one of courage, compassion and determination. This small shriveled, speck of women, once drove food lorries and supplies into Poland during the early eighties when the country was under the heavy grip of communism. A precious gift, squeezed into 80+ years and soon to be lost? How could this well lived life inspire me?
How to define a Life Lived Well?
I contemplated this question, as I attended the funeral of one elder, who I considered a friend. First, I stared at the bright, fresh-faced sailor with a full life ahead of him look out at me from an aged photograph. Then I looked at the flag-draped wooden box in which he now lay having lived his eighty-plus years. Was this life so richly lived and over in a breath to disappear from memory? No, I came to realise the impact a life lived well can have on those touched by its presence. My friend’s interest and kindness were always so valuable, his knowledge always freely shared and his thoughtful care generously given. I am richer for having known him. No his legacy lives on in those he touched. Is this then how to define a life well lived by the impact on others? I am sure those in Poland impacted by the courage of Freda will never be the same. Yet that then begs the question, how should I be living my life, if I take inspiration from these elders, who lived and live well?
Principles to define a well lived life
‘We are such stuff. As dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep’The Tempest Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
None of us knows how much time in this life is gifted to us, so lets make it a glorious one. Here are my suggested for how I want to achieved a well lived life!
- To judge a person not an outward appearance, age, race, sexual orientation, religion, but by their character.
- To accept that ageing is going to happen and embrace the adventure. I suppose for me it is saying my age. I am 53. I came to realise in writing this blog post, that I did indeed find it uncomfortable saying how old I was.
- To remain positive. There are challenges at any stage of life. There will be good and bad days. I am determined with my best will to look for the positives. Perhaps that is worth further thought, what do you think are the positive of life over 50?
- To seek adventures. I want to try new things, learn new things, and meet new people.
- To be selfless. All that life experience means I have something to offer, so I focus with compassion and kindness on others.
- To find joy in small things. Go for slow walks in nature and look. Take pleasure in the sound of birds, wildflowers, the grandeur of trees, the ever-changing weather. Enjoy playing ‘poo sticks’, lying in long grass, jumping in puddles and making tracks in the snow.
- To choose to live lighter. Do I really need all that stuff? Take the opportunity every once in a while to clear out the clutter. How many kitchen utensils do I really need? If I haven’t used or worn something in over a year, do I need it? Could someone else use it?
Thank you for reading this post. I cannot pretend that by writing a post, I am glibly putting to rest the challenges faced as we age, particularly for much later in life. I can only speak from my perspective and point of view, so I would be really interested to know what you think and the challenges and success you have had in your own life.
Some of the images in this post were taken at The Pötzleinsdorfer Schloss Park, in Vienna. It is a place that has inspired my writing.
Check out this piece about feeling the weight of unfair expectation and judgement – Frame Me, Contain Me.