Old – English ald, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch oud and German alt, from an Indo-European root meaning ‘adult’, shared by Latin alere ‘nourish’.
I was writing this piece before AoA – Suzanne Noble and I – went to the Byline Festival in East Sussex at the end of August 2018 where we gave a workshop there around the taboos of getting older. A few women participants – one was 64 – were adamant that they were still young. Which propelled me into action again.
I had an age crescendo myself before I had my 60th birthday. A spike, an emergency, a horror story. My internal waters cascaded. My refusal to grow old imploded, exploded and derailed me as a woman. I’d just got used to being post-menopausal, in other words, non-fecund, not so attractive to men as I thought I should be and then along came 59.
The edge, the precipice, the chasm of no-return. Could I be The Fool?
In the tarot deck, The Fool is the major arcana card, which depicts the young man (it should be a woman, of course) with his knapsack and his dainty step right on the edge of the cliff about to step into the Big Unknown. For me, this is the Thelma and Louise moment, the car over the cliff, the new life or the oblivion.
I decided that I would fulsomely fling myself over that edge and welcome OLD. Such a little adjective with so many fears in its sub-textural bag. So many cultural and societal demons entangled and ugly. The sag, the disappearance of desire, the looming energy loss, the not being seen as a desirable woman, the disappearance in the world of work, the atrophied vagina.
NO, I was not going down that waterfall, that cultural fall into darkness and non-existence. That bleak, bleak mid-winter. I was searching for the summer instead.
First of all, I stopped being so quiet about my age. To anyone I thought might miscalculate in the puella aeternus direction. To younger men. I mean who were 50 and might, at a pinch, think I was the same age them. That all stopped.
And on dating sites where fear reigns. Particularly from women. If you are honest about your age, you will only be visually visited by men at least 10 years older than you. Or a lot younger. That was so dispiriting. I raged against this particular dark night but in the end, I gave up lying.
And then I had a huge 60th birthday party. I went the whole hog. Without the pig. Voewood House in Suffolk was the location. A butterfly house architecturally, it turned into my own emergence as elder. Or as older, as Ashton Applewhite, the activist and author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism, likes to say so acknowledging that wisdom is not integral to the greater age!! We – there were 40 of us staying in the house and another 30 in B&Bs – danced to all that 70s funk. I did a speech about owning my 60th year. I hate the way so often we British only have a party and are silent about the connotations, the feelings, the meaning in our hearts.
There were performances as gifts. And there was a Rites of Passage ritual on the Sunday morning. That was BIG for me. Co-created (oh no one of those contemporary words) by two of my close women’s group friends, I spent an hour in silence with myself, then I was invited to join the rest of the guests who were in the main hall. Slow, heart-opening music was playing and I found myself in the circle of women dancing with them one by one keeping our eyes in deep contact. Sometimes there was an irreverence as with my old school friend – yep, 45 years – Sarah, sometimes a flowering grace and tears as with psychotherapist, Juliet, sometimes a gorgeous acknowledgement of relationship as with my French friend, Isa and on it went, this womanly interweaving.
And then there was the people-tunnel, many feminine hands caressed me through the decades, softness prevailed and then I was hugging someone at the end, which turned into thunderous tears.
My son. And all that signified. OUR huge love. So gorgeous to be in it and realize whom I was with!! And his male friends at his side, also in so many tears; I savoured every watery, heart-split-open moment. This was being in love.
The men appeared and whisked me into the air. The energy changed. Trust, trust, trust. In their hands and care. That masculine/feminine relationship. I surrendered fully to the carrying, to the being carried. Away.
And then the final stage, crossing the threshold to elderdom – there was a distinct lack of peer elders but one or two appeared, one reluctantly – amid candles to acknowledge this new life stage. I spoke quietly.
Old, I was old and fully there. Now I had the rest of my days to inhabit that previously feared place.
Co-founding Advantages of Age when I was 63 – was another way to relax into this BIG declaration. We’re always saying how old we are, literally.
And it’s such a freedom.
Mary Beard, 64, is the high priestess of OLD. In this social media world, in this age-industry world of chasing young, chasing the lack of lines, the super horn, the porn delusion, Mary Beard is in the public eye looking and being proud of looking her age.
And at the forefront of re-claiming OLD in all its glory, in all its positives as opposed to the disease-laden, hideous beast that it is cast so often to be.
She has declared that OLD should be reclaimed, re-appropriated. Very much in the mode of when the gay community took back queer. And the black community took back nigger. And the BDSM community took back perv.
“I’m rather keen for a campaign to do that for old, instead of ‘old’ instantly connoting the hunched old lady and gentleman on the road sign, or the picture that you get on the adverts you get for senior railcards.
I hope by the time I die, old will be something that makes people fill with pride,” she said in the Telegraph.
In the taking back – the shame, the negativity, the fear melts away.
The Gray Panthers in the US are on the same track. An advocacy group that works on all sorts of anti-ageist campaigns – from highlighting forced retirements to what goes on in care homes – they have peppered their name with a little Black Panther/Gray Panther warfare in the name of activism on the age front.
Already in the UK, a third of the population is over 50. In Japan, it’s a quarter. In the US, it’s a third too. We need to find another way with not just the word old but the fears that it evokes and the results of those fears.
David Weiss, assistant professor of socio-medical sciences and psychology at Columbia University’s Aging Center has identified a phenomenon, he calls Age Disassociation.
“As people grow older, they distance themselves from old age. This behavior maintains ageism and the notion that nobody wants to be old. It’s hard to impose a positive meaning of old age in that case, and potentially difficult to counteract negative age stereotypes.”
Can old become groovy? Yes, it can. Janet Street-Porter is on board and recently wrote an article where she declared: “At 71, I don’t see my world as diminishing, quite the reverse. I see nothing but opportunities and challenges ahead.”
At Advantages of Age, we’re promoting the idea that we can be a funky tribe of oldsters if we want to. The Flamboyance Forever Bus Trips – where groups of us dressed up to the nines in jewels, sequins (hot pants, thanks Serena) and colours gave us the opportunity to thoroughly relish our visibility, verve and hilarity. We also talked to each other a lot, new connections were made. In NYC, we did a smaller Flamboyant Forever outing on the subway. 83-year-old purple-haired and head piece-bedecked Topaz Chanteuse came along in all her dazzling glory. We were transfixed by her spirit of fabulousness. And inspired. At a later date, she showed us her tinsel-adorned walker!
This is the way forward. Not necessarily the flamboyance which is fun, but the attitude of putting ourselves out there and not cow-towing to reductionist age industry-influenced negativity.
In fact, the Office for National Statistics reports that older people are more satisfied with their lives than many other groups. I can’t tell you how relaxed I feel now that I am fully out there age-wise, it makes a huge difference to my life.
So let’s start fully re-claiming old in all its magnificence.