There’s a great quote from the 19th-century French master of the aphorism, Jules Renard: “It is not a question of how old you are, but a question of how you are old.” I love this idea. None of us should let age get in the way of living.
Of course, there’s a weird paradox to ageing. There are so many negative images and expectations surrounding it: older people are perceived to be frail, vulnerable, confused and isolated. But that’s other people: it’s never about us. Is that how you see yourself? That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
Surveys consistently find that around 13% of older people consider themselves to be lonely – but almost three times that number believe loneliness is a significant problem for older people. What can we conclude from this? That an older person is someone your age who isn’t you.
But at the real heart of the paradox is the fact that, for all our negative impressions of growing older, it’s actually when we are at our most contented, forgiving and reflective. Studies show that our happiness levels at 80 are the same as those of your average 20-year-old – probably because we realise just how precious every moment is. So in the words of Mary Oliver, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Maureen Gaffney writes about some of the issues surrounding our perception of ageing in her book Your One Wild and Precious Life, the title of which is taken from Oliver’s poem The Summer Day. Her message is that age has at least as many rewards and compensations as youth, if only we conditioned ourselves to embrace them. And I think the same is true with midlife too. Why can’t we spring into it with the excitement it deserves?
I know I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: you are as young as you feel. And your subjective age – which is what psychologists term this – is a far better predictor of health, function and wellbeing than your chronological age. It will also have a significant effect on how long you live, and the quality of that life.
So I guess we’re back to the idea of ageing well – by which I do not mean, “Ooh, she looks great for her age.” Nor do I mean we must succumb to the endless negative messaging of the mainstream cosmetics industry. That’s why we try so hard at Studio10 to get across the idea of embracing the positives and busting the stereotypes that surround us as women in midlife and beyond.
Think about the positives that ageing brings, which will stay with us the older we get. Most of us will have increased confidence and a stronger sense of self as we head into our fifties. We develop wisdom, and are less likely to accept the hassle and stress that we did when we were younger. We refine our “f***-it list”, which gets longer and longer with every passing year. We worry less about what people think, ditch toxic friendships and focus more on emotionally meaningful experiences with those we love.
And there’s a reason for all of this: changes in our brain structure and chemistry as we age mean that our emotions tend towards the positive rather than the negative. That’s why we look back at our childhood with greater fondness and, as Gaffney says, our thoughts turn “positively inwards”.
In Your One Wild and Precious Life, Gaffney advocates an interesting strategy for ageing that we can start right now. She calls if SOC: select, optimise, compensate. This is how it works: because there are limitations on our time, energy and emotional capital, particularly as we get older, making choices based on our resources will give us a stronger sense of personal control (I don’t know about you, but I feel out of control quite a lot of the time!).
She quotes the Polish American pianist Arthur Rubinstein as an illustration of the SOC strategy at work. When asked how he maintained such a high level of expertise into his eighties, he said that he selected fewer pieces to play; he optimised by practising those pieces more often; and he deliberately slowed his playing speed just before an up-tempo segment, to make it sound faster. Audiences never noticed the difference.
As we age, it can be hard to reconcile our inner reality with what we see in the mirror. It’s important not to dwell on the externals – even though society can make that difficult. You’re as young as you feel. Get out there and live that wild and precious life.