‘AofA is my favourite place on the internet these days’ Marianne Power, author Help Me – how self-help has not changed my life
Back in December 2015 when the idea was mooted for Advantages of Age in Suzanne Noble’s legendary garden hot tub, we had no idea what it would become. We just felt strongly that we – a group of older women – were being misrepresented by the media.
That ‘old’ was being portrayed as this hideous entity that we didn’t recognise.
Old, we decided, needed to be reclaimed and redefined. We weren’t afraid of looking older, just pissed off with the idea that looking older was something to be repelled at all cost. And that being meant diminished energy levels plus a falling off of our creativity and entrepreneurial spirits.
Suzanne was and is a serial entrepreneur, I was a PR, writer and poet, another of us runs the MA in Screen Acting at one of the top London drama colleges, another was creating websites, and another was a street anthropologist and author. We were aged between 46 and 63. We wanted society to reflect the breadth of our different experiences. We were single, divorced, dating and I’d recently found a Living Apart Together partner. Some of us had children, others didn’t.
Oh and we wanted to include men in this campaign too. Of course. Together, we wanted to sally forth.
By 2017, we’d received Arts Council England funding to put on a series of performances and mini salons around the taboos of ageing – from death to sexuality to style. This culminated in the Flamboyant Forever open-top double-decker bus tour of London which was a phenomenal success. People met and are still friends. There was a lot of strutting in OUTageously colourful outfits. It was wonderful.
And the FB group started up. Which has given us a way to connect to older people all over the world. What I love about the FB group – Advantages of Age – Baby Boomers and Beyond – is how lively and how considerate most people are. At first, not many men joined in. But over the years, many more seem to feel included.
For me what is important and significant is that we are able to have dialogues with each other about uncomfortable subjects. Not always, of course, I am a big supporter of the humour in the group, the proclivities towards rock n’roll, the everyday kindness towards each other and I am proud of the way that conversations can be had about mostly recently for instance, whether we have children or not. And how society treats us as older people if we do not.
One of us who is divorced with four children wrote this within the thread –‘ Love hearing all these thoughts. As someone who always planned to have children (albeit never very keen on anyone else’s!) and went on to have 4, now all in their 20s, without much, if any reflection, I do struggle to understand those who choose not to, so really value this convo as contributing to my understanding. I think it’s really important to understand each other, and so easy for those of us who have chosen the “norm”, or majority, or socially acceptable route to be lazy about that. And I guess that’s where the infuriating comments come from – ignorance and an unwillingness to understand?’
In a society that is now dogged by division and polarisation, it is vital to be able to express ourselves so that others hear us. And I feel that we often do well here. We even managed to have a dialogue about Covid not long ago where the vaccinated and unvaccinated exchanged information rather than insults.
Recently someone posted – you are all very welcome to post what you think would be appropriate to the group which ranges from vintage photos to obituaries to dating and sexuality stories to stories about older people, often inspiring ones – What can you talk about for hours? The responses were wildly, incredibly impressively eclectic in the best way. From academic to down-to-earth, they were riveting in terms of the richness that is in the group. One woman said Thanatophobia, another man said Ending questions with prepositions, another woman said The Plight of Afghan refugees in Sweden and another The Films of Peter Greenaway. I was entranced. Someone suggested we form a human library. Good idea.
Sometimes I post a personal question like – What are you doing tonight? And then I’m amazed at the variety of the activities from dancing at nightclubs to singing in choirs to looking after grandchildren to writing poetry. I really enjoy those snapshots into your lives.
During the lockdowns, it was hard for many of our members and some have been left with long Covid. That is tough. One of our members – Hanja is very much a poster woman for us, 84 and so sprightly in mind and body – is in hospital at the moment and she’s not very well. It’s not Covid but the doctors don’t know what it is yet. She often entertains us with her witty comments and also the articles that she’s written for us, particularly the one about her resilience on her own at 84 in lockdown. Thanks, Hanja and we send you our love and hope that you recover soon.
Death is one of our favourite topics. I know that sounds a bit strange but expanding our vocabulary around death and dying is part of our core ethos. After all, we are alive but we are closer to death than we have ever been. Society is changing but there is still a long way to go – we need to develop our awareness about how to talk to the dying, and if we are dying and ill how we can talk to our family and friends. We know that connection is everything so being able to have good exchanges about death, but also our funerals, our wills etc increases our choices in those areas.
Actress Helen McCrory died this year of cancer at 52. Damien Lewis, her husband led the way – no doubt urged on by her beforehand – in being real in how he talked about her afterwards. Many of us said we were in tears at his and her humour, courage and openness.
“Helen was an even more brilliant person than she was an actress,” the 50-year-old actor wrote in The Sunday Times. “She was a people person, sure. ‘I’m much more interested in who I’m with than where I am,’ she would say, and innately wanted to share. But she also lived by the principle of kindness and generosity. That you put these things out into the world to make it better, to make people feel better.”
Lewis, who wed McCrory in 2007, said he has “never known anyone so consciously spread happiness” and that even on her deathbed, she repeatedly thanked her caregivers. He said she always “over-tipped,” especially taxi drivers and wait staff, a job she once had herself. The actor said McCrory always “made each person she met feel special, as though they were the only person in the room.”
“I’ve never known anyone able to enjoy life as much,” Lewis wrote. “Her ability to be in the present and enjoy the moment was inspirational. Nor was she interested in navel-gazing. No real interest in self-reflection; she believed in looking out, not in. Which is why she was able to turn her light so brightly on others.”
Lewis said their children Manon and Gulliver “have in them the fearlessness, wit, curiosity, talent and beauty of their mother.” He said McCrory told the kids repeatedly, “Don’t be sad, because even though I’m about to snuff it, I’ve lived the life I wanted to.”
The actress also encouraged her husband to move on after her death. Lewis wrote, “Only a couple of weeks ago she said to us from her bed, ‘I want Daddy to have girlfriends, lots of them, you must all love again, love isn’t possessive, but you know, Damian, try at least to get through the funeral without snogging someone.”’
Somehow her spirit seems to encapsulate much of what we aim for in Advantages of Age.
I’ve always said that we are Death, Sex and rock n’roll. We watch Strictly and The Slits.
We care about gardening and still go out for a boogie. We laugh and we are able to be considerate when needed. And campaign too. Most of us feel that Assisted Dying should be made legal now.
A huge heartfelt thank you to all the members in the group and particularly those who contribute by posting, by adding their comments to threads and by caring about this world that we live in. Please do carry on.
Helen McCory declared that she’d lived the life she wanted to. In Advantages of Age, that’s exactly what we’d support you to do. Not in just a way where we are all individuals but also as we are all part of a tribe, a family, a collective, a community. We act for each other as well as for ourselves.
Since we started Advantages of Age, Suzanne and I have gone off in different directions. Suzanne has started nestful which helps to house like-minded people in houses/flats/homes owned by the Over-50s. She’s also created Startup For Seniors with Mark Elliott – a much-needed enterprise to support Over-50s into new businesses. Both are flourishing. Suzanne is also out there singing jazz and blues, at the moment in Las Palmas.
Meanwhile, I have been doing a poetry project – Willesden Junction Poets and BeWILDering, a book of our poems about the station – funded by Brent2020, and this year Dance Me To Death, a performance, exhibition and short film where a group of Over-60s non-professional dancers (including me) honoured our beloved dead through ritual and dance. This was funded by Arts Council England.
The reason we come back to Advantages of Age and keep to our mission of a revolution for older people is that we are both living the lives we want to. We passionately want this for all our members too.
Wishing you a wonderfully nourished and fruitful 2022.