Negative stereotypes around growing older are rife. But as Sonia Zhuravlyova reports, a fresh generation is thinking less ‘forever young’ and more ‘ageing joyfully’
It all started in a hot tub. Suzanne Noble, 56, Rose Rouse, 63, and a group of their friends couldn’t fathom why they didn’t see stories about women like them appearing in the media. So they decided to write them themselves.
“The sagging, the invisibility, the no-shagging? We were adamant that this was not us or our lives. We felt gloriously liberated by age and divested of the insecurities and doubts that plagued our younger years. We were five women who were ‘out there’ and ‘on it’ creatively,” says Noble.
Advantages of Age, which they launched in 2016, is now a thriving online community that addresses topics as diverse as sex, internet dating and ageism in the workplace. The women have even secured Arts Council funding to hold events to spread their message – to women, but men too. “It feels like we have tapped into what a lot of people are feeling and struggling with,” says Noble.
“We’ve come out of the punk generation, the hippie generation, these societal changes that were all about individualism. And now we’re struggling with a sort of invisibility that society has thrust on us.”
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Invisibility is something that Noble and co are tackling head on: their latest event saw them travelling up and down the Kings Road in Chelsea in a double-decker bus with an invitation for people dressed as flamboyantly as possible to join them. “We’re giving people the space to be seen, be recognised and be acknowledged,” says Noble.
The UK population has grown older while life expectancy has steadily increased, thanks to improvements in healthcare and lifestyle. This has led to the emergence of a stage of life that happens between retirement and what is considered being ‘old’.
The Office for National Statistics predicts that 25 per cent of the UK population will be aged 65 or over by 2046, compared with 14 per cent in 1976. Girls who were born in 2015 can expect to live four years longer – to about 82 – than women born in 1991. Men can expect to live an average of six years longer.
These demographic shifts present pressing questions: how and where will people live? How will they remain ‘relevant’ in the workplace? How will they spend their retirement?
Increasingly, people are refusing to shuffle off quietly into retirement. From choosing to stay in employment for longer, and attending the University of the Third Age (1,011 branches and counting) to volunteering, older people are channelling their considerable energies back into their communities – and often into the economy as well.
They’re even redefining where they live. Although it took 18 years to realise the project, the Older Women’s Co-Housing group has created its own community in a new purpose-built block of 25 flats in High Barnet, north London.
We’ve come out of the punk generation, the hippie generation, these societal changes that were all about individualism. And now we’re struggling with a sort of invisibility that society has thrust on us
Designed with ageing in mind, the flats have a shared kitchen and garden and are managed by the women themselves. They are based on a model from the Netherlands, where communal living is common, and on research that shows older people remain more active, healthier and less lonely when they live in communities near each other. The women finally moved in at the end of 2016 and the waiting list of those keen to join them is bulging.
The project had met with resistance from planners and local government though, says Maria Brenton, who was instrumental in getting the flats built. “There is a culture of paternalism and ageism, which says ‘we know what you need, dear, and you can put up with it’. What we want is more co-operation. We’ve been instrumental in creating this model of co-housing – but I don’t want us to be the only ones.”
The group would have benefited, Brenton notes, from workshops on negotiating the management and legal aspects of such a scheme, something readily available in the Netherlands. A project called Renegade Generation is yet to launch, but will offer just this – ‘how to’ workshops for those over 50 who want to explore their passions and use a lifetime’s worth of transferable skills in a new set-up.
The aim is to help people plan constructive retirements, and to connect them with age-friendly employers that are actively recruiting and retaining the over-50s.
Because, despite the 2016 government Future of an Ageing Population report acknowledging just how closely entwined the UK’s future economic success is with older workers, challenges in the workplace remain. According to Age UK, older people receive less training and are often paid less.
Perceptions are changing though. “The more we read about older people being active, the more acceptable it will be for people to remain a part of society,” says Age UK’s external affairs manager Mervyn Kohler. “Baby boomers have not seen previous generations grasp at opportunities, they have few good role models – so we need to start developing some positive ones.”
So-called ‘olderpreneurs’ is one place to start. There were 4.6 million self-employed people in the UK at the end of 2015 – up from 3.8 million in 2008. The over-50s now account for 43 per cent of those who start their own businesses. After all, age discrimination doesn’t exist when you are your own boss.
Retirement can also spell reinvention and the fulfilment of long-harboured dreams. One of the 1.87 million people who are aged 50 plus and self-employed is Shashi Aggarwal, 66, from the West Midlands.
She retired 10 years ago but quickly grew bored. “One Christmas, we had an idea – to sell spices and spice blends. Spices and cooking were always my passion,” she says.
The Spice Kitchen, which Aggarwal now runs from home with the help of her son and her husband, proved a success quickly. “Building a business was challenging – I had to learn everything from scratch. But to anyone in a similar position I would say, just do it. What’s the worst that can happen?”
When we use the term anti-ageing, we’re subtly reinforcing the message that ageing is a condition we need to battle
For her son Sanjay, working with his parents has proved a pleasure. “It’s great to have such a purpose and also to see a little fledgling idea grow into a fully functioning business.”
Meanwhile, older people who volunteer contribute £10bn to the economy each year, and charities such as the Royal Voluntary Service are underpinned by those aged 65 and above. In a bid to foster inter-generational conversations, the charity’s ‘mini festival’ GrandFest sees older people sharing skills such as woodturning and embroidery with others.
And, following the example of Japan, the US and Canada, the first nursery in the UK to share the same site as a care home was due to be up and running this autumn. Organisers hope that the project, in south London, will help combat loneliness and isolation in older people, while encouraging children to enjoy their company.
Another young person who is intrigued by issues surrounding ageing is fashion entrepreneur Jacynth Bassett. Struck by the negative experiences of older women including her mum while shopping for clothes, she created an online boutique. The Bias Cut sells beautiful clothes aimed at – and modelled by – older women.
“Many designers and brands don’t want older women wearing their clothes, but older women want to be cool and stylish,” says Bassett. “Fashion schools need to start educating their students. Young people need to realise that older age is something worth understanding and being interested in.”
The internet is a great showcase of the many and diverse lives that older people live. One in four people aged 65 and older are now on social media, from Facebook to the ‘instagrans’ on photo-sharing platform Instagram. Great- grandmother Helen Ruth Van Winkle from Kentucky is an 89-year-old raver known as ‘Baddie Winkle’ who has three million Instagram followers. Professor Lyn Slater, 63, is the face of Spanish clothing brand Mango.
Bolder (be-bolder.com) is on a mission to change perceptions about growing older by sharing inspiring people’s stories. The site, which launched in 2015, is run by friends and former colleagues Dominique Afacan and Helen Cathcart, a writer and photographer respectively.
There is a ‘Gransnet’ – founded by the same team behind Mumsnet – whose buzzing online forums challenge the social assumption that older age is synonymous with gloom and depression. And Sarah Harper, director of the Oxford Institute of Ageing, suggests that people should not be called old until they are seriously frail, dependent and approaching death. People in their 60s, 70s and 80s should simply be considered active adults, she told the Hay festival.
Young people need to realise that older age is something really worth understanding and being interested in
The message seems to be getting through. In the September 2017 issue of US women’s beauty magazine Allure, fronted by 72-year-old Dame Helen Mirren, the glossy magazine resolved to stop using the term ‘anti-ageing’ and called on the beauty industry to do the same. “When we use the term anti-ageing, whether we know it or not, we’re subtly reinforcing the message that ageing is a condition we need to battle,” says editor-in-chief Michelle Lee.
Whether or not you believe that we’re becoming less hung up about ageing as a society, or marketing is simply moving on, it’s clear that ‘instagrans’ like Van Winkle and Slater look amazing and have fascinating stories to tell too.
Of course, many older people don’t enjoy wealth, success or good looks: inequality is thought to be greater in the 50-74 age group than in any other, and poverty, declining health, social isolation and even malnutrition are all part of the picture too. For some, the challenge isn’t working out how to spend their retirement, but how they will retire at all.
But life experience often brings with it wisdom, and a better understanding of what does and doesn’t make us happy. There is, now, more of a realisation that this is different for everybody. Older age can be fulfilling – and joyful. Perhaps the future is grey.
Read inspiring case-studies about stereotype-defying older people here
Images: Nick Ballon
This article is featured in issue 91 of Positive News magazine. Become a subscriber member to receive Positive News magazine delivered to your door, plus you’ll get access to exclusive member benefits