Revisiting 70

As I feel myself emerging from several months of hibernation I came across a piece I wrote five years ago about turning 70.  It made me stop and think about how I now feel having turned 75 earlier this year.  There are differences, some positive and some not so great, but I’m still here, and am starting to feel more like myself again. Thanks for sticking with me through the long silence.

Here’s the piece I wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald five years ago.  I’ll follow up soon with one on turning 75.

On turning 70

I have always wanted to be old. I know it sounds odd but it’s true — and it’s not as unusual as you might think. As a child, I spent a lot time in the company of old people, whom I loved and admired. I also envied them. They were confident, independent, free to choose what they would or wouldn’t do. They had power.

Seventy seemed to be the magic age that opened the door to all this; it called to me as the start of a rich and satisfying stage of life. And so I paid attention to the milestone birthdays — 21, 40, 50 —each time expecting to feel different, more grown up, more complete, but each year I woke on the day feeling just the same. It wasn’t a case of wishing away the years, but rather working slowly and naturally towards something that would reward me.

Then, on my 70th birthday, for the first time ever, I woke with a distinct sense of difference. I’d arrived; something had shifted. Initially, it was disconcerting, like being cut loose, adrift and unsure of what I was supposed to be doing.

It was a pair of high heels that grounded me. One last pair that I’d kept in case I needed them for some special, formal, fashionable event. As I opened the wardrobe, I spotted them tucked away in a corner of the shoe rack — a symbol of the discomfort and restrictions of conformity. In that moment I knew that were I to be invited to something where heels and all that went with them were essential, I would decline the invitation. Out went the shoes — and a whole lot of other things followed.

Getting old is empowering. With the joy of going to bed early with a good book, mindfully occupying the centre of the bed and embracing celibacy, comes a sense of congruence. Seventy feels like a reward for patience and perseverance, and I am determined to make the most of it and of what follows. My relationships with family and friends seem more precious, time more valuable and the joy of books, music, art and the natural world more enriching. But ageing is not for wimps. I struggle with energy, aching joints and moments of memory failure. I tire easily and have very little stamina. When I get down on the floor to retrieve something I’ve dropped, I stay there for a while. I have a look around to see if there is anything else I can usefully do while I’m there, and I reflect ruefully on the days when I could bounce up again with ease. But I accept my limitations at the same time as I embrace my new freedom.

The poet May Sarton wrote at 70 that old age is life-enhancing. “Now I wear the inside person outside and I am more comfortable with myself. In some ways I am younger because I can admit vulnerability, and more innocent because I do not have to pretend.”

Once we live as if we are dying, priorities are thrown into sharp relief.

But I know I’m fortunate. I have always enjoyed solitude, have a home of my own, work that I love, people who love me, and enough money to live modestly in the coming years. Ageing is not so kind to those who are alone and isolated, who struggle for financial survival, seek a place to call home and suffer with poor health.

It’s clear that women do better than men in old age and adapt more easily to living alone. Ageing men tend to seek partners for their old age, while many women relish the independence and freedom of later life. But the worst thing for old people, both women and men, is the relentlessly negative public conversation that predicts penury, isolation, generational conflict, sickness and confinement to a nursing home. Yet figures show that 85 per cent of Australians aged over 80 still live independently at home, enjoying active lives.

We wrinklies are the triumphant end product of a civil society with high standards of education, housing and health care. And we are living proof for young people that ageing can be a time of pleasure, satisfaction, opportunity and yes, even new horizons – something that young people, if they stop to think about it, would aspire to for their own old age.

For me, turning 70 feels like a doorway to the future; a modest, quiet but satisfying future that I can craft to my own liking, within my own means. I’m not alone in this, and for many others, of course, the future signals something more adventurous. Each to her or his own is how people of my age and older are grasping this last and precious gift of time. While acknowledging that others are less fortunate and that as a society we have responsibility to respond to that, we need to talk more about the good life of old age, because young people need to hear something other than gloom and doom. And because it sure beats the alternative.